COMMENT:

Secretary of Agriculture for the United States Department of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, has a T-shirt bearing the legend: Farming, the art of losing money while working 400 hours a month to feed people who think that you are trying to kill them.

The author of the message, farmer Cam Houle, later added that farming was hard, but that farmers "get to choose how they spend their time and lives to support ourselves and our families. We get to focus on our craft and happily remain ignorant of every other ordeal that others have to live through on a daily basis in order for our world to go round."

He went on to suggest that people who don't love what they are doing should get out.

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In New Zealand that does appear to be happening. Farms are for sale and land price is falling. The Real Estate Institute of New Zealand report for the year to August indicated an 18.5 per cent decrease in median price per hectare for dairy, 8.4 per cent decrease for finishing farms and 10.5 per cent decrease for grazing farms.

Decreased prices indicate a depressed market and fewer purchasers.

This is the fundamental problem in agriculture - the dire shortage of people who want to work on farms and replace the current ageing generation of owners.

Post-school training numbers in the agriculture category have decreased substantially over the last few years leaving institutions in financial strife. At the degree level, number have decreased from 265 to 195 over the last couple of years. Within the 2000 graduates of the 'business and management' category in 2017 (latest data), the sub-category of 'farm management and agribusiness' had only 40 graduates.

Although not all current farm owners and workers have degrees, the proportion of school leavers continuing to tertiary education is far greater than it was last century and farming has become far more technical.

It takes brains as well as inclination to run a multi-million-dollar business sustainably, remembering that sustainability requires protecting the environment, economic viability and social licence to operate.

Cam Houle said that it is hard.

Few farmers would disagree and this appears to be affecting the career choices of the young.

Parents generally want their children to have a better life than, or at least as good as, they've had. In 2014 the Harris Poll investigated whether American parents would discourage or encourage their children in a particular profession.

Over 87 per cent of parents would encourage a child to become an architect, nurse, scientist, doctor or engineer (which topped the list with 93 per cent support). The teaching, accounting and firefighting professions achieved over 76 per cent support. Farming managed only 58 per cent. The flip-side is that 42 per cent of parents would discourage their children from following food production as a career path.

The Harris Poll also checks prestige – and in 2014, doctors topped the list with a score of 88 per cent 'net prestige'. Farmers achieved a score of only 45 per cent, a considerable drop from 61 per cent in 2008.

Prestige has been eroded and mental health issues for farmers have appeared in many developed countries. On top of financial pressures, the fight for the social licence to operate has taken a toll. New Zealand professionals have voiced their concerns about the suicide rate in the rural sector, and organisations such as FarmStrong are evidence of the need for support.

This need has increased with ongoing negative media coverage and the advent of social media allowing personal attacks. It doesn't take long on Google to find that farmers have received messages stating the world would be better off without them. There are also attacks about the environmental effect of farming.

Why would any parent want their children to have to endure what they have experienced over the last few years?

If New Zealanders want New Zealand farms to stay in New Zealand hands, and be managed by bright and capable New Zealanders who understand the inter-dependency in the soil-plant-animal-environment continuum and the effect on the economy, farmers must regain prestige: we need food several times a day and we want that food to have been produced sustainably.

Farmer Cam Houle wrote that "We're all blindly following our own path, and so busy living our lives that we do not consider those around us. That knife cuts both ways. I think we should strive to fix that problem. We all should, whether we are farmers or not."

Seems like good advice.

- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth has a PhD in Soil Science and has been analysing the interaction between agriculture, the environment and society for several decades. She taught agricultural and environmental students at various Universities for over 30 years.