Article for Southland Times for Monday 11 June 98 from Christine McKenzie Fortrose 5RD Invercargill.
"Continuous Improvement must be the aim of farmers in the south"
Three threads are drawing New Zealand farming towards the future, exposed as it is to the enormous forces of world food supply and trade. If you are a farmer who does not see continuous improvement as part of your farming philosophy, read no further.
First is the overseas customers’ requirements for reassurance that the food they eat is safe, tasty, natural and wholesome. They have had a lot of frightening stories (not from New Zealand products, touch wood), over the last year or two.
Second is the ‘community’s’ perceptions of what farming is all about and what is acceptable practice. Its perceptions are translated into law such as the Resource Management Act, the Biosecurity Act, various Codes of Animal Welfare and local authority Plans. The debate is loosely termed ‘The Right to Farm’.
Third is the evolving world of international trade agreements and the threat of nontariff barriers, not to mention cheaper producers, in an era of free trade. There are losses as well as gains for New Zealand in the medium term.
These three threads all mean more accountability on the part of farmers. If we want to stay at the top end of all our markets we need quality assurance all the way back to the farm, and strong statements about animal health , welfare, use of chemicals etc. Many non-farming people both here and in our markets, think that for instance we routinely use antibiotics on our animals just as they do in piggeries in Europe, chicken farms in USA and fish farms in Japan. We need to get more forceful in explaining that we do not use such methods because our systems do not need them.
The ‘Right to Farm’ includes other issues such as looking after the landscape and environment. It’s been a bigger issue for European farmers than for us because of the pressure of population on the open space available. However it is getting to be more of an issue here too. The extreme view, which now looks pretty old-fashioned, stated that a freehold landowner should be able to do exactly as he wishes with his soil, water, plant cover and buildings. The RMA among other things, gives the landowner responsibility to consider the effects he might have on others and on future generations.
There will always be debate about the level of freedom farmers should have to manage their own landscape. The beauty of the RMA is that the debate is brought down to local level so that each region works out its own set of rules according to the prevailing local ethic. What’s required in Waikato is different from what’s required in Wairarapapa, Marlborough, or Southland.
The third thread, the evolution of the rules for world trade in food, also pulls us in the direction of continuous improvement. We have had favourable quotas for lamb, beef and dairy products in various high-paying markets - that will disappear in the future. There are other places where the costs of production are potentially lower than ours. Think of Eastern Europe - Hungary, Poland etc, and South America. We have built historic advantages by keeping clear of diseases like foot-and-mouth, and by developing reliable infrastructures to process, market and ship the products. Those other places may finally get their act together. How do we keep ahead? Again we have to aim for a premium product that will attract a higher price. Once more, that means the customer experience must be safe, reliable, tasty, nutritious, and guilt-free. If it’s associated with a breath of fresh air and beauteous landscape, so much the better.
There is a great future for farming in Southland , proven by the ravages of El Nino to be the most reliable part of New Zealand, but only for farmers who plan to get better results each year than the last, who positively love their farming and relish the chance to demonstrate sound, sustainable management of their land and animals.