We need to bridge the urban-rural divide

Two generations ago, most New Zealanders had some connection to farming or the land through close or extended family. 

My maternal grandmother was a dairy herd tester, for example. In 2021, though, most of us are almost completely detached from the realities of producing food at scale. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why there’s such a huge rural-urban divide, and why farmers feel so under attack (as shown by the recent protests).

My husband and I regularly talk to farmers and growers, young and old, involved in horticulture, cropping and livestock. Whether they are more traditional or progressive, the main frustration is not the “why” something should be done – everyone, bar a few stubborn ones, agree on our country’s environmental issues. It’s the “how” that they’re frustrated about. 

The non-agricultural pollution impacts that have happened over the years as a result of fossil-fuelled consumerism have played an equal part in this process, but they’re not getting the same attention as farming. 

I appreciate the outcomes we’re trying to achieve with the new regulations, but I’m also a believer in positive and supportive reinforcement. That’s why I’m disappointed that there’s no interest in incentivising and investing in the visionary farmers who are building a more resilient and sustainable future based on healthy farms, soils and ecosystems.

One of the issues the protesting farmers were upset about is the latest moves to identify and protect Significant Natural Areas (SNAs). If there is an area on your private land that is deemed an SNA thanks to its indigenous flora and fauna, you lose your rights to use that land. You’re expected to fence the area off at your own cost, but still have to pay all the rates and expenses associated with it. 

Protecting these areas is a good idea but, not surprisingly, most people in this situation believe there should be at least some consultation or compensation. 

There’s also a risk that these moves will discourage people from having areas like this on their land, as they’re seen as a liability. Why not incentivise the creation of more of these areas, instead of penalising farmers who have them?

In fact, a good solution, the QEII National Trust, already exists. They are an NGO that works with landowners to protect natural and cultural heritage on their land with covenants, protecting these areas indefinitely. It’s effectively an incentive for farmers, and the difference is that it’s a collaborative approach as opposed to being told what to do.

I feel for the farmers who have been brushed with the same broad stroke as others who aren’t making an effort. We need to weed these farmers out, but I’m worried that with too many obstacles we might risk losing the good ones too. 

Many farmers care deeply about solving the problems that confound modern agriculture, diet and food systems. (Trust me, if we didn’t enjoy growing food or planting trees, there is no way we would have gone into farming.) Our capital and resources would be better invested outside of agriculture if we were only interested in commercial returns. We’re not the minority, either. We have met dozens of farmers on our journey who are heavily invested in regenerating the environment.

I’m concerned that the next generation of farmers are inheriting negativity, debt, unjust blame, and problems created over decades, yet we are relying on them to feed an increasing number of us in the future. I want them to love what they do and be cheered on to do better. I want the bright, young minds to take over their family farms, not sell them into corporate ownership because that would be a better commercial decision. 

For Aotearoa to be a true “clean, green” leader of the world will require a collective effort. It needs to be based on fairness, appreciation, understanding and transparency. 

We all have a responsibility to do that, rural and urban people. 

I will leave you with this thought: “You might need a doctor, or a lawyer once a year… but every day, three times a day, you need a farmer.” I think that should be enough motivation for all of us to work together.