Environmental Consultant Jamie McFadden writes:
Not long ago it seemed everyone had a connection to farming. As a nation we understood farming had a huge role in building our country and in providing the standard of living we have today.
The generosity of our farming hospitality became legendary both home and abroad. Farmers willingly opened their gates to walking groups, school trips, geologists and helped many a stranded traveller.
We appreciated the hundreds of farmers that volunteer in our rural communities as firefighters, St Johns ambulance, civil defence, kids' sports team coaches and many other vital community roles we all benefit from. And in times of need such as the Christchurch earthquakes the 'Farmy Army' mobilised to help their urban friends.
Above all, we understood where our food came from. To provide that food and to grow our economy irrigation schemes were established. Successive governments encouraged production, regional councils granted consents and farmers built their businesses based on those legitimate consents.
Yes, with the benefit of hindsight, this had detrimental impacts on the environment. But we can't turn back the clock and the needs of our growing human population had to be met.
In 2002, lobby group Fish & Game launched the dirty dairying campaign and opened the urban-rural divide. This campaign did not differentiate between good and bad dairy farmers. It captured every dairy farmer. No other profession is treated this way even though there are bad eggs in all.
The dirty dairying campaign gained a momentum of its own and widened to capture all farmers. While there was an underlying concern for our water quality the campaign has now morphed into a frenzied emotive attack on farmers in the lead up to the election.
Farmers struggle to comprehend why they are hated so much and how it changed so quickly. Rural support agencies are aware of how the anti-farming campaign is dragging down farmer morale.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for recreationists to gain access as farmers close their gates fearful of a photo appearing in the local paper or being reported to SPCA. Lines of trees are appearing along roads as farmers try to block out the prying eyes of the public. In regions like Canterbury family farmers exhausted from the overbearing compliance regime are exiting the industry, in many cases to be replaced by corporate farming. Farmers are under siege.
But there is some light in the dark tunnel. The constant negativity is beginning to grate.
Urban people, media commentators, celebrities are jumping to farmers' defence. There is increasing recognition that the attack on farmers and finger-pointing (from both sides) is counterproductive. Media articles highlighting urban pollution of waterways and impacts of tourism are showing that it is not only farming that is causing problems.
In the big picture, a key driver behind the pressure on our environment is the growth in our population. Every day in Auckland sees 100 new people arrive looking for a place to live and 100 more cars on the roads. How is this sustainable?
So my message to the keyboard warriors is before you hit the send button with your anti-farming rant: Enough is enough.
Most farmers understand that water quality is important. Farming families swim in the rivers like everyone else and want this to continue for future generations.
Throughout the country hundreds of farmers are mobilising to address environmental issues. Read any of the farming papers and you will find many examples of farmers protecting native bush, fencing off waterways, planting trees.
While some environmental groups use the media to drive a campaign of fear and scaremongering, other groups have rolled up their sleeves and work alongside farmers to achieve positive actions on the ground.
To the farmers of New Zealand, my message is to rise above the negativity. Be proud of your history and proud of your contribution to building our country, feeding the nation and growing the economy. Aspire to be proud stewards of your land and waterways.
Take inspiration from those that are leading the way in achieving the balance between farming and the environment. Above all be proud to be a farmer.
- Jamie McFadden is an environmental consultant who undertakes riparian, wetland, native bush and erosion control projects for landowners. He is chairman of Rural Advocacy Network based in North Canterbury, representing rural people and businesses on a wide range of issues.