Bad Press Hide Positive Developments on Farms

Do farmers get a bad press in New Zealand?

Depending on what you read or hear, and who wrote it or said it, the answer is either yes or no.

Unfortunately, views on both sides have become increasingly polarised. What, for the most part, has driven this polarisation have been the effects intensive farming practices often coupled with irrigation have had on our freshwater rivers, streams and lakes.

In many areas of the country, these effects have been quite negative. Both sediments and the leaching of nutrients has adversely affected the health of many rivers and streams, in some cases to a massive degree. Rivers that older members of many rural communities remember swimming in as children have been reduced to trickles and now, almost the ultimate insult, have riverbank signs saying that it is too dangerous to swim now due to the presence of E.Colli and cyanobacteria in the water.

Another factor heightening this divide has been the increased urbanisation of our society. When I grew up in the 1960s, most urban dwellers still knew people who lived and worked on farms, if not having close relatives who were still farming. The two communities were closer in a social sense. Now, most people in urban areas no longer have this connection with the countryside.

I would say the majority of people in cities have little idea of how farms function.

So Where Does River Valley Sit? Do farmers deserve all the bad press?

In several posts in the past, I have written about the negative effects that some agricultural practices, even in our area, have had on our waterways. So I have to say that there are still some farmers who do not “get” the fact that as well as farmers they are also ecosystem managers. Some who do not “get” that the title of ownership for their bit of dirt does not give them the right to be little more than environmental vandals.

However, the vast majority of farmers are not like this at all. In fact, over the decades many of this country’s leading environmentalists have been farmers. There is also an understandable sense of grievance amongst many in the rural community due to government policy. Successive governments have repeated the mantra to them of producing more, being more efficient (whatever that may mean), with little mention or official heed of the environmental consequences. It was not that long ago that farmers were subsidised to clear very steep terrain and convert those hills to pasture (much of which later slipped into the valleys below).

Who should be held accountable for this? The farmer or the government officials and politicians that encouraged and aided it. At the moment the buck always seems to stop at the farmer, while those officials and “policy” makers walk away stock free.

There is no doubt that changes will have to take place in how we farm in many parts of New Zealand. However, what is overlooked is there are already many farmers who are best practice — farmers who are committed to making a positive difference. Farmers who, through their actions, are already seeing life return to waterways that flow through their properties. Waterways where biodiversity is increasing. Where is the celebration in the mainstream media of what these passionate men and women are achieving?

An example is a local farmer who is currently covenanting (protecting in perpetuity) a 60-acre patch of native bush, plus fencing and planting out a wetland. What a commitment. Where is the celebration around that?

So this is my Summary

Many farmers will have to change the way they farm. These changes are the right thing to do. However, the public needs to encourage and celebrate their achievements as they make these changes. The public needs to realise that change will take time, and will take a great deal of money. I believe public funds should be used to help this transition. Even without public funds, and knowing from having lived in rural communities all my life, I know that most farmers will respond and get on with what needs to be done. But, how much better for us all to get alongside and offer encouragement and help.

Finally, I think rural communities are ill-served by many “so-called” leaders and some commentators. These farming spokesmen or women specialise in knee jerk reactions, polarisation (us vs. them), politicking and defending in many cases the indefensible. No wonder farming has bad press if this is all the general public reads or hears, and is the best these “spokespeople” can do.

Brian Megaw

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