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Changing life on the farm

Wednesday 6th August 2014

For many years, New Zealand’s global identity hinged on one thing: sheep. Lots and lots of sheep – far more sheep than people, in fact. Despite being a small island nation, geographically isolated to the point that it occasionally gets left off maps, New Zealand has built an international reputation for its farming exports.

After government land acquisitions from Māori in the 1800s, it was in the 20th Century that farming boomed and New Zealand cemented its identity as a nation of farmers. Fast forward to 2014 and the future of the industry, and its pride of place at the heart of our national identity, seems somewhat less clear. Only about 14 per cent of the population lives rurally, and many Kiwi kids have never set foot on a farm. While it’s still our largest export industry, the markets on which we rely are rapidly changing.

Photo of rob cashmore
Rob Cashmore, 28, is a fifth-generation farmer on land that his great-great-grandfather first bought back in 1870.

The Wireless

It’s not just the global financial environment that is changing. Increasingly, there’s a tension between the desire to grow the farming industry, and the need to protect our natural environment and minimise the harmful impact of farm production. This tension plays out in debates around everything from fertilizer use and its impacts on river quality; through to deforestation and over-grazing and the resulting soil erosion, and the large role agriculture plays in New Zealand’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

John Hart, 42, an organic sheep and beef farmer (and the Green Party candidate for Wairarapa), considers climate change the number-one risk to New Zealand’s farming future. “Given how much New Zealand relies on agriculture, it’s a long-term strategic risk for us,” he says. “Things like more extreme weather are really going to make farming as usual quite difficult.”

Hart points to the storms in Canterbury at the end of last year as an example of the very real impact of climate change. “There was something like 800 irrigators destroyed or damaged – the cost and insurance pay-out for that was enormous,” he says. “You have to wonder how many more of those events will need to happen before insurance companies start saying ‘You know what, we’re not going to pay for that infrastructure to be repaired because it’s only going to get smashed again’.”

The industry’s been “caught out badly” as a result of being over-reliant on one market in the past.

There’s no question that the future of New Zealand’s farming sector faces challenges, says recently retired Federated Farmers president Bruce Wills. “We accept that the climate does change, and it’s changing more rapidly than it has in the past,” he says. “If we believe the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s predictions, we’re going to see reasonably considerable increases in temperature. Farming will adapt but it will certainly change how we farm different products in different parts of the country.”

Beyond the effects of climate change, both Hart and Wills agree that farming’s impact on our natural resources poses a threat to the current model of farming.

“What we have to do is listen very carefully to the concerns of our markets – of urban New Zealand, and of other New Zealanders – around two key areas: animal welfare, which is always an emotive area, but more so around the environmental impacts – especially around water – of the increasing intensiveness of farming,” Wills says. “Our position is that we need to do both: we need to grow farming, and we need to do that with a smaller environmental footprint – not a bigger one.”

In a 2013 report on water quality, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright echoed the need for farming to address its environmental impacts: “It is almost inevitable that without significantly more intervention, we will continue to see an ongoing deterioration in water quality in many catchments across the country.”

The increased intensiveness of dairy in particular, and the impact this has on waterways, is a major concern for Hart. “There’s been a fairly noticeable decline in water quality in many of our rivers, streams and lakes,” he says. “A lot of that has been attributed by [Jan Wright] to the increase in intensive land use, especially dairy.”

One issue, Hart says, is the difficulty in monitoring the impact of individual farms. Increasingly, research suggests there’s a considerable delay between when pollutants such as dissolved nitrogen leave the farm and when they reach the river, slowly moving through the soil over a period of years or decades. “We may not yet have even seen the worst of the last 20 years of farming’s impacts – they may still be coming down the pipe.”

Wills is confident about farmers’ willingness confront and adapt to the challenges posed by climate change and pressures on natural resources – it’s something he can speak to personally. “In Hawkes Bay in 2007, 2008 and 2009, we had a triple drought. In 2007, I was brand new into farming and I went six months without a drop of rain.

“I went back to the family after we got through this difficult period, and we decided we had to completely tip our farming systems upside-down. We never wanted to be caught in such a vulnerable position by the difficult droughts like that again.”

Following the triple drought, Wills’ operation changed the way they grazed their pastures, the mix between sheep and cattle, and even breed types. “The combination of those changes has in my view made us much more resilient to the effects of climate change,” Wills says. “I can stand here and say that, while I’d prefer not to have droughts, droughts don’t concern me. Droughts are just part of farming on the East Coast of the North Island.”

But Hart argues farmers need to do more than simply adapt to a changing climate: they need to be combatting it. “To put it into perspective, agriculture provides about half of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions.” He points out that this can also be seen as a proxy for pollution on the ground: “While NZ’s emissions are pretty small on a global scale, we’ve got a moral duty to play our part in globally reducing emissions.”

A picture of John and his dogs

As a Green candidate, it’s no surprise that Hart is enthusiastic about that party’s carbon tax break policy, intended to replace the current emissions trading scheme, which would put a price of $25 per tonne on carbon. Initially, dairy would be priced at $12.50 per tonne, and sheep, beef and other farming products would be exempt. “The challenge is how you bring agriculture along without destroying it in the process.”

“When farmers realise that low-carbon farming will earn them tax credits, we hope they start talking to their industry bodies and saying: ‘Hey, all of this money that you take off us for research and development through the levies on the products we produce, how about we funnel some of that and focus it on low-carbon farming, because we need to know this stuff’.”

But Wills calls the Green Party’s proposed tax “nonsense”. “Many international studies have clearly shown time and time again that New Zealand is the most carbon-efficient, pastoral farming country on the planet. We can produce milk products or dairy products or meat produces with a smaller carbon footprint than any other country on earth.”

He argues for productivity improvements rather than a carbon tax model. “In 1984, this country had 70 million sheep. Today, 30 years later, we have 30 million sheep. So there’s 40 million less sheep in this country than we had 30 years ago. Those 30 million sheep today produce the same tonnage of sheep meat as we did with 70 million sheep. That very clearly shows the massive progress we’ve made with productivity, and that’s because we now have far more fertile, heavier ewes, and a higher percentage of lambs growing because we’ve got the genetics and pasture systems. That, to me, is how we mitigate the climate change impact from farming.”

Cattle photo
Cattle in the stockyard at Rob Cashmore’s property in Orere.

The Wireless

With New Zealand’s farming sector being so export-based, global shifts in demand and supply pose a significant threat. In 2010, dairy exports made up 26 per cent of total exports. With demand for our dairy increasing in China at a dizzying rate, New Zealand risks becoming over-reliant on one market – and, as such, vulnerable.

Wills says “the China story” is “extraordinary”. “Out of every ten containers that leave our shores, four go to China. 23 per cent of all of our sheep products goes to China. Half our wool and 70 per cent of our logs go to China. It really has changed the dynamics.”

He says the industry’s been “caught out badly” as a result of being over-reliant on one market in the past, referring to the crisis faced by New Zealand farming in the 1970s when the UK joined the European Union. “Part of my role is constantly reminding people that we need to learn from that experience – that we’d be fools to repeat that sort of mistake.”

Hart agrees, but argues that being proactive is part of managing this risk. As a niche producer himself, he sees New Zealand’s future as a producer of high-end, quality products. “As long as we value our people and our environment more than other countries we’re never going to be able to compete on price. Other countries don’t need to worry about labour laws or pollution; they can produce the same kind of food we do but much cheaper.

“We really shouldn’t be competing at that head-to-head level.”

Many farmers remember a time when New Zealand’s main export market was the UK. But for young farmers, the industry is dramatically different from their fathers’ time.

Rob Cashmore, 28, is a fifth-generation farmer on land that his great-great-grandfather first bought back in 1870 as a milling operation. Rob grew up on the sheep and beef property in Orere, south-east of Auckland, living the archetypal Kiwi kid dream. “I think was about two years old when I played with the stud bulls in the house paddock,” he recalls. “People would come to a screeching halt on the side of the road: ‘There’s a kid with those bulls!’” He laughs fondly: “It was just absolutely chaotic.”

Cashmore also argues that young farmers may need to be willing to give up the dream of land ownership

In the space of one generation, farming has become all but closed off to those who aren’t in a position like Cashmore. “Just to walk in off the street and buy a sheep and beef farm is, I’d say, impossible,” he says. “If you’re on a family farm like myself you can buy shares, work your way through, but other than that it’s really difficult.”

Hart, who came to farming after a successful career living in Auckland and working in IT, agrees – especially in the context of sheep and beef farming. “Most of the sheep and beef farmers I know are multi-generational. I know a few that have come into as a choice later in life,” he says. “They tend to start on smaller blocks because they can’t just go out and buy several thousand acres off the bat.”

Wills accepts that while getting into farming has always been challenging, it’s increasingly difficult for young farmers to enter into the market. With land prices soaring, so too is rural debt. “Total rural debt today in New Zealand: $52 billion. We’ve borrowed the bank. That’s a very, very high level of debt, and I say that from my previous life of 20 years in banking.

“If you go back 30 years ago, total rural debt was a bit of a $5 billion. So we’ve increased debt ten-fold in the last 30 years.”

As buying into farming outside the context of a family farm becomes increasingly difficult, and corporate farming rapidly expands, farmers are needing to look beyond conventional career paths.

“A number of aspiring Kiwi farmers need to come to the view that owning your own bit of dirt has always been hard and it’s not easy,” Wills says, citing corporate farming as not a threat but an opportunity. “What the corporates provide are real career structures. There are quite a few levels, and you can work your way up.”

Cashmore also argues that young farmers may need to be willing to give up the dream of land ownership. He talks about leasing land as one viable alternative to land ownership, or the attractive careers in farm management. “You manage these places and you’ve got no debt, they give you a house and a car, you’ve got your dogs paid for, and you’re sitting on $65,000 to $100,000 a year. Is that a bad place to be?”

Wills is hopeful about farming’s future in this country. “We are in a lucky, lucky position in this country producing trusted, high-value food – much better than if we were producing electronic goods or consumables, I think. People need to eat. I’m very confident that we are reaching a very exciting stage in New Zealand’s growth.”

Hart, too, is optimistic that the challenges posed to be farming by shifting global markets and the changing climate can be overcome. “We have an amazing potential and an incredible opportunity to be the supplier of really high-value and high-quality foods that have a story and a real sense of provenance – a real kind of difference, based on all of the attributes of New Zealand.

“These are the products people are really going to want and be prepared to pay that premium for. That will give us the lifestyle that we want, and the prosperous economy we want, without hopefully destroying the environment in the process.”

As for Cashmore, he’s just hoping things don’t change too much in the near future. When asked how he thinks farming will be different in 30 years’ time, when he will be nearly 60 and perhaps looking to pass the family farm down another generation, he doesn’t hesitate: “Hopefully not a lot.”

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Di White works in the law and writes in the gaps. She's physically based in Melbourne and mentally based all over the place.
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