Federated Farmers’ role as the voice for farmers has never been more crucial, says president Katie Milne.
“The new coalition government has signalled that big changes are ahead for the agricultural sector and Federated Farmers has a massive role in ensuring the voices of farming families are heard,” she told the Bay of Plenty Federated Farmers regional executive meeting at Edgecumbe in November.
Katie, who had meetings with government MPs and staff early in their new tenure, says it is important for Federated Farmers to build trust with them to work collaboratively to achieve the best outcomes.
“I believe we will gain a lot more traction from this approach, but don’t think we will back away or go soft. This is a subtly different way of working with people.”
Katie says many people in Wellington have very little contact with, or knowledge of farming which unfortunately became a political football during the election campaign. “We need to remind people that farmers grow food. That’s what we do.” That focus resonates and helps change attitudes, she says.
The restructuring of the Ministry for Primary Industries may be beneficial, says Katie, especially if it results in some parts of the organisation, including forestry and biosecurity, being based in the regions.
“The process needs to be handled very carefully. We don’t want to see a repeat of what happened four years ago when restructuring resulted in export product being held up on a wharf because it had the wrong documentation.”
The new ministry and new government offer challenges, but also opportunities for farming, says Katie. “What we have to do is be a positive influence to collaboratively help the new government come to the right decisions for everyone.”
Meeting new environmental standards will be challenging, but Katie says farmers are already proving they can achieve significant outcomes. She quoted the success story in her own farming catchment. “We met the water quality standards for Lake Brunner in just five years, even though the then Minster for the Environment, Nick Smith, thought it could never be done.
“Many farmers are already farming at best practice. Farming has come a long way from 30 years ago when we didn’t know nutrient loss was a problem.”
When it comes to carbon emissions, transport accounts for 78 per cent of New Zealand’s emissions and that figure is growing. As farming production has risen, emissions have increased, but emissions per kg of product are slightly less than previously, says Katie.
Technology, she says, will help farmers reduce emissions even more, while maintaining economic levels of profitability. Farming high breeding-worth animals with improved productivity, precision agriculture which includes applying fertilisers only where and when required, and devices which provide farmers with detailed information about their livestock and land are already available.
These advances will not only enable more environmentally sustainable farming, but also help keep farms financially viable.
True cost of food
“While we would like the public to pay the true cost of food, there are constant pressures to decrease prices,” says Katie. That’s unlikely to change so making economies behind the farm gate is vital.
While Katie is keen to raise the positive profile of farming among the public, she reminded farmers not to take bad press too much to heart.
“As farmers we are very sensitive to negative publicity but we have to remember that farming is not the only thing on the minds of those living in cities who daily face, among other concerns, long commutes to work, the worry of high mortgages and their children’s education.
“The fact is, many New Zealanders get that farmers produce the food they eat and they value that.”