Farmers ignore scrutiny at their peril

Last updated 09:05 28/11/2013
Cows in a muddy paddock
Fairfax NZ
TIMES ARE A CHANGING: Farming may remain the backbone of NZ industry, but the rest of the body is keen to know just what's going on over there.

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OPINION: Farmers appear to be doing it tough at the moment. Not on the balance sheet. That aspect seems to be healthy, and there is plenty of belief that that will improve even more in the coming years as the global economy begins to vigorously shrug off the hangover of the financial crisis.

No, the issue is not about the economics; it is something bigger, existential, that could impact on the balance sheet if not tackled.

Farming's biggest challenge remains its brand and the undermining of a long-developed and preciously held image of the industry as an able, statesman-like caretaker of the land and resources at its disposal.

We have been happy to bask in that bucolic semi-blindness because farming has long been considered the backbone of our economy, if not country and character.

But times have changed. The gradual but inexorable drift of populations from rural centres to our cities, and the new sharper focus on climate and the environment have created a philosophical disconnect and increased the scrutiny on what happens beyond the town border and how it impacts downstream.

Farming may remain the backbone, but the rest of the body is keen to know just what's going on over there.

Whether it be the carbon miles applied to its exported products, the methane issued by its cattle, the impact of its production on waterways, or even the way it treats and pays its employees, farmers are facing the kind of intense scrutiny usually reserved for our other global brand, the All Blacks.

And more than likely it will get worse. Or better, depending on which side of the ideological fence you sit.

This is the new normal. And the industry and its major and minor players need to get used to it and adapt.

It needs to do so for two important reasons: firstly, the opponents of farming and its practices are not always wrong; and secondly, they increasingly represent the great body of the industry's customers.

The report of Dr Jan Wright, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, on the impact of farming on New Zealand's water quality can not be dismissed as interfering greenie twaddle, and neither can concerns about the industry's water take should it continue to grow and expand aggressively.

Those very real worries are being noted by increasingly wary customers, who are predominantly urban and more concerned than ever before about where their products have come from and what resources were expended in their creation.

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Many farmers get that already and realise that their new obligations go further than a few flash ad campaigns to lift morale. But a large number within the industry appear keen to hold on to their perceived status of privilege.

They are either reluctant to change or see little need to.

No matter, as our industry is discovering, change happens and you either deal with it or die.

* This was today's editorial in the Taranaki Daily News.

- Taranaki Daily News

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