Comment: Reducing stock numbers and increasing legislation is not the way to empower farmers - or attract newcomers to the sector, writes Dr Jacqueline Rowarth.

People hearing the media coverage of farmers under stress can be forgiven for wondering why the farmers are so worried.

After all, they have been told repeatedly that they can reduce their environmental impact by reducing stock numbers, and that doing so will increase farm profitability as well.

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It is true that some farmers can do what has been suggested. The gradual destocking of hill country since the removal of subsidies supports the belief.

Whether any more destocking, (including from dairy), will have the same effect is questionable.

Research based on farms in the upper Waikato catchment showed that a return on assets could be maintained with a decreased stocking rate.

However, a return on assets is not the same thing as profitability and the value of the farm assets in the time before and after the change in stocking rate was not clear.

Devaluing of land makes it easier to show a return.

Landcorp (New Zealand's largest farmer and trading as Pāmu) devalued its 122 farms by almost $47 million this year, posted a deficit of $11 million and made no returns to shareholders.

For most, farmers, reducing stock numbers would render their business unviable; they wouldn't have enough product to sell to cover their costs.

To suggest that they haven't thought every day about how to improve their business, about what changes they can make that will improve economics and environment, and haven't discussed the possibilities with their bankers, accountants, vets and farm advisors, is to do them a disservice.

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Farmers are under stress because they're running out of options.

Some of them are running out of hope.

Listen to Andy Thompson's interview with Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:

Statements at the beginning of November indicating 'farmers doing it tough' and 'ringing up in tears', indicate the magnitude of the problem.

Even worse is the report that the suicide rate has increased in rural areas by 20 per cent.

Organisations like Farmstrong and the relatively newly formed Ag Proud, are doing sterling work in trying to mitigate the effects of stress in rural areas, but the causes of the problems need addressing.

Several factors are at play and the tipping point has been the increasing legislation around farming with no guarantees that what is being proposed in the greenhouse gas and water reforms will achieve the vision.

The science is in dispute, and models are being used to predict effects – the combination in some cases has a fifty-fifty chance of 'working'.

Toss a coin and it will or won't. This is quite a gamble for the economy.

Modelling from various NGOs and levy bodies has indicated an economic impact of the reforms from 'negligible' to '$6 billion by 2050'.

Ask individual farmers and the answer is personal.

A 6 per cent decrease in stocking rate will destroy the businesses I oversee.

Which staff do I lay off – the ones with young children? The ones who have served a lifetime but are now arthritic? Or the ones trying to build up equity to buy a farm?

And how can I work even longer hours safely?

Of considerable concern is that many see no future on family farms for their children.

Audits, compliance and paperwork have removed the satisfaction in their work, as well as the 'meaning'. The things that they are being asked to do are adding effort and time but no value to the output.

They no longer want their children to come back to the farm.

The Government has acknowledged that we have a problem in attracting New Zealand youth into the primary sector and launched the new approach to education at the end of October.

But unless we can sort out the attraction of the actual work and allow farmers to have work that is both meaningful and rewarded, the education initiatives, good as they might seem, will be to no avail.

The social value of food, and the efforts involved in production, need recognition in order for the young to feel that careers in the primary sector are worthwhile.

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied
Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied

When farmers won't admit to being farmers, it is hardly surprising that their children don't want to follow in their footsteps.

The frustration for farmers remains that there are many ways of approaching the environmental issues and many have already been putting them into practice.

They are now able to show that their GHG, nitrogen and phosphorus use efficiency (that is, the amount of product per unit of GHG produced or nutrient applied) is greater than most of the rest of the world can achieve.

It is also true that our waterways mostly rate highly. The Waikato, for instance, was described as a 'good' river by the Ministry for the Environment spokesman at the Freshwater Reform meeting at Mystery Creek in September. Furthermore, from 'good', progress towards better was commended.

Minister Damien O'Connor has promoted the concept of environmental integrity to enable better returns on our products.

'Green' can become the new 'gold'. Brand, however, requires national backing.

Professor David Reibstein, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has stated that any country that wants to improve its brand must offer a superior quality of life, with a high degree of cleanliness and safety, and a progressive business environment.

He recommended that efforts be directed internally, 'because people's perceptions of their country affect how it is perceived internationally'. In the Nation Branding Rankings for 2019, New Zealand was 12th.

It is difficult to see how quality of life, particularly in rural areas, will improve if agriculture declines.

Most countries subsidise their farmers to prevent the creation of zombie towns. (Current predictions for Brexit are that UK net farmer profit will fall by more than half over the next decade in the absence of support…).

New Zealand farmers don't generally want to be subsidised, they want to be able to look after their land and animals and, like their parents before them, do an even better job.

What they need is not ambulances but empowerment.

The Fresh Water Reforms could be the path to assistance, but an urgent redesign is required to create the vibrant primary sector that rural dwellers want and New Zealand needs.

- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth is a soil scientist and a farmer-elected director for DairyNZ and Ravensdown.
Where to get help:
Rural Support Trust: 0800 787 254
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.