New Kiwis make agriculture unique, but a nasty undercurrent and hardened attitude puts newcomers off
When it comes to the foreign ownership of farmland, my family has a unique perspective.
Before my wife, Emily, and I moved our family thousands of miles from upstate New York to the Wairarapa, we did research. A great deal of it. We'd narrowed our choices to English-speaking Canada, Australia and of course, New Zealand. Since moving Downunder, we've learned that being a "good bastard" is a compliment. Maybe Winston Churchill was right when he said "Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language".
While Emily was the farmer, I was an investment analyst. Together, we learned about the country, its political stability, history, economy, agricultural system, climate and the rural property market. Of course, being "foreign investors", we checked out whether we'd be welcomed or not.
We quickly dropped Canada from consideration for being even colder than New York. We also wanted to break out of the closeted subsidy culture prevalent in North America. Although Australia offered space aplenty, dealing with years of drought followed by floods was a challenge too far. Our preference was for New Zealand's more benign climate.
To farmers overseas, New Zealand is the mecca of farming. Nowhere else had an organisation like Federated Farmers worked with a left-wing government to end subsidies. Farmers there, we learned, were judged on abilities as farmers and not the size of their subsidy cheque. New Zealand was at the forefront of pastoral research and practice. It also had plenty of migrant farmers who had integrated and excelled. New Zealand felt right.
Being in Federated Farmers a few years later, I came across one farmer who made Winston Peters look like a weak-kneed liberal. Proving the debate is seemingly two-thirds heart and one-third brain, I later learned that he'd bought a farm in Australia but he still opposed foreign investment, albeit slightly sheepishly.
Deciding on a country is one thing, but it's quite another to get the ideal farm. We were very fortunate to convince Castlepoint's board that New York Yankees were fit custodians for their iconic Wairarapa station. That was 1998 and we've never looked back.
Kiwis are the most hospitable people with an unerring knack of convincing you to take on more responsibilities. I was one of two non-New Zealand-born farmers on the Federated Farmers board. I'm also on the board of Grow Wellington and, to keep my feet firmly on the ground, I'm Castlepoint's fire chief. Emily is similarly involved and our children are now working in New Zealand.
Politicians are quick to say that families like us are their "ideal" business migrants. The message is that "people like us" will continue to be welcomed, whichever party wins on September 20. Unfortunately, that nuance is lost if you're thousands of miles away reading nzherald.co.nz or watching news on-demand.
If we were researching New Zealand today, would we make the big move? Possibly not.
The tone around foreign investment has hardened for the worse. To outsiders, politics and cultish popularity now seem big determinants. There's also a nasty undercurrent which reflects poorly on us as Kiwis. Who this is putting off we'll never know, but it is off-putting.
Farming is the most international industry we have. It's this mix of people that makes New Zealand agriculture unique and the success it is. The Green Party opposed Shania Twain's high-country purchase but look at what British record producer Robert "Mutt" Lange has given back: 53,000ha and a whole landscape permanently protected. The restoration and enhancement of Young Nicks Head may never have taken place had a Kiwi farmer purchased it rather than New York financier John Griffin. We're even near-neighbours of James Cameron -- that's in a rural sense because we're over an hour away by car.
Politics must come out of the "foreign investment" debate because it can so easily spiral into the gutter. Rules are important and we Kiwis accept that with sport, why not overseas investment?
Anders Crofoot is Federated Farmers vice-president.