Why is there such a divide between farmers and townies? This question was posted on social media last week on our Facebook page.
The correspondent went on to write, "it's not just a disconnect, it's actual animosity towards an industry that is as much a part of New Zealand as everything else. If the payout is high, farmers are greedy and self serving destroyers of our environment, if the payout is low farmers are whinging and whining and deserve every dollar they lose?!?!"
In reply, someone else asked whether, "any proper random surveys (why random?) been done or is this issue just something whipped up by the media to fill in time or generate paranoia".
Let us consider these statements, which seem to me encapsulate the essence of the urban/rural divide that these comments highlight. Firstly, the assertion that there is actual animosity towards the country's farming industry. In short, there is. This is partly a generational issue; no one needs a study to know townies have viewed farmers as self-serving, rich, elitist serial moaners for decades.
Listen to the utterances from urban dwellers to a story on the 6 o'clock news revealing a drop in dairy prices. I can assure you there's scant sympathy. It's the way some in the city have been brought up; they heard dad say it and now they say it - that's a common phenomenon regarding most issues.
Ignorance is partly to blame also - the average person isn't considering a family being forced off their land because they can't pay the bills, or the farmer who reaches rock bottom and takes his own life. Make no mistake; that sentiment is being passed down to the next generation and, unlike those before them, they are increasingly unlikely to ever go on to a farm at all and experience rural life, once a fairly common Kiwi experience. Combine prejudice with ignorance and see what you get.
The problem is the rural sector, either subconsciously or consciously, is aware of this and has become defensive about not only its industry, but also its way of life. This has been further enhanced by the erosion of community facilities and institutions, such as the local bank for example. Less jobs, less people, less money, and so round and round we go.
Even events like rodeo and A&P shows have come under attack from animal rights groups et al, increasing the perception from rural communities that they're under attack from all fronts. The natural tendency is this situation is to hunker down and protect your own.
While this is undoubtedly taking a broad brush to a complex issue, it's an opinion formed through years canvassing the agricultural media landscape. It's also a view shared by others in the sector. Communications Manager for the Young Farmer Competition Nadine Porter raised some interesting points when debating the recent clean water issue with 2012 Ballance Farm Environment Award winner Jane Smith. This pair regularly engages in quality debate and this was no exception.
Porter stated, in her view, the level of mistrust toward the farming sector is at record levels, leading to antagonism. Who's right and who's wrong is incidental and most probably a matter of perspective but, she says, the onus has to be on the agricultural sector to bring the bustling metropolis back into the fold.
She believes the water debate is a classic case of the rest of the population becoming angry at the farming community itself, not the situation, and incidentally providing a fertile environment for activists to play into.
Porter also claims the narrative from the farming sector is very defensive, something our agricultural leaders need to take heed of. She instead argues for an insurgent approach; "we're guilty", she says, "of leaving them behind and now we're paying the price..."
The issue, of course, is how to turn the tables. Insurgency is one approach, but 'how' remains the problem. Generally speaking, most of the 'pro-ag' sentiment is read, viewed and listened to by the ag community - in other words it's preaching to the converted. But the media is a fickle beast, which brings us to the aforementioned "whipped up by the media to fill in time or generate paranoia" comment.
Last week on Twitter someone descried the priorities of our State Broadcaster when One News headlined the break-up of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie at the expense, or at least ahead of, the latest Global Dairy Trade Event and Fonterra's pay-out increase. An admirable sentiment and no doubt one expressed by numerous others, but in reality not enough for it to rate over Brangelina (can't believe I just used that term...).
Rightly or wrongly, celebrity gossip will generally trump a story on milk. Whether its JFK and Marilyn Monroe or the Queen of England, celebrity wins out. A report last year revealed Beyonce received 11 times more mentions in the US media than stories about things like deforestation and environmental issues, but is anyone really surprised?
The media can occasionally 'whip things up', but rest assured doesn't go out of its way to generate paranoia. Like any business it simply provides what people want in order to generate revenue.
So while mainstream media is the obvious and most effective way of bringing townies back into the fold, you can guarantee milk won't top the bill ahead of Brad and Angelina, lest the news producers risk losing thousands of sets of eyeballs; and maybe therein lies the problem.