Covid-19

David Slack: Back to the land after lockdown

With agriculture once again New Zealand’s main export earner, are farmers feeling needed again, and what are their prospects once the lockdown eases? David Slack reports from the farm gate.

There's a photo of my grandmother and her sisters taken by their father in the late days of the First World War. It's not the usual sort of photo of the time. They’re alive, it's vivid. They’re up high in the Rangitikei backblocks. There are cows to be milked, they’re carrying cream cans. They look cheerful, they’re doing work that matters.

Land girls: the author’s grandmother Violet Deroles, centre, with her sisters in the Rangitikei backblocks during WWI.

There were 16 of them in that family. Some of them went on to raise farmers, some raised city folk. My dad raised us to understand there was no future in farming. We didn't doubt him, and we made our lives in town.

A few years ago I was on the radio, just another commentator calling farming a sunset industry. The next day, my father-in-law rang, amused, asking if anybody had tipped a trailer of manure onto our drive yet. He was still enough of a farmer to know how that might have gone down outside the city.

Now, a hundred years after my grandmother and her sisters were milking the cows and their brothers were holding rifles in trenches, the world’s in disarray once more. And once more, if you're doing farm work, you're doing work that matters.

This would be the moment for me to acknowledge that I might have been less than entirely correct about the sunset. This might also be a moment for me to invite old high school farming friends to share their perspective.

Paul Hughes has lived in Taihape for decades as a vet and farmer. He’s watched the nation lose its enthusiasm for agriculture while sectors like tourism and e-commerce gained favour as the way forward. “And that's grated, man. Because that isn't what the numbers say.”

Right now that couldn't really be more evident. “There's not much else currently left, earning overseas funds.”

He says the essential status designated to people working in the primary sector has been welcome; “it’s probably given people a bit of a lift, a bit of recognition, a bit of appreciation.”

He also says you might, if you ask around, hear some disenchantment about how long it took to close the borders, and how things might have turned out if we’d been prepared to act a little sooner.

Looking ahead, how does he see things? Are we in for anything like the Korean War wool boom that filled this country up with money? Could a world that’s short of food be ready to buy up whatever we have?

Paul Hughes.

“I think there is a little bit of optimism there that when it does come right it will be good. But how long is that going to take? And how good will it be?”

Food’s a necessity, he says, but with restaurants in all kinds of difficulty, the fancy cuts may not be in much demand. ”They're going to be reconfiguring this for a while.”

Paul’s daughter and son in law Kate and Hamish Dunlop are on a Hawera sheep and beef farm with their young family. Hamish says they're “just boxing on. People need food. It’s as simple as that really.”

They're modern farmers, open to new possibilities. Alongside the sheep and beef they’re also cropping quinoa which they package, market and distribute. Their NZ quinoa brand is in supermarkets and exported overseas. They take pride in what they do – “we've got that whole paddock to plate story” – working it out as they go.

He's comfortable with the regulatory expectations they’ve had to meet, feels they've been able to do what's been asked of them. And the market guides them. “Our consumers are demanding high standards. We adhere to what they're thinking. It’s nutritious food, locally produced in a sustainable way.”

He says they’re proud to be producing food, just getting on with it. “As long as we can pay our bills, anything else is a bonus really.”

He also hopes people understand that even if famers might look to be doing well, “there's a lot of hardship out there. And there's that underlying uncertainty. We don't know what’s ahead of us.”

Yes, people have to eat, he says, but he wonders if discretionary spending might be a different story.

Miles Hughes – yes, he’s related to the others – has also been farming for decades around Manawatu. These days he breeds and fattens beef.

He says he’s a simple man with a simple question: “Here's the thing - all of our emissions into the sky over the last couple of weeks have decreased dramatically haven't they? All of a sudden the environment cleans up. The cows are still there, mate. What does this tell us? ”

He says he can see why some farmers might be saying “you need us now” with a little bitterness, if it comes on the heels of a big bill for regulatory compliance.”

“But I think, times like this, everybody’s got to sort of knuckle down and say, righto we’ll dig in and work it out.”

It’s not peaches and cream in the rural sector, Paul Hughes says. “Everyone’s got to be called to task.” But he objects to the notion that farmers are not mindful of the environment, “apart, like in everything in life, from a handful of idiots.”

The brothers also note that troubles don’t come in tidy sequences. Many North Island farmers are still grappling with the effects of a severe drought.

Miles is relatively at ease with market prospects. “The price goes up and down like a yoyo but the reality is it's always enough to get by. It has to be. We're price takers not price setters."

The biggest problem, he says, is where the money is going to come from, meaning: if America really takes a header what does that do to world markets?

So maybe a short term boom, maybe not. But what about the sunset that commentators like me have predicted for so long? What happens in a world of artificial meat?

Peter Whiteman, who runs wool exporter Segard Masurel, is an investor in the rural sector and in new technologies. He has a particular interest in precision fermentation, which promises to produce clean meat in a way that might leave conventional US feedlot agriculture out in the cold.

Essentially this would be real meat, produced without the need to raise and slaughter the animal. You could have production facilities on the outside of town and that's it.

It could go either way, he says. “This is pretty edgy sort of stuff and there's no way that you could call it a done deal. But the long-run prospects are enormous – potential disruption on a colossal scale.”

Where does that leave us? The jury's out on New Zealand, he says, but if this really takes hold, things could arguably be even better. He sees an enduring market for grass-fed meat, marketed to premium buyers. Possibly New Zealand would ride that wave to profit. “You could even be paid more for it.” And dairy? He’s not so sure if there’s a good news story for that.

Meanwhile, the nation's farmers keep at work, and the overseas funds keep arriving. Paul Hughes wonders if this might actually bring the rural and urban communities closer.

“That's my hope out of this. I think this has the potential to unite everybody. It doesn't matter whether you're a farmer or a freezing worker or a guy working in business in town, we all want to live, we don't want to get the coronavirus.

“Perhaps the divisions we’ve had that have been exploited in the past politically will be seen for what they are: that we’re all in this together and we’ve just got to help each other out.”

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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