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Has farming lost it social licence?

Has farming lost it social licence?

In the1980s farmers were the darlings of the New Zealand's economy. They brought in export revenue and were actively encouraged to increase production. Fast forward to today, farmers are under fire for degrading the environment in the name of profit. Sharon Davis chats to three Canterbury farmers for their view on whether farmers have lost their social licence as sustainability becomes a core concern.

As a backbone of the economy, our farmers have traditionally been valued by society and had strong support and a robust social licence.

But, with the growing focus on sustainability, the agricultural sector's contribution to issues such as greenhouse gasses and degraded water quality has eroded public support and the underlying social licence to farm and feed the country.

The unofficial metric of public opinion and trust in farmers has slipped.

Social media has also changed how we communicate. It only takes one photo of bad practice to go viral and stir a furore - and fuel the view that all farmers are bad news for the environment - without looking at the good work famers do at balancing the needs of taking care of business, their staff and community, and the land they rely on.

While some people argue that farmers have lost their social licence, Mid Canterbury Federated Farmers president David Acland said farmers still had a social licence but had lost the confidence of being in control of it.

"We need to be confident and open ourselves and show New Zealand how we do operate.

"Famers need to take back control of their social licence."

The Open Farms programme that connects farmers and classrooms is one example of a way to take back control of the social licence.

Acland acknowledged the need to decrease the impact agriculture has on the environment. However, he believed that all human behaviour had an impact on the environment and said everyone had a part to play.

"It's about how we minimise that impact."

David Acland

Acland likened the latest raft of environmental regulations for farmers as a pendulum that has swung too far in the opposite direction from the 1980s.

"In the 80s there was a push for farmers to increase production and get the most out of their investment."

In the 2000s farmers had to contend with new agricultural land and water plans. And in the last six years there had been an "accelerated drive for change" that had swung the pendulum to the other side - to the point that it was "out of kilter with the rural community".

"Violent swings are no good for anyone. It needs to centre," he said.

Acland said he hoped the change in government would be more collaborative and supportive of the agricultural industry rather than the adversarial approach under Labour.

Canterbury was a long way ahead of other regional councils when it came to water issues. Some recent regulations had felt like "relitigating a whole lot of stuff that had already been worked through over the last 10 years", Acland said.

Hinds dairy farmer Phill Everest has hit his farm's target for reducing nitrogen losses 10 years ahead of requirements.

"We've always tried to be good custodians," he said.

He disagreed with the suggestion that farmers in the 80s chased an increase in production at the expense of the environment.

In Everest's view, farmers turn sunlight, water and the environment into wool, meat and wheat. He said it made no sense for farmers to deliberately degrade the environment.

"I've never met a farmer who tries to drive himself broke."

However, he did agree that technology and understanding developed over time - and you come to realise that "some things aren't as good as you thought they were at the time".

Everest and his wife Jos love the outdoors and have a strong environmental focus - but farming isn't just about the environment, or profit.

You have to think about the staff and the surrounding community as well, he said.

Everest believes New Zealanders, as a whole, have become more removed from farming and had less understanding of what was involved.

Social media could focus on the bad, it could also bring out the good, he said.

"Maybe we don't sell our story as well as we should. We like to fly under the radar. We farmers are poor at that."

Everest has introduced a number of initiatives to reduce nitrogen leaching from the farm.

He said farmers needed to develop tools so we have "a better overall environmental footprint".

Everest used Overseer to monitor water to gauge the effects of farm management changes.

However, he said there was a 10 - 60-year lag time for the effects of on-farm changes to show up in deep ground water.

"It's not an instant fix but we have to work at it now. Tools like Overseer give confidence that what you are doing will result in better outcomes for the community," he said.

Springston dairy farmer Alex Irvine said a lot of people had lost touch with how dairy farms operate now.

Alex Irvine

Fonterra and Synlait had picked up the "environmental ball" and were being strict on farmers with penalties if farmers did not meet the regulations.

Sustainability is taken seriously on his family’s farm.

A bioreactor removes nitrates from the water on a creek on the farm – to the point that the water in the creek entering the farm has higher nitrates than when it leaves the farm. “It’s something we’re quite proud of.”

The Irvines have also planted more than 15,000 native plants around streams and shelter belts.

Irvine believed South Island farmers were more compliant and farms were better monitored by councils than in some areas of North Island.

He had heard talk of "old school farmers" who had not yet fenced off waterways and the farms were not being checked by the authorities.

Irvine said it was usually a small number of farmers who let everyone down, whether it was with compliance around fencing waterways or other regulations.

He said social media played a role in forming public perception and social licence.

A post of a negative on-farm incident was often generalised and interpreted as happening on all farms - especially when there are strong personalities behind social media accounts.

While there were still some "pretty average" dairy farmers he believed public perception should move on from an anti-dairy or anti-farmer mindset to one that called on the farmers letting the side down to change and become compliant.

New research from Massey University has disputed the concept of a deep urban-rural divide, based on over 1300 interviews with urban and rural New Zealanders, to build a picture of attitudes to farming in New Zealand.

The Diverse Experience of Farming project found that food created a strong connection between urban and rural populations, along with a concern over costs of food and farming inputs and the environmental impact of farming.

Most Kiwis felt farming provided strong benefits for the country. However, recognising the sector’s benefits does not equate to greater trust or knowledge about farming, said School of Agriculture and Environment senior lecturer Dr Janet Reid.

Urban consumers want to feel that farmers to be transparent and clear in communicating their sustainable practices, and are more concerned about supply chain issues and food quality than farming communities.

They did not share farmers’ key concerns around government interference in farming, misinformation and mental health.

The research found that urban consumers and farmers did not blame each other for this lack of trust, and had a sophisticated understanding of challenges facing the sector such as climate change, high prices, farm debt and increasingly tight regulations.

The people interviewed for the research project tended to point the finger at the Government, media and supermarkets for creating or promoting an urban-rural divide.

By Sharon Davis