Farmers used to be our heroes, living simple, wholesome outdoor lives.

We thought they were staunch, bonded to their land across generations, brave and strong.

They produced the steaks, chops, roasts and cream we loved, and earned most of New Zealand's export dollars.

Some were wealthy and established, pillars of the local community, their houses overlooking those of their staff, their children going to solid and expensive private schools.

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The times they are a-changin'.

There's a counter-current flowing, largely pushed along by the advance of dairying with its monster milking sheds and herds; and news stories about polluted waterways.

It doesn't help the farmers' image that their business is increasingly corporate. Farms are getting bigger; farmers own more than one farm, or several farms are owned by investors who employ managers.

Farming is now agribusiness, with rural professionals who are advisers and lenders. Some dairy farms have to employ staff from other countries because New Zealanders don't want to do the milking.

Today, the stereotypical farmer could be an environmental vandal, polluting water, changing habitats, erasing landmarks for his or her profit and convenience.

Our erstwhile heroes are feeling this keenly. Last year, two of my good dairy farming contacts each separately said they felt unfairly targeted.

They're not the only ones. At every farming forum at least one person will ask how farmers can possibly get the message out - the message about all their good work and good intentions.

To make matters worse, farmers are beset by change.

They are expected to keep waterways clean, put trees back on hills and reduce the methane their animals burp. They are also told they need to be ever more efficient, producing more with fewer environmental effects.

Buffeted by global economic winds, they have to weather dramatic fluctuations in commodity prices.

Added to that, there's climate change - fiercer heat, harder rain, floods, droughts and storms.

So maybe we no longer always admire what farmers do ... but we can spare a thought for the difficulties and uncertainties they face.