Urban sprawl the threat to farmers, not immigration

Maybe it's a sprinkling of Hollywood magic, but the reaction to James Cameron adding "farmer" to his director title seems different to the Crafar Farm decision. This different reaction, especially from Labour, is why we need consistently applied rules around foreign investment.

That these overseas investment rules have been applied without fear or favour, hasn't stopped those who wish to save our farms from trying to show a red card to Cameron. But there is potentially a bigger issue here and that's to save our farms from developers.

Urban sprawl is one of the two man-made threats to agriculture around the world. The other is poor farming practices that strip away nutrients and topsoil, causing desertification. Thankfully, that's something we don't have in New Zealand because of the effort farmers put into good pasture management; rabbits in the high country notwithstanding.

Urban sprawl means farmland is buried under concrete. Mangere in south Auckland was once dairy farming central. A former Prime Minister, Bill Massey, farmed there. Its transition from rural to urban took less than 100 years.

In the context of recent work done by Landcare Research, overseas ownership seems less of a threat compared to the 873,000 hectares of farmland that are now lifestyle blocks. Put another way, that loss of fully productive farmland represents half of all the land in dairy production, and equals 873 Cameron purchases.

While Federated Farmers wouldn't be happy about limiting the rights of anyone to buy or sell the land they legally own, it raises important questions about how dense our cities and towns ought to be. As a city sprawls it not only obliterates agricultural land but adds to the cost of transport and services.

According to Demographia, Auckland is the seventh largest city in the world by land area but only 283rd in terms of population. With 175,000 lifestyle blocks now in existence nationwide, almost three times the number of agricultural businesses, my banker's mind can't help wondering if subdivision has played a role in driving up the cost of rural land.

Instead of politicians conjuring up images of rich foreigners squeezing out young farmers, it may all come down to us building outwards than upwards.

For short-lived political gain, some politicians are still prepared to cast those from overseas in a negative light. So here is the positive. On Federated Farmers' board is Anders Crofoot, a New Yorker and soon to be neighbour of Cameron in a hill country sense - they'll be two hours apart by car. The Crofoots purchased Castlepoint Station in the Wairarapa as overseas investment applicants but are now Kiwis.

Although the finer points of cricket are lost on Crofoot, a sense of community isn't. At 4am last Wednesday he was fighting a big forestry fire. Our dairy farming members collectively voted Willy Leferink on to the Federated Farmers board. Willy came from Holland as a farm worker and has worked his way through the New Zealand system to farm ownership.

South Africans and 2010 New Zealand Sharemilkers of the Year, Stefan and Annalize du Plessis, are now on a similar path. They are a sample of the positive face of immigration and we can add those Filipino farm workers who are making New Zealand home.

Some people need to be reminded that we were all at one stage immigrants to this country.

Sunday Star Times