Milne - Time to rebuild respect for agriculture

For Federated Farmers leader Katie Milne, the biggest problem facing agriculture today is disconnection.

New Zealanders are now separated from the land by four generations, and the value of agriculture in the minds of the public has, according to Milne, been lost somewhere along the way:

“Food has been cheapened, both in a monetary sense and in a sense of appreciation/respect. If food is undervalued, if it is plentiful and the respect for it drops, then the people and families involved in the production chain that brings that food to your table lose the respect and recognition that they once had and deserve. That’s why I’m vocal in raising the fact that we (farmers) are producing food for the nation here, and that without agriculture, New Zealanders would lose so many of the luxuries they currently take for granted.”

Similar thoughts have been echoed overseas in the past, perhaps most notably by US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who remarked in 2014 that 98% of Americans were several generations removed from direct farming, and voiced his concern over the lack of appreciation afforded to agriculture by the current generation.

Milne says a key issue in this country is the social attitude around economic gain, something that food producers struggle to get past:

“We are very lucky to work in the beautiful vistas, amongst the natural wonders of New Zealand, and we are respectful of that. But, we are also here to make a profit. That seems to be something that people have trouble hearing; farmers are here to earn money, just like anyone else. People are so against mentioning profit, which saddens me a bit. Everyone has a right to be rewarded for their efforts, but it seems that if you’re in food production that’s not allowed. People need to see it as a social value, as well as an economic one; If you have a healthy cashflow within the rural sector then those other areas will start to benefit; you will have healthier animals, you will have better environmental outcomes. People will also start to take more joy in the work, feel the pressure come off themselves, be able to devote more time to those other issues.”

Tensions between conservationists and the agriculture sector have become a predominant issue in New Zealand over the last few decades and have fostered what some now call an ‘urban-rural divide’ across the country. While Milne agrees that the extent to which this divide exists has been substantially played up in the media, it is still an issue she wishes to address. The starting point, she says, is language:

“I think language is important in this issue. Often, I talk to people and they say things like “well what would I know, I’m a bloody townie”, and that feeds into that whole thing of no.8 wire and black singlets and the rest of it. These stereotypes we attribute to farming, and the subsequent stereotypes attributed to people in the urban sector, all they really do is widen that divide. When I was first thinking of stepping into this role I was asked “what are you going to bring? what do you want to do?”, and I said, “we’ve got to change the language”. A good example is the term ‘industry’. It feeds these ideas of industrialisation and corporatism, which are now being tied to agriculture. Every time I hear it I just think of a pipe of glug going into a waterway.”

Milne also cites the high level of distrust informing the actions of both sides of the debate, which hampers progress and makes collaboration difficult:

“There’s still that distrust there, where the green NGOs say: “you can’t do it any other way, because you can’t be trusted”. Its sins of the father stuff. That makes it hard, because they want to have input and get involved in these things on all sorts of levels, but because they continue to assume that everyone’s a ‘bad farmer’ and cast that large blanket over the whole group, farmers don’t want to let them in. If you could have open and frank conversations, and get the two together genuinely, we’d probably get a lot further a lot quicker.”

To foster a sense of appreciation in agriculture among the public, and re-establish the connection people once had between food, where it comes from, and how it gets to their table, Milne says education is vital:

“We’ve had kids 8-10 years old out on farms in Greymouth looking at the elements of the production process that get the dairy products they consume every day onto their plates and into their glasses. So that’s the kind of thing we want to do to get that level of appreciation and understanding of the ag sector back into the curriculum. We need people to get back to understanding the levels of commitment, time and care that go into producing their food. We often forget that we are experts in our field. We aren’t just ‘farmers’ we are expert producers. Not everyone can go out and do that.

"Currently, kids really have no idea, and are completely lacking interest when it comes to the ag sector. Same with adults to be honest. I have a friend who went to her first field day recently and it was a real surprise for her. She had no idea about the kind of sophisticated equipment being used on farms, or the amount of money it costs. I think every family should try, at least once, to get out to a field day.”

Milne’s comments on the importance of education echo those made by Vilsack in his aforementioned 2014 speech to the American Farm Bureau Convention:

“I think it's important for us in agriculture to do a couple of things. I think we have to continue to be dedicated to educating our friends who live in suburbs and in urban centres and even in small towns near our farms and ranches. We need to continue to educate them on exactly what farming is and what it does. We need to educate them about the impact that farming has on jobs in America, on what farming does in terms of water and land resources. I think we need to remind them that they are fortunate to have this extraordinary diversity, and that unlike many, many people in the world, they don't have to worry about where their food comes from, that they actually have the capacity within their own borders to produce what they need to eat and feed their family. I think we need to remind them of the fact that they've got a little extra flexibility with their pay check that people around the world don't have.”

The information is certainly out there. Milne pointed to the countless pamphlets, newspapers and books stacked on desks around the Federated Farmers offices that offer examples of farmers working to a high, environmentally conscious standard and making fantastic advances in productivity and efficiency:

“Farmers get volumes of publications every week about all the great things that are going on: more productivity, more riparian planting, virtual fencing, precision ag, keeping nutrients in the soil, all those great, exciting things that show how much the industry cares. It's very distressing for us, therefore, when we see a bad headline in the paper about something that’s gone wrong with agriculture or someone who views agriculture as detrimental, we all take that like a knife to the heart."

The question is how you get these publications out to a wider audience, when, as Milne says, “the letterbox of the average joe in town is bombarded with junk mail from supermarkets and retail chains, moving things like agriculture far down their list of priorities as 1001 other industries vie for their attention.”

Agriculture is undoubtedly a valuable part of society, not just in New Zealand but the world over. In 2015, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute Shenggen Fan discussed the positive impacts agriculture has had on global populations in the last few decades:

“Over the past 40 years, agricultural advances, such as the Green Revolution, led to the doubling of cereal production and yields, improving the well-being of many people and providing a springboard for remarkable economic growth. More recently, biofortification efforts to breed and disseminate crops that are rich in micronutrients, such as vitamin A, zinc and iron, have improved vitamin and mineral intake among consumers in Africa and Asia.”

Indeed, Milne herself pointed to global life expectancy statistics from Our World in Data as evidence that the intensification of agriculture since the mid twentieth century has had positive effects:

“There was a graph I looked at recently which mapped life expectancy across the world from 1950 till now. In 1950 it was 20-25 in Africa, and certain parts of Europe and Asia, and we were 60-65. Now, because of agriculture and increased food production, the lowest around the world is 40-45, and countries like ours have risen to 80-85.”

In this country, that positive side of agriculture has been somewhat forgotten amid ongoing discussions around environmental protection and conservation, and in fairness, not without reason. Milne, along with most of those employed in the sector, are fully aware that improvements need to be made in regard to agriculture’s effect on the environment. What they need, she says, is for people to realise that most farmers are going to great lengths to combat these effects, and will only be hampered by continued negativity and distrust from those on the other side of the fence:

“The work farmers have been doing has brought in positive results, but, you still have people coming in and saying, ‘you can’t do this and, you can’t do that’, and those people are missing the social shift that’s taking place. What people need to realise is that you don’t get farmers striving for better in situations like that. People stop being as creative and proactive, because you box them in. When you can get farmers who want to make changes buying into environmental schemes around the country, they are getting far more done than if they are told- ‘here’s the bottom line for water quality, nobody can go under this, and that’s the bottom line’.

"I think a big part of the issue is that people simply aren’t aware how much farming has changed in recent years. I had an example recently where an ex-farmer was saying to me- 'look I really think you guys have messed things up, you’ve totally bottled this social license issue, intensification has buggered our waterways, the industry needs to change', and so on. He was complaining that where he lived, on the Banks Peninsula, the waterways reeked of cattle waste from farming. I asked him to take a sample, as we can now run tests to determine whether excretions come from birds, humans, or cows and if it really is coming from the latter then we'd love to know. However, I also reminded him that the Rangitata and Rakaia are two of the cleanest rivers in New Zealand and that farmers had gone to great lengths to ensure that no runoff was entering the waterways in that area, through riparian planting. I also suggested that what he was smelling was quite possibly sediment and vegetation breaking down, which happens in areas where there’s been an estuary.  He suddenly went rather quiet. To me, it was purely a perception thing.

 "What a lot of people need to realise is that farms are no longer the same as when they last set foot on them. They don’t understand the progression, the change, the shift in mindset and the huge improvements in technology and implementation. Yes, there are still farmers who farm the old way, and some of that is good, some of it not so much. But I think that’s a huge barrier for us, the fact that people are stuck in that way of thinking.”

Milne concedes that the onus is on farmers and those employed in the ag sector to instigate these changes:

“You’ve got to take more people out there onto farms, simple as that. We don’t do it enough. We need to get the beaurocrats out. The few that do go out absolutely love it, they’re often gobsmacked by what goes on. We also need to get journalists out, it helps them to understand in a more complete sense what they’re writing about.

"At the end of the day, it’s important to keep people informed, keep the story of agriculture going. Even as synthetic products enter the market, agriculture and natural produce will still have a vital part to play. We just have to remind people how important agriculture is and nurture a level of appreciation for the sector that has begun to slip away.”