Ben Hancock 2019 Nuffield Scholar – Global Insights: Farm societies have common issues

FARMING the world over as much as the context, production and scale vary, shows, as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

After nearly six months on the road of my Nuffield journey I was struck by the similarities across continents and farming systems.

So many of the issues we face in New Zealand can be translated to our counterparts around the world.

This highlights that we have allies in dealing with the challenges we face and that we’re not in this alone.

In many developed countries there are the same concerns of the widening gap between urban and rural communities and the challenge of attracting people into their agricultural sectors.

At an agri-tech symposium in the American mid-west, plenty of cutting-edge ideas, gadgets and technologies were proposed and introduced to solve a myriad of issues. After two days of the symposium a panel of mostly young and engaged farmers was asked what their main concerns were. They repeated a familiar concern: finding staff, especially good staff.

The dairy farmers in Kenya I visited were concerned about connecting with their consumers though the connection is a more literal one – the actual logistics of getting their product to consumers elsewhere in Kenya, regardless of whether they are small subsistence farmers or larger more commercial operations.

A reliable supply chain is of more concern than perceptions of production.

Even so, their perception in the community still helps when the almost inevitable threat of land theft approaches.

Frustration in having a political voice is a common theme in many countries and agricultural sectors.

Within a few minutes of meeting the owner of a packing house in California he asked what I thought of President Donald Trump but he didn’t want to hear what I thought. He wanted to tell me what he thought. So much of what he vented was born out of frustration of not being represented in state or federal politics or in the general public.

So how does New Zealand differ?

New Zealand does have a great reputation and it has been enabled by our government and regulators.

The trust in our production systems and goodwill in terms of how New Zealand is perceived and behaves on the international scene is an asset for our industry.

The five Nuffield scholars benefitted in our travels from New Zealand’s international reputation.

The Christchurch massacre occurred while we were in the United States. Often the perceptions of New Zealand’s reaction from locals was one of sympathy for what had happened but also an appreciation of the community’s response and Government decisiveness.

Our nation’s reputation is more important to New Zealand’s agriculture than elsewhere. Take the red meat sector. More than 90% of what we produce is exported. Our reputation matters.

After a long day riding in the back of a van across nearly the length of Romania our group of scholars reached Bulgaria. Rather worn out and hungry we found a nice enough place to eat. Lo and behold, there was New Zealand lamb on the menu.

Nothing else on the menu hinted as to where it came from. Somewhere on the border between Romania and Bulgaria our reputation still carried weight. Perhaps it was the only thing any locals would know of New Zealand.

It really hit home that our community is here, our customer is there. The appreciation for New Zealand’s image and all that it entails is valued by our customers. Yet a lot of the headwinds that are buffeting New Zealand’s agriculture sector and rural communities are generated locally.

I saw some perverse outcomes of government involvement in industries and, though I’m reluctant to admit, there might be some benefits.

For example, in Ireland, if society decides an action such as conservation or environmentalism is a priority that benefits wider society at a cost to the producer, wider society contributes in some form – whether through taxpayer-funded support or at the local checkout.

On returning to New Zealand it feels as though the support and validity gained through regulation has changed. The inundation of regulatory and societal pressure is wearing on rural communities. However, we’re not alone in this. There are seismic shifts happening globally.

The detachment between the community and consumer means the cost of demands on production are difficult to meet. Ultimately, though, the Garden of Eden can’t be demanded without someone needing to pay the full price for having that shiny apple.

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