By Simon Edwards
When Bay of Plenty farmers met East Coast MP Kiri Allan last month the conversation traversed all sorts of sector pressures but often came back to the same question – how do we get enough new blood into agriculture for it to carry on and prosper?
The meeting was hosted by the BOP Rural Support Trust and the Manawahe branch of Federated Farmers and heads nodded around the table as one dairy farmer described a scenario leaders of both organisations had encountered plenty of times in recent years. Farmers nearing their sixties or older are finding their children aren’t interested in taking over the farm. They’re stretched by workforce shortages, exasperated by the growing paperwork and compliance load, fearful of costs arising from emissions taxes and the changing climate…and investors are sniffing around looking to buy and plant out good pastoral land in pines.
Allan, the former Minister of Conservation who now holds the Justice portfolio, was nodding her head too. The gathering of farmers and local RST, Federated Farmers, DairyNZ, Te Uru Rakau and MPI representatives was just up the coast from Matatā, near where Allan grew up. She said probably 90% of her cohort of fellow pupils at her high school were the offspring of farmers or folk from related primary industries.
“I’d say a maximum of 20% of those – and that’s probably really pushing it – have gone into those industries,” she said.
“We’re seeing the sell-down of family-run farms to larger corporates.”
BOP Federated Farmers President Brent Mountfort said more and more farmers are diversifying – dairy farmers putting in kiwifruit, those with some flat land looking at cropping or horticulture, for example. But some government policies were accelerating forestry on productive pastoral land. Just down the road from the Mountfort’s farm, a family from England paid $900,000 more than the next closest offer for a farm including 80ha of “beautiful, rolling land” – it’s all going into trees.
As East Coast MP, Allan needed no schooling up on farmers’ feelings about pines – carbon-only forestry in particular. The Minister said she was well aware of the tensions between dairy, horticulture, sheep & beef and forestry land uses.
“I’m always asking myself ‘how much does the silent hand of the state come in?’ What do we do here; say ‘no, you cannot sell to ‘X’? I don’t believe as a principle I should deprive you of your future profits.
“At the same time it’s tricky to navigate it through in terms of protection and the viability of the industry going forward.”
Allan said advocacy on workforce shortages by the likes of Federated Farmers – but also “hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth” from farmers at events like the one she was attending – “have not fallen on deaf ears”. She said a proposal on more migrant workers was on Cabinet’s table as she spoke. [That turned out to be the announcement a few days later that the number of Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers would increase by 3000 places.]
As to how to boost numbers of New Zealanders looking at agriculture, the consensus around the outdoors dining table at appeared to be: bring back the Farm Cadet Scheme, with mentors checking up on the pastoral care of young farm workers, encouragement for them to move around different farming operations to learn; follow-up opportunities to do business and agricultural papers, and reinstitution of the scheme where a proportion of the cadet’s wages went into a savings account, which they could then draw down and get loans at a better rate from the government when they were ready to set up their own business or buy stock or a farm property.
Other calls were for:
- better linking up of all the different ‘young people on farms’ initiatives run by farming groups and others all over the country;
- a more co-ordinated approach to agricultural courses at high schools, rather than it just relying on an interested/motivated teacher or two;
- and a co-ordinated, industry-wide campaign to – in the words of Minister Allan – “make the primary industries sexy again”. Even if that did include acknowledgement farming could be tough and exposed to the worst of Mother Nature, “at least we’ll get that percentage of New Zealanders who find that outdoors stuff appealing”, as one farmer said.
Mohi Beckham, on whose farm they were meeting, has his own formula. A product of ‘Once Were Warriors’ territory – Ford Block, Rotorua – Mohi said too many dairy farmers were not willing to make it financially viable for young people to break into sharemilking.
Coming from a background in coaching sport, Mohi believed the challenge was to make farming exciting. “My main thing is, I don’t care if you’re good at it but I want you to be excited because once you’re excited, you’re chucking in 110%. At 80% you’re just checking in because you have to do it.
“110% grows faster than 80%.
“It’s like with the old boys – back in those days farming was fun. Like, it was hard but it was fun. Now farming is just paperwork.”
Mohi said he had bussed young people out of Rotorua to come out to the farm for a Saturday and put up a fence or something. “That buzzes them out…some of them have never held a hammer in their hand.”
He’ll barbecue some prime meat instead of the chuck steak they’d get at home, “if they get that”.
Kids can come to the farm as “sort of wwofers” but locals. “We do down the track of maramataka and Matariki. We’re doing the stuff that the old people tried.”