NZ Farmer - Time for farmers to engage with urban New Zealand

Beef & Lamb Director Andrew Morrison reflects on the recent election campaign.

The election campaign might be over but some of the important issues raised are not going to go away unless we as a nation address them.

Debates of importance are debates worth having and they include concerns raised by the public about this country's farming practices.  

By proxy, these concerns reflect those of our customers in our export markets.

Debate so far over the Labour Party's proposed Water Tax highlights a lack of understanding – or appreciation – of each side's views, values and vision for New Zealand's future.

I would suggest that we all want the same thing – a clean and healthy environment and strong economy for ourselves and future generations.

The challenge is how we go about realising that vision - and that goes well beyond three-year election cycles.

New Zealand is unusual in that it is one of the most urbanised countries in the world yet our economy is very reliant on what we produce off the land.

Primary production is what we are good at. Our climate allows us to operate grass-based, outdoor farming systems, and thanks to the removal of subsidies in the 1980s, farmers are very efficient at producing, meat, milk, wool and crops – the vast majority of which are exported.

What farmers have not been good at is engaging with NZ's urban majority so that they truly understand the issues.

We have got some great stories to tell about what farmers are doing to protect and enhance the environment and the investment we are making in programmes such as the Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium, which aims to reduce agriculture's methane emissions.

We also need to explain why we do what we do such as why centre-pivots are a much more effective and efficient way to apply water than border-dyke irrigation.

We need to explain how farmers use technology to ensure they are minimising their inputs and maximising their outputs, why farming to the highest standards of animal welfare is simply good business irrespective of legal requirements and why environmental protection is at the heart of everything we do.

Beef + Lamb New Zealand's market development team tell us that consumers are not just talking about food produced with a minimal environmental footprint - they are now talking about environmental enhancement.

They want assurances that the animal protein they consume is produced to the highest possible standards of animal welfare.

Farmers in this country are fortunate that they tick so many boxes already. They don't need to change their management practices to meet consumer demand, they just need to validate their claims to the market and the NZ public.

The Red Meat Profit Partnership-developed National Farm Assurance Programme will do exactly that and for farmers, will put an end to the multiple farm audits they need to undertake to supply different markets or processors.

While we focus on our overseas consumers, we cannot ignore our urban majority.

They are the ones that will ensure we have a social licence to farm into the future. Let's get better at engaging with the wider public, opening our farms and telling our stories. We have a lot to be proud of.

- Andrew Morrison is the southern South Island director for Beef + Lamb New Zealand