Like my family before me, and following after me, I’ve always taken great pride in being a dairy farmer, and in the reputation of the New Zealand dairy industry internationally.
My husband and I grew up in a generation where we had the opportunity to buy a farm and build our livelihoods on the land as our family had before us. It has been a privilege to forge an incredible career as a dairy farmer. My husband, Louis, and I are both award-winning dairy farmers and we’re proud of the mark we’ve made on the industry.
Sadly, the outlook for New Zealand’s primary sector is the worst that I’ve seen in my lifetime. I don’t make this strong statement lightly, nor to scaremonger – but rather to reflect the policy settings under a virtue-signalling government which is setting the dairy industry up for failure. As a rural MP, but more importantly as a farmer, I won’t sit back and allow the ladder to be pulled up behind future generations of New Zealanders wanting to pave their way in the farming sector.
Like every industry, the environmental practices that were acceptable 30 years ago are not acceptable today. But farmers have responded to stricter environmental standards with major changes in farm practices and investment over the last 15 years to meet the ever-stricter demands of central and local government.
Dairy farmers have fenced and planted over 20,000 kilometres of waterways. As an industry, dairy has invested over a billion dollars on environmental improvements over the last five years. They have been running fertiliser budgets to calculate precisely how much fertiliser is needed on their farms. This has resulted in a reduction in fertiliser use per hectare.
The ongoing uncertainty of mycoplasma bovis has been thrust upon farmers who are already struggling beneath the heavy pile of environmental regulations and the stresses of turbulent times for our cooperatives, which has a very real impact on the livelihoods and retirement savings of every dairy farmer.
Westland Milk is now in the hands of private interests, something that the shareholders of the company would obviously have preferred to avoid. Fonterra has announced a $675 million loss, and the share price has dropped from $6.70 just a year and a half ago to less than $3.20. This has wiped out a huge chunk of the retirement savings for 10,000 Fonterra supplier shareholders.
Sadly, the picture being painted isn’t such a rosy one, but rather an outline of the massive drop in confidence we’re seeing in rural New Zealand.
We know that agriculture sector business confidence is low. Business confidence surveys show that if you asked 100 farmers if they are confident, neutral or pessimistic, 80 would tell you
they are more pessimistic than positive. This is worse than any sector in the last 14 years. It is no wonder rural mental health has become an even more pressing issue for me as a rural MP.
The government has been completely silent on this crisis of confidence. Their response has been warm words such as ‘Just Transition’.
The Government’s climate change targets are particularly worrying for farmers. In his first month as Climate Change Minister, James Shaw flew to Germany and announced New Zealand’s agriculture sector would be carbon neutral by 2050.
I respect the climate is changing, but we cannot afford to move faster than the rest of the world in our response. The world’s four largest emitters, China, the US, Russia and India, responsible for over half of global emissions, have not taken on such a target.
Too often decisions are made with little regard for the impact on the livelihoods of hardworking families. It is nothing short of incompetence if this government believes we can lead the world on climate change without any impact on the confidence and investment farmers will undertake. I often reflect that they need to be reminded that this sector represents 60 per cent of our exports as a nation. If we undermine farming, we undermine our entire economic fabric.
The oil and gas ban, close to home for me in Taranaki, as well as swift moves to halt coal and gold mining activities in Waihi and the West Coast, are other examples where the government preaches kindness and compassion, but shows no consideration for the impact of their decisions on the families working in export industries.
The irony of a Labour Party implementing policies which hurt working class New Zealanders has not been lost on me. We are slowly but surely becoming a nation with limited reliable economic industries to support the prosperity of New Zealand, and it’s about time we were honest about this.
The primary sector is rightly becoming increasingly wary of this government’s intentions. We will soon see the introduction of freshwater targets and certainly the burden of yet more obligations that our farmers will have to meet, with crippling effect.
Despite the ‘‘climate change is our nuclear-free moment’’ rhetoric of our Prime Minister and the radical green hype of her government partners, water quality is not solely a rural issue. I would comfortably propose urban centres could do more to grasp an understanding of the impact that their actions have on water quality. Every farmer I know is making an effort to ensure that their impact on their surroundings is, if anything, a positive one.
Before the end of the year, the Government hopes to pass the long awaited Zero Carbon Bill, new freshwater regulation, and an amendment bringing agriculture into the ETS. Individually, arguments will be made for and against each of these policies.
My challenge to the government is to look at this package as a whole and consider the message this is sending to a sector which remains our economic backbone and has already worn a huge amount of the burden of improved environmental performance over the last 15 years.
In my view, farmers are right to push back on these reforms if their collective impact on the sector is too much. I for one won’t roll over for this government without a fight.
The primary sector is rightly becoming increasingly wary of this government’s intentions.