Farming needs 'evidence, not conjecture'

TONY BENNY
Last updated 06:35 10/07/2014
New Federated Farmers chairman Dr William Rolleston.
TONY BENNY/Fairfax NZ
CHANGES: There are three types of people involved in buying sheep and beef farms according to William Rolleston. Those want to convert it a dairy farm, a dairy farmer wanting a runoff or a cashed up sheep farmer who just sold out to a dairy farmer.

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A new era of collaboration instead of confrontation is changing the way farmers view environmental issues, says incoming Federated Farmers president William Rolleston.

Using the Canterbury Water Management Strategy and the regional zone committees as an example, Rolleston said he had detected a change in farmers' thinking.

"Just before Christmas, 60 farmers turned up for a zone committee meeting, arms folded, legs crossed, and looking pretty damn angry."

Rolleston missed the next couple of meetings because of commitments in Wellington but when he was next able to attend, the change in farmers' demeanour was striking.

"They were all sitting down, even the most negative ones, being really positive and saying, 'What do we need to do, how are we going to solve these issues?', because they are issues. When you get the buy-in like that it just makes a huge difference to where everybody's going and what you can actually achieve."

Rolleston reckons in recent years some farmers have felt disenfranchised as they've come under pressure to change farming practices to arrest environmental damage attributed to agriculture.

"If someone's just telling you to do something then you're less inclined to do it, or if you do it, you do it grudgingly.

"I think it's really important to get farmers on side and I think the last three years in terms of Federated Farmers we've all done a pretty good job. It's starting to get that ownership going again and making people really buy into it."

In Rolleston's opinion, most farmers are environmentalists at heart.

"I know there are some people who've let the side down but, particularly when you go up to the high country, those people, they are part of the land, they're just part of the landscape and they care about the country as much as anybody because they live in it every day.

"My grandmother always said you're a custodian of the land, you didn't own the land, you just looked after it, you're a caretaker of it - that's how you need to think about it."

But while farmers were coming round to addressing environmental issues, Rolleston has a challenge for pressure groups. "We've started talking about the environment, it's time the environmentalists started talking about the economy.

"It is so important. When you sit down in a collaborative sense, this isn't just about majority rules, this is about two things: One is that you understand the other person's point of view and other is that you actually realise that 80 per cent of the issue you agree about - it's the last 20 per cent that you might have different views about.

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"A third thing would be that collaboration has to be based on good science and has to be based on good information."

Known for his support for GM agriculture, Rolleston said the importance of understanding the point of view of opponents, was brought home to him when the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification sat.

"One of the things I thought was really powerful was to get everybody in the room together who might have an interest and work through what were the questions they wanted the commission to answer.

"That experience of trying to understand the opposition's point of view, I thought, was a really good lesson in how we need to go about things.

"You look at what GM science might be able to do and you look at what the organic movement is trying to achieve and they're pretty much the same thing - it's how you get there that's different," Rolleston said.

"We want to have our arguments based on evidence, not just conjecture."

Rolleston said keeping sheep and beef farming strong was a major challenge as conversions to dairy farming swept rural New Zealand.

His own district in South Canterbury was symptomatic of the rest of the country, he said.

"There are three types of people who buy sheep and beef farms. You're either wanting to convert it to a dairy farm, or you're a dairy farmer wanting a runoff or you're a sheep farmer who's just sold out to a dairy farmer and you've got cash in your pocket.

"It would be nice to think that people could put irrigation on and not think they had to convert to dairy to pay for it."

Rolleston's rise to the top job in Federated Farmers has been rapid and it was only 4 years ago he was asked to put his name forward for the South Canterbury vice-president's job.

"Six months later I was president and two years later I was national vice-president. That's all happened reasonably quickly, but three years ago there was definitely a mood amongst the national council to change."

He's not a hands-on farmer and doesn't run his own sheep dog. "I never pretended that I do and it would give the wrong impression. I mean, the first board meeting we had with South Canterbury Federated Farmers, I said to all the guys sitting round the table, 'We've got to work here as a team, I need your help'."

Rolleston's carrying on something of a family tradition, with his grandfather a doctor-turned- farmer too.

"Farming is actually one of the most intellectually challenging things you can do. I think that's why a number of doctors end up being quite happy as farmers. My grandfather, who was highly intellectual, found farming so stimulating because there's just so much uncertainty in a farming system.

"You've go so many risks and situations you actually have to deal with and when you're dealing with biology, it's not like making widgets."

Rolleston's predecessor, Bruce Willis, was a former banker, he's a former doctor and the man in line to succeed him, Wairarapa farmer Anders Crofoot, was a business analyst in New York.

He summed up the three men's contribution with a quip: "You get the loan, get the evidence and then work out where it's all going."

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