COMMENT:

Damien O'Connor

As we emerge from Covid-19, our focus is on working with farmers and growers to continue to drive our economic recovery. Overseas consumers are now more than ever looking for healthy, New Zealand-made food — we've seen that with the sustained demand for fresh fruit, particularly in Europe and North America and the strong demand for red meat in China.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the vital role that farmers and growers play in New Zealand's economy, and as a key part of our social fabric. As an "essential service", the primary sector helped feed Kiwis in lockdown and sent our high-quality food and fibre to international consumers despite the trade challenges.

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Together, we kept places like Kiwifruit packhouses and meat works operating while limiting the spread of Covid-19. That is something other countries have struggled to achieve.

It's important to recognise the great work under way in the primary sector — we were already adapting and transforming before Covid-19 happened. The ability to adapt means our primary sector exports are tracking to be 4.5 per cent higher this year than last. Given the effects of Covid-19 across economies, it's something everyone can reflect on with pride.

But where to from here? Along with the sector, the Government is focused on creating more demand, pursuing greater market opportunities to generate higher export returns, and growing rural communities with new jobs.

There are several strands to that work — and all of it is done in partnership with farmers and growers.

First, we are training more workers. By supporting new start-up training courses at farming institutions such as Taratahi and Telford, we give people a practical taste and basic skills for work in the primary sector.

Budget 2020 included $19.3 million to place 10,000 people into primary sector jobs, $128 million for jobs to help control wilding pines and get populations of wallabies under control, and a $110 million worker redeployment package to create employment for people who have lost their jobs due to Covid-19.

We are equipping farmers and growers with the right tools to measure and reduce emissions through He Waka Eke Noa.

All of this work on our strong environmental credentials is critical to securing high-quality Free Trade Agreements — some of which kicked off this week. Overseas consumers are prepared to pay more for a trusted and sustainably-grown product.

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That's one of the reasons why we are working on cleaning up our waterways with our freshwater reforms and making sure farmers and growers have good plans in place to farm in the best way possible. We're backing farmers on the ground through catchment groups, extending the work they've started, to improve knowledge about riparian planting and to get more information about sustainable practices.

Finally there's the project work — all of it focused on helping our farmers and growers and lifting the value the sector gets for its products, which will underpin our economic recovery. That's why MPI's Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures programme is investing $40m a year in innovative projects to help the primary sector, and we've made $19m available to help drought-stricken farmers in the regions so far this year — including an extra $3 million in the drought relief advice fund just this week.

Covid-19 has helped remind me just how much other countries look to New Zealand for safely-produced food of a very high standard. New Zealand food and fibre is not just good for us, it's good for the world. I know we can make the most of our strengths, while providing an environment for more creativity and innovation.

David Bennett

In times of crisis, New Zealand always reverts back to its competitive advantage. We have the best climate in the world for farming, secure borders, a reputation for environmentally friendly products, established brands, the most competitive and accomplished farmers, and a history of innovation and adaption.

These are the key drivers of our success.

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In a post-Covid world, farming is being valued once more in the community. Before this pandemic, economists from Deloitte Access Economics had ranked agribusiness and food processing as two of the five key "industries of opportunity" for future growth.

David Bennett is National's agriculture spokesman and a former Food Safety Minister
David Bennett is National's agriculture spokesman and a former Food Safety Minister

This is an important time for farmers to take advantage of the public mood. This is an opportunity to enhance their role as exporters and the future of the country.

The true test of our success in building the future of farming will be how we attract talent, on and off-farm.

There are five main avenues we need to utilise to attract this talent:

Maintaining the next generations of our farming families
They have it in their blood and we should enable them to gain off-farm skills and practical experience so they can actively manage farms and achieve farm ownership.

Our Māori communities
They've been here for a long time and respect and understand the land better than anyone. They are natural farmers with extensive agricultural interests. Māori can farm for the greater good.

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Our urban population
We need to show that farming is an accessible and exciting career option.
We should be encouraging young and old from all over New Zealand to have a career in agriculture.

Women in farming
Farming needs to encourage women to enter the workforce and there should be equal opportunities for women to take active farming roles and achieve farm ownership.

Migrant populations
Migrant labour has played a crucial role in our rural communities and has filled a significant shortfall in on-farm employees. There needs to be a genuine pathway for these farmers to make New Zealand their home. The Government has a role to play in delivering an environment in which farmers can succeed. Farmers want certainty of regulation and a fair playing field. Going forward, our markets and our urban communities will demand greater sustainability in agricultural practices. Targets need to be practical, achievable, and science-based.

Technology will be vital for growing the sector. Our on-farm research and development needs to be world-class. We need a range of agritech industries that will be the cutting edge of IT and on-farm solutions. The Government can assist through ensuring farmers are connected with comprehensive broadband coverage.

Government needs to deal with hard issues like water storage to combat drought and to assist in best land use. Government assistance for infrastructure can enable farmers to be innovative in the products coming from these land and water resources.

A post-Covid world will focus on diversified products and markets.

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We are lucky to have such a strong primary sector and resource of talent. Our future will rely on attracting the next generation to continue this legacy.