For a country whose colonial economy was founded on farming, we have found ourselves in a strange and fraught predicament. New Zealand has become deeply divided between the rapidly diminishing numbers of those who farm and the 86 per cent who live in cities.

Every time I read the comments on an online news story about farming -- and dairying in particular -- an overwhelming majority are criticising farmers.

Once upon a time, almost all New Zealanders had some connection to a farm. The gap between town and city was not a gulf, rural communities still thrived and farming was a respected occupation.

Good farmers deserve respect, and our gratitude. But good farmers care for their livestock and care for their land.

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The revelations recently about "spray and pray" practices in the Rangitikei are appalling. Worse, Horizons seems to have been looking the other way. When Kate Gudsell broke the story three weeks ago, she quoted local environmental consultants, river tourism operators and farmers who all knew about (and condemned) the practice.

Horizons' response was, to say the least, lame: "We would want to keep an eye on it ... at the moment we don't really know," said land manager Grant Cooper.

We desperately need commitment and action from all levels of government -- sustained commitment that goes beyond the three-yearly election cycle.

Companies exist to return profit to their shareholders. And the worst companies, like the worst farmers, will seek short-term profit for themselves while creating long-term damage paid for by society at large. Robust regulation -- and enforcement -- is needed to prevent this.

John Hart, an organic sheep and beef farmer and list candidate for the Green Party, spoke at a well-attended public meeting in Whanganui last Thursday, and covered the same themes I've been musing on. The basic tension, he says, is between accepting or denying there are biological limits to farming.

"Individual farmers' efforts [to reduce their impact] are being swamped ... the collective damage done as an industry is happening faster than individual farmers can reduce their impact," he said. Farmers are at risk of losing the "social licence" to farm, he warned.

We're in our ninth year of a Government that cares only about economic growth (let's discount the rhetoric and look at its record). It continues to lean far too hard on dairying to keep exports growing, while Fonterra continues to sell low-cost commodity products, exposed to massive fluctuations in demand and price.

Talk of dairy cows in barns is back and the Government is hell-bent on financing large-scale irrigation, so that ever more fragile soils can be converted to intensive dairying.

Farming has already passed hard limits, but National just keeps its foot on the accelerator.

Farming doesn't need to cost the earth. There are already examples of great practices that raise robust animals, which are decently cared for and which improve the farm environment rather than degrade it.

Ask the farmers already using methods called organic, permaculture, biodynamic, biointensive, biological.

Ask Jodi Roebuck about how regenerative grazing on leased land around his Taranaki block is dramatically improving pasture, even on hillsides.

Ask Scott Lawson at True Earth, the incredibly successful certified organic vege grower from Hawke's Bay.

Ask dairy farmers Edo and Anita Mooij, who earn a livelihood by running just 24 cows on 28ha -- and selling the milk raw at their farm gate in Okoia.

John Hart singled out Mangarara Station and Blue Duck Station as outstanding examples of sustainable farming.

There's the living proof that small, diverse farms can provide livelihoods, prevent environmental degradation and generate more income per hectare than conventionally-run farms.

As for townies, we need to get out and vote, damn it. Because as long as we can't be bothered, or our votes can be cheaply bought by pork-barrel promises to put a few extra dollars in our pocket, we'll continue being governed by those driving this country to environmental ruin.

R K Rose is a Whanganui writer and gardener. Sources and more information at www.facebook.com/rachelrose.writer