Trying to unite farmer advocacy groups is well intentioned but misguided, writes James Hoban.

Recently I ran into a well known environmental activist who I had not seen for several years. He asked me what I thought the future of farming was and I disappointed myself by answering; “Dim, for sheep and beef, unless we can sort some major issues out,” without hesitating.

Grandparenting is a term we have become increasingly familiar with. Numerous examples of it have seen sheep and beef farmers disadvantaged in favour of more intensive land users. It is also the key reason why Groundswell’s call for one farming voice is flawed and why efforts by industry organisations to join forces for political lobbying are short sighted.

Despite widespread acknowledgement that grandparenting is wrong, it continues to be favoured by the Government. Grandparenting is used for triggering resource consent requirements in the recent winter grazing regulations and in the greenhouse gas emissions framework. While the Government has watched grandparenting tear rural communities apart, it continues to use it as the basis for controversial policies.

Consider what will happen if this trend continues through the biodiversity regulations that are looming. Most remnant native areas that exist in private ownership are on sheep and beef properties. Irrigated land has largely been stripped bare of native vegetation in the drive for irrigation efficiency and production. Re-establishing native bush on those farms is generally far more expensive than protecting remnant areas and while a lot of farmers are investing massive time and effort planting stream margins and pivot-friendly native shelter, many irrigated farms lack biodiversity. It would be convenient for the irrigated land owners to deflect from their lack of biodiversity by pointing to remnants on the hills and insisting that protecting those is the best move for NZ Inc. In the next breath they can claim that their land is more productive, therefore any interruption to its production or cash generation is unduly limiting NZ’s bottom line.

While the Government has watched grandparenting tear rural communities apart, it continues to use it as the basis for controversial policies.

Conversely, a hill country farmer might take a view, not unreasonably, that where biodiversity has disappeared at scale is precisely where it should be returned. They might reasonably add that native hill country shrublands and bush are ecologically different to lowland native areas and wetlands and that in order to build mountain to sea wildlife corridors, every farm type needs to contribute.

Biodiversity is a classic example of a challenging topic where an optimum outcome for one sector requires sacrifices from another. How can a mooted pan-sector organisation, or our current sector organisations who are conflicted by diverse membership or levy payers, ever hope to take a strong enough stance for one sector on such an issue?

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, we are being warned that we need to prepare to pay for emissions. Dairy cattle numbers increased by 82% between 1990 and 2019. During the same period,  sheep numbers plummeted from 58 million to 27 million. Beef cattle also dropped drastically in number from 4.6 million to 3.9 million. If methane emissions will be taxed, with 1990 as our line in the sand, one sector has massively dropped its emissions already while another has moved in the opposite direction. Do we really want to try and send Minister of Climate Change James Shaw and Minister for the Environment David Parker a multi-sector-hand-holding delegation on this? Or would sheep and beef farmers be better off if someone stuck to their guns and maintained that any response should be relative to our respective contributions and history?

This argument has previously been lost when nutrient allocation has been grandparented. Higher nutrient emitters have successfully locked in allocations, on the basis that their investment in a farm system has been legal and capital intensive and therefore to undo or constrain it would be unfair. To allow this protection, gradual development on multi-generational dryland farms has been permanently capped. Because an investment is rapid and recent, does that make it more deserving of protection than long term, sustainable business growth? A strong case could be made that the latter is more worthy of a regulatory shield. 

On these big issues, resources are being allocated and outputs taxed. Can we really expect holding hands to cut it? We do not have to look too far to find examples of dairy farming leaders smugly and publicly claiming to have their houses in order, through fenced waterways and audited farm environment plans, while suggesting that any laggards in the environmental space are in the sheep and beef sector and it is simply time for hill country dog wallopers to get with the programme. 

Groundswell 

Groundswell is led by switched on people who are in tune with the issues facing farming. They have done an exceptional job at galvanising a disenchanted mass – many of whom are notoriously apathetic when it comes to taking action against poor policy. Groundswell deserves plaudits for this. The only part of their hymn sheet that I would like to see them reconsider is the call for one unified farming voice.

There is a romantic appeal in one farming team for all of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Aotearoa; dairy, sheep, beef, deer and arable farmers joining forces with grape growers and horticulturists to fight on the same front – a unified voice to combat the Government’s misguided ideas. Collaborating on advocacy is a great opportunity to increase credibility at times but it can only work on issues where various sectors want the same outcome. The biggest issues facing NZ farmers will potentially continue to create winners and losers. This is why the `Kumbaya let’s get together’ approach cannot work on every issue and critically will not work on some of the most important.

Groundswell is right to point out that on key sectoral challenges, Beef + Lamb NZ struggles to represent its sheep and beef farmers adequately because it cannot afford to upset dairy farming levy payers. Federated Farmers, while often gung-ho at a sectoral level, is challenged by similar tensions because of broad membership. There are times when sectors need to ruthlessly represent their people. 

No organisation is solely protecting the future of sheep and beef farming. Yet in the face of biodiversity, climate change and water regulations, that is exactly what our sector needs. For sheep and beef farmers to thrive, we need the ability to sustainably develop business through fair nutrient allocation. Our greenhouse gas emissions story and remnant biodiversity need to be assets for our sector rather than rods for our backs. They cannot be treated as assets to New Zealand Farming Inc to be used to offset more intensive farming.

Some of my best friends are dairy farmers. I have had a lot of involvement with B+LNZ. I am a Federated Farmers member. I have huge respect for what Groundswell has achieved so far. However, I am frustrated by what I see as fundamental issues threatening my family’s future as sheep and beef farmers. We cannot afford to fight between sectors locally because we are neighbours and friends and our communities need unity. What we can expect is for our respective sectors to fight their corners as ardently and unwaveringly as farmers deserve. At the moment that is not happening effectively enough to make me confident about my family’s future on the land.

  • James Hoban is a sheep and beef farmer and farm environment consultant