David Clark says he’s always seen his role – and that of Federated Farmers – as giving voice to farmers whose happy place is on the land in overalls and boots, getting on with producing good food. “That’s who I am too”.
The Mid-Canterbury President’s tendency to “say it as I see it” has meant not just local reporters but national media as well call him up knowing they’ll get good copy or sound bites from someone who knows their stuff and doesn’t mince words.
“I have a large number of farmers and others who air their views to me, ringing me either to tell me I’m on the right course or I’ve strayed. I’ve welcomed that contact either way.
“I’ve been involved in various crisis situations with people and I like to think I can air their views. I’ll call a spade a spade; I’ve got no time for political backside covering.”
But David’s provincial presidency comes to an end with the Mid-Canterbury AGM this month. Meat & Wool Chair David Acland is taking up the reins.
“I believe there should be rotation; you shouldn’t stay in these roles for too long – and three years as president is the Mid-Canterbury tradition,” David Clark says. “Equally, I feel I’ve done by bit and I’m quite happy to step away but not disappear. I’m still really passionate and supportive of what Feds does.”
Mycoplasma bovis was just one of the crises that thrust David in the media and dealing with government agencies hot seat.
“I went to a meeting run by the local vets who first diagnosed it was bovis and I knew right at the start after seeing photos of the infected animals this was a very serious disease and would require the highest level of response.”
David, and the province, supported in principle the decision to try and eradicate M bovis “but we as a province have been most uncomfortable with how things were conducted in the early days. We put a lot of pressure on MPI to improve the way they interacted with farmers.”
The programme did evolve to become much more effective “but looking back on what some of those early families went through – the impact on the individual for the greater good – was actually too much to be justifiable. I still feel deeply uncomfortable about the emotional and financial harm that was put on those families.”
Have we learned some lessons?
“I hope so,” David says. “I hope the way that things are done now is the playbook right from the start for next time – because there will be a next time.”
Other ‘highlights’? The floods in the province last year were right on David’s doorstep. In fact, at 3am when he got a call from his neighbour Chris Allen, David went out in his tractor to rescue a father and daughter whose car had been swept into the swirling floodwaters and were beyond the help of police and the fire brigade. The windows of their car had to be smashed to get them free.
David says it was “hugely satisfying” to witness how community groups pulled together in the wake of the devastation, and the financial assistance package Feds helped negotiate.
Being in on the genesis of the Farmy Army with John Hartnell, a trip to Malaysia to study the palm kernel industry and the changes that brought about in the way NZ approach biosecurity, and the shipments of hay from the South Island to drought-hit Hawke’s Bay and Waikato are other satisfying episodes.
David’s big disappointments revolve around the government’s Essential Freshwater package.
“Here in Canterbury, we had a regional plan put in place by the government-appointed commissioners (to ECan). It set environmental limits, and then stringent targeted reductions that were going to be difficult to achieve but could be done.
“We’re halfway through the life of those plans, with targets we haven’t yet achieved but should achieve. But we’re going to tear that regional plan up, spend $15-$20 million at least rewriting it to replace those targets with ones we aren’t going to be able to achieve.”
For David and many other farmers, it’s ridiculous that water is coming in off Department of Conservation land at the top of the catchment with 3.2 milligrams of nitrate, yet farmers will be required to achieve 2.4mg at the east coast.
“So we’re being expected, in some situations, to achieve a result that’s better than nature.
“A report commissioned for our local district council found that to achieve these results, we would have to revert back to a farming system with a similar impact to dryland sheep farming. That is going to have pretty significant economic consequences for the entire Canterbury province.”
Much is made of Canterbury’s groundwater nitrate levels and the requirements to get it to 6.9mg from average levels around 7.6-7.9. Environmental groups push messages about cancer rates, ‘blue babies’ and the (contested) Danish study. What they never mention, David says, is that Canterbury’s existing groundwater nitrate targets compare pretty favourably to that of potable water delivered in the City of London.
On He Waka Eke Noa, and the ETS ‘back-stop’, David’s question for the government is: ‘are you actually trying to reduce global warming, or just put a tax on farmers who are already among the most emissions-efficient in the world?’.
It seems to David that the government’s plantation pine incentives are “just parking the carbon emissions of the rest of society on our farms and kicking the can down the road for the next 50 years” when the really important mission is to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
David has given plenty to Federated Farmers but he says the Federation has given plenty to him.
The Clarks were originally from South Auckland. David’s parents had been sheep and beef farmers, and then had a town milk farm at Clevedon. When he left school, David worked for the Cashmore family on a large sheep and beef property at the top of the Firth of Thames, then came home and started a fencing and hay contracting business, later moving into direct drilling.
But lifestyle blocks were mushrooming in the district and there was no room for the Clarks to expand their farm. They bailed, and in 1994 headed south to Mid-Canterbury.
David, and parents Pam and Terry, pooled their resources and took on a pretty rundown property out of Ashburton. They’ve built it up to 463ha, now fully irrigated – 350ha in arable crops, winter feed on top of that. They’re currently running 1,000 breeding ewes and trade between 7,000-9,000 lambs a year.
“I married a local girl, Jayne, and we’ve done the family succession thing. My parents still live on the farm and take a keen interest in what we do.”
David and Jayne’s sons are Sam, James and Charlie. James, and the son of a close friend of David’s recently won the Aorangi regional final of the Junior Young Farmer of the Year. The family is off on a road trip to Whangarei in July to watch James compete in the national finals.
“We’re an intergenerational family farming business – proudly self-contained and doing everything ourselves. In fact, that underpins my approach to most things,” David says.
Feds made a real difference when they first arrived, new to the province and new to that sector of the industry. Through Methven Young Farmers, David says he made lifelong friendships. From 2004, when he first started going to Federated Farmers meetings, David was taking on leadership roles in grains, then wider arable, before the provincial presidency.
“It’s very easy to become blinkered within the boundaries of your farm, to get frustrated about policies or legislation.
“Federated Farmers is a way to get out and be involved. For me, it’s put me in contact with great people I would otherwise have never had the opportunity to meet.”