Talkback radio can be the domain of the disaffected, but Kerre McIvor hosted an extraordinary session on Newstalk ZB on Friday morning, a string of dairy farmers, many of them close to tears, telling her of their utter despair as they come under attack from all quarters.

For many, the government's current moves to force farmers to address the pollution of waterways and greenhouse gas emissions seemed to be the final straw, the latest effort to paint dairy farmers in particular as responsible for wilful environmental degradation, with a touch of animal cruelty thrown in for good measure.

Few farmers would expect a great deal of empathy from a Labour government, especially one with a strong Green influence, and if NZ First really is diluting some of the administration's more egregious excesses, its moderating effect is of little consolation. But it's not only what are widely regarded as unrealistic demands from the Beehive that are casting a pall of gloom over the industry. Those within the general population who have been persuaded that dairy farmers are the root of all environmental evil in this country are wearing them down too, with the active support of the media.

Several of those who unloaded on Friday morning said they were no longer game to tell people what they did for a living. They were ashamed, they said, and could not face the backlash that followed any admission that they milked cows. More than one saw no future for them or the industry. They were telling their children, often after three or four generations of dairy farming, to get off the land.


One said dairy farmers could cope with drought, flooding and poor prices, knowing that, in time, droughts would break, it would stop raining and prices would improve. Now they had no such hope. Some said they would get out of the industry if they could, but they couldn't. The value of their farms had plummeted to the point where selling wasn't an option. Selling might not even recoup their existing debt. All they could do was carry on until their lives became utterly intolerable, then walk away.

These callers were patently decent, hard-working people who had thought they were making a contribution to their communities and to their country's economy. They might still believe that, but they were increasingly feeling marginalised, even despised, by politicians with no understanding of the impact of increasingly unrealistic demands, and by people who believed what they were told, but had absolutely no understanding of how a farm works.

To a man and a woman they said they were doing all they could to reduce the environmental impact of their operations. They were fencing waterways, planting trees and trying to reduce pollution. They would make use of whatever science could deliver in terms of reducing emissions. They could do no more, yet all that they had done so far was ignored, at best rejected as too little too late.

One Otago farmer said he was expected to fence every gully on his property because of their potential to carry water. That was going to cost him $900,000, almost a quarter of his property's capital value and more than twice its annual turnover. He saw no option but to comply, but had no idea how he was going to do so. And he pointed to a stark double standard.

The fact is that many of New Zealand's filthiest waterways are in urban areas, with not a dairy cow in sight, or are polluted by urbanites upstream from where the degradation is recorded. Yet farmers see no effort by the government to force city dwellers to do anything about that.

And the fact that some of farmers' harshest critics don't know what they're talking about was reinforced last week with the quoting of a British academic, a professor of animal welfare no less, who told a probably not unreceptive urban audience that wearing wool was a greater offence against nature than wearing fur. He had reached that conclusion after seeing sheep shorn in Queenstown, because the shearing process involved manhandling the sheep, and, once shorn, they were turned outside, with nothing to keep them warm.

Sheep, he reportedly said, were stoic creatures that took what was dished out to them, but that did not absolve those who abused them, or those who made use of the wool taken from them.

This professor isn't the first person to say that shearing sheep is a repugnant abuse of defenceless animals, and he won't be the last, but at least he refrained (for the moment, perhaps) from joining those who have lambasted the practice of removing calves from their mothers, so the latter will produce milk for human consumption, as needlessly cruel. Certainly there have been some disturbing instances of cruelty, particularly involving calves and dairy cows, but the great majority of farmers can rightly claim that animal husbandry standards are almost universally high.


Many critics, be they British academics or urban New Zealanders who have never set foot on a farm, wouldn't know a Romney from a Rhode Island Red, yet feel qualified to hurl accusations against men and women who, in by far the great majority of cases, have genuine affection for the animals they farm, and spare no effort to provide them with all that they need to thrive. Apart from anything else, it would make absolutely no economic sense to treat them otherwise.

And while city dwellers, mainly, criticise farmers, what exactly are they doing to reduce their environmental impact, including their production of greenhouse gases? In most cases, one suspects, bugger all. They still drive their cars, they still have milk in their lattes, they still produce as much waste, if not more, than their rural counterparts. Most New Zealanders are sacrificing very little in a bid to reduce waste or emissions, but expect others to do so. Farmers are an easy target, especially when politicians, aided and abetted by the metropolitan media, label them as the major villains.

Is the government, bolstered by public sentiment, deliberately setting out to destroy pastoral farming, or does it genuinely not believe that the cost of complying with patently ridiculous and unachievable standards will damage them or the economy? Doesn't really matter. What we are seeing is either the height of arrogance or ignorance, but the outcome will be the same. But while Labour and the Greens will see no risk of losing votes by hurting farmers, NZ First should do. Winston Peters and Co might at least fret that some of their support comes from people who understand that without pastoral farming, New Zealand doesn't have an economy, and will perhaps vote accordingly at the next opportunity.

In the meantime, we could at least allow that, like all sectors of society, the great bulk of dairy farmers are good people. They are New Zealanders. They, you could say, are us. Just like the rest of us they have feelings, and, unlike most of the rest of us, make a huge contribution to the way of life that most of us enjoy. Without them we have very little.

If that contribution is not to be recognised, we could at least display a little of the humanity, empathy and understanding upon which we usually pride ourselves, and are supposed to be the hallmarks of our current government.