By Nathan Guy

If we really want a message to change the public perception of farming, it can't just come from a politician. It's needs to come straight from the woolsheds and dairy sheds.Nathan Guy

This year has seen tensions rise between farmers and their critics, and this is likely to continue as we get closer to the election.

There's no doubt urban New Zealanders are increasingly separate from their rural cousins and have less knowledge and interaction than previous generations.

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The challenge of bridging this disconnect now comes down to all of us, especially farmers, as the Government alone can't tackle this issue.

In general, I think most people know that farming is a crucial part of our economy.

The latest update from the Ministry for Primary Industries shows our primary sector exports are forecast to reach $41 billion next year, a record high.

It is still the backbone of our economy and helps pay for roads, schools and hospitals. What perhaps isn't as well understood is how increasingly high-tech our industry is becoming.

It isn't just getting your hands dirty shearing sheep or milking cows. Our farmers are the most innovative and productive in the world, using science and technology in some amazing ways.

A great example is that we now produce the same amount of sheep meat as we did in the 1980s, but with half the number of sheep.

Another example is Te Mana lamb, which has been co-funded by the Government through the Primary Growth Partnership and is using the latest genetic research to develop a premium tasty brand.

Proliant, a pharmaceutical company in Feilding, manufactures high-end pharmaceutical products using bovine blood -- something that was once a waste product.

Likewise, many people probably don't realise the massive environmental improvements that farmers have made over the past 15 or so years. In recent years there has been a large reduction in the pollution entering our lakes and rivers from dairy sheds, factories and town effluent systems, and billions has been spent on upgrades.

A huge amount of work has already gone into new rules, standards and monitoring which simply didn't exist 10 years ago. About $450 million has been committed towards freshwater clean-up projects from the Government.

In the last five years it's estimated that farmers have spent over $1 billion of their own money towards environmental measures on farm.

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.

Farmers acknowledge they have an impact on the environment and have focused on proactive solutions. The Sustainable Dairying Water Accord is a great example, whereby farmers have set -- and achieved -- ambitious goals like fencing off 98 per cent of waterways on dairy farms.

That is also how we are going to achieve our goal of having 90 per cent of rivers swimmable by 2040.

Around three quarters of our waterways across the country are in good shape, and achieving the goal of 90 per cent will be a long-term project that will cost the country around $2b -- 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.

As a sector, farmers need to keep showing this kind of leadership and communicating it strongly.

This is also very important to our markets because the wealthiest consumers are also the most aware. They want to know more about the food they eat, and that it's produced in a safe and environmentally sustainable way. This is a message that has to come from the grass roots.

If we really want a message to change the public perception of farming, it can't just come from a politician. It's needs to come straight from the woolsheds and dairy sheds -- from someone in a Swanndri, not a suit.

My challenge to farmers is to set yourself some goals of promoting your industry to your friends and family who might not know that much about it.

The other weekend my family and I planted trees on our farm and then posted the pictures on Facebook and Twitter. A small step, but one small way you can demonstrate the environmental progress we're making.

In the age of social media, everyone has the ability to positively influence public opinion more than you might realise.

?Nathan Guy is the Minister for Primary Industries