Tonight’s event is one of the best demonstrations possible of farmers caring for their land and wanting to leave it in a better state for future generations.
It’s an event I’m proud to support and champion loudly to as many New Zealanders as possible.
This year has seen tensions rise between farmers and your critics and this is likely to continue as we get closer to the election. Tonight I want to say a few words about how we can tackle this divide and tell our story.
Agriculture’s importance to New Zealand
There’s no doubt that agriculture has permanently changed New Zealand’s environment, and frankly, it’s indefensible to argue otherwise.
How else could you introduce ovines, bovines and countless other species to an ecosystem once only dominated by birds and expect nothing to happen? In fact, all human activity has had a massive impact on New Zealand’s environment.
However it is equally true that agriculture has become one of the enduring characters of New Zealand’s national psyche.
Alongside our well-known Number 8 wire mentality for finding practical solutions, it has also formed the backbone of our economy.
Farming has allowed us to build countless schools, hospitals and roads, and enjoy a standard of living envied across the globe.
And as the Budget last week showed, our economy is good health – and a strong primary sector is a critical part of that. Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to afford the families income package, health increases, educations increases and everything else we announced.
In general, I think most New Zealanders know that and want farming to succeed and do well.
A few weeks ago I made a comment about not being able to double the amount of cows in New Zealand which attracted a bit of attention.
For some people, my comments were surprising and seen as a ‘flip-flop.’ That’s because many believe a myth that this Government somehow determines who farms what, and has a preference for dairy.
Of course, this myth ignores the role of regional councils in setting environmental limits and granting consents, and more importantly the role of the farmer who alone makes the decision and carries the risk associated with their business.
For any farmers reading those articles, my comments about not being able to double the number of cows was obvious. Farmers have a better understanding of their land and its limits than anyone else.
As I look around the room tonight, I can attest that farmers are environmentalists, and their land is their legacy.
An environmentally sustainable farming operation is not just a source of pride within the community; it’s an asset to pass down to future generations.
Some of the recent attacks on farmers are deeply unfair and it frustrates me that some people believe farmers are destroying their land and the country.
It was incredibly disheartening to read a recent article that showed some school children were being bullied for coming from a dairy farming family.
It’s also disappointing to hear calls to put a ‘cap’ on the number of dairy cows in the country. This is cynical politics for a number of reasons.
First, it deliberately isolates one particular farming type as the sole cause of water quality issues in New Zealand. These issues have built up over decades from a variety of land uses, both rural and urban, and will take decades to fix.
Second, it’s naïve to the yearly event of calving, where the population of cows almost doubles in a short space of time.
Finally, it ignores the process by which the impact of farming on our environment is regulated. That is, at a regional council level, managed on a catchment-by-catchment basis.
That is how we are going to achieve our goal of having 90% of rivers swimmable by 2040.
Around three quarters of our waterways across the country are in good shape, and achieving our goal of 90% will be a long-term project that will cost the country around $2 billion – that’s taxpayers, ratepayers and farmers.
We are going to achieve it in a practical, realistic and sustainable way that doesn’t ruin our economy at the same time. This is a long term issue and we’re all in it together.
A huge amount of work has already gone in with new rules, standards and monitoring which simply didn’t exist 10 years ago. Around $450 million has been committed towards freshwater clean-up projects.
In recent years there has been a huge reduction in pollution entering our lakes and rivers from dairy sheds, factories and town effluent systems, and billions has been spent on upgrades.
There is also a huge investment in science and good ideas from both Government and industry looking for new technologies and ways to improve farming practices.
The benefits of irrigation
Another example of myths and mistruths is irrigation.
As part of this year’s Budget, we’ve announced additional $90 million of funding. This includes grant funding of $26.7 million over the next three years, plus a capital boost of $63 million towards irrigation investment.
Of course, there are many inconvenient truths about irrigation for critics.
A reliable water supply for growers and farmers has major potential to boost economic growth, creating jobs and exports in the regions. At the same time these schemes can deliver real environmental benefits by maintaining river flows and recharging groundwater aquifers.
Let’s have a look at the proposed Ruataniwha project. Groups like Greenpeace would have you believe this will lead to large swaths of the Hawkes Bay becoming dairy country.
In fact, dairy is only expected to account for 22 per cent of the water take from the scheme.
The new Hawkes Bay Regional Council commissioned a review of all the science and decisions behind the dam.
The report concluded that it’s more likely the local community would achieve the ambitious environmental objectives of the Plan Change 6 with the dam than without the dam.
I could give numerous other examples, like Central Plains Water which is taking pressure off groundwater sources and will improve water flows into Lake Ellesmere - Te Waihora, helping the long-term process of improving its water quality.
Or the Waimea Community Dam near Nelson which would reduce nitrate leaching by converting land from pasture to apples.
There’s also a strong contradiction from some critics who warn to expect more volatile weather from global warming such as droughts, but then would deny farmers an essential tool to help them mitigate the impacts of it.
Telling our story
While some of us might disagree with the views of those who are opposed to farming, there’s one thing we can’t disagree with: they are very effective at getting their views across.
As farmers, we tend to lie down too easily. Being humble is a source of pride.
It was recently pointed out to me in a letter that farmers were taking too much of an unfair kicking, and so as the Primary Industries Minister what the hell I was doing about it?
My answer was that I’ll continue working my butt off, but if we really want a message to change the public perception of farming, it can’t just come from a politician like me.
It's going to need to come straight from the woolsheds and dairy sheds.
It's going to need to be from someone in a swanndri, not a suit.
It’s going to need to come from the people in the room tonight.
Who else is going to explain that farmers have spent over $1 billion of their own money towards environmental measures on farm.
Who else is going to explain that farmers have fenced enough waterways to cover the distance from Auckland to Chicago and then back again.
And it’s also important to understand that while farming may not be the sexiest thing around, food is.
Maybe we stop calling ourselves farmers, and introduce ourselves as food producers?
My challenge to all of you here is to set yourself some goals of promoting your industry to your friends and family who might not know that much about it.
In the age of social media, everyone here has the ability to influence public opinion more than you’d think.
For example, this weekend I’m organising my family to plant trees on our farm. We need to Tweet or Facebook pictures of the work we are doing for our land.
You might think it’s nothing, but it’s one small way you can demonstrate the environmental progress we are making.
But just before you think there’ll be some point where we all live in harmony, remember this: this debate won’t end - it won’t go away.
Farmers and environmental activists will never fully agree.
If farmer agrees with the activist they have no cows. If the activist agrees with the farmers, the public have no reason to donate to them to advocate.
The answer is finding that balance in the middle ground.
We’re sometimes quick to dismiss criticism of our industries as coming from ’soft townies.’ We shouldn’t forget that ‘soft townies’ are the consumers buying all our products.
As I’ve always said, our goal is not to double the volume of our exports, but double the value of our exports.
We feed around 40 million people around the world – we’ll never be able to feed 80 million, so we need to feed 40 of the wealthiest million people.
Of course, this is much easier said than done. The wealthiest consumers are also the most aware. They want to know more detail about the products they eat.
They want to know how their food is produced in a safe and environmentally sustainable way.
They don’t just buy the food, they buy the story.
And if we don’t come out of our shells, someone else will tell that story for you.
As a Government we are firm believers we can grow the economy and improve the economy at the same time.
It’s not enough to say that we can have both operating in unison - in fact, for the sake of the country, we must.
Finally, congratulations again to all the Regional Winners tonight and to the National winner and recipients of the Gordon Stephenson Trophy for 2017 – Peter and Nicole Carver from Taranaki. They are passionate about the sustainability of their land and will be fantastic ambassadors for the primary sector.