Comment: Dr Jacqueline Rowarth looks at the positives for farming that seem set to come out of the Covid-19 crisis.

"And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, 'I need a caretaker'. So God made a farmer".

This is the opening of American radio broadcaster Paul Harvey's speech to the Future Farmers of America Convention in 1978. The speech was then used by Dodge in their two-minute advertisement for Ram Trucks that ran during the fourth quarter of the 2013 Super Bowl.

A quick Google and Harvey's words and the video of the advertisement appear. The words are moving, even 40 years on and even without a crisis.

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Right now, they have particular poignancy.

Future implications of lockdown

The world is remembering that food is one of the basic necessities of life. Everything from production to the consumer, which involves growing, processing, transport, marketing and selling… it is all essential and people in the essential businesses are staying in employment through the lockdown that has occurred in countries fighting Covid-19.

This has implications for the future.

The young want salary, status and security.

The list might not be very different from that of previous generations, but with more choice in careers, and reduced status in some of the traditional occupations, food production has not fared well, particularly in the aspect of status, often measured as "prestige".

The Harris Poll has tracked changes over the years. The medical profession (doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians, veterinarians) continue to fare well, as do police officers and firefighters. The top 10 also include scientists, engineers and architects.

Farmers are in the bottom 10 of the careers polled. They are at the top of the bottom (which includes politicians, web designers, real estate brokers and PR consultants) but only 50 per cent of respondents regarded farmers as having prestige, in contrast to the 90 per cent who regard doctors as having prestige.

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Of importance is that different generations have different perceptions. Over-70-year-olds regard farmers as having more prestige than people in their mid-50s to late 60s do. Many of the over-70-year olds experienced food rationing.

Only 42 per cent of Generation X (40 to mid-50s, the generation that has been influencing the generation joining the workforce) regard farmers as having prestige. This is half of the prestige accorded to doctors. Food rationing had very little influence on this group, but doctors maintain an important role in answering health questions.

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

Parents as influencers

For this generation on the land, the experience of increasingly negative media reports has had a significant effect.

Parents have considerable influence on the career decisions their children make, as do teachers and friends.

Google is important at the information gathering stage, but when it comes to students making key decisions about which route to follow, research in the UK indicates that over 80 per cent of students say that their parents and guardians were important.

Over 60 per cent say that parents had the most influence, whereas less than 30 per cent thought that teachers and career advisers were key.

Of course, parents might be teachers and vice versa. They will be noticing what has happened through Covid-19 and seeing which groups of professions make the difference.

They will also be looking at money.

The benefits of farming

The comment has already been made in the media that some of our most essential businesses are associated with low wages. This is true of some tasks in agriculture and horticulture, but not all.

Starting salaries are higher than average from whatever stage one leaves education (Ministry of Education data), and in the higher education brackets, agri-industry salaries increase faster than average with time.

Federated Farmers' surveys show each year that on-farm average incomes are higher than those achieved in urban environments. Of course, hours worked might be longer, but the benefits of family and firewood, plus housing and commuting distance, should never be overlooked.

They are frequently in comparisons when the focus is on money, particularly when the young are already in the workforce.

A report from Manpower Group made the Millennial requirements clear.

The top five priorities when looking for a job were money (92 per cent of all respondents had "money" in their top five), security (87 per cent), holidays and time off (86 per cent), great people (80 per cent) and flexible working (79 per cent).

In the future, people will be regarding the "security" aspect somewhat differently from in the recent past. Essential businesses have been secure and in some cases are taking on people who were in non-essential businesses.

Prestige remains important in career choices because, with money, it affects children early in their career decisions. So it is significant that those who have experienced food shortages regard farmers as having more prestige than those who haven't.

The indications are that everybody will be regarding food producers more positively than in the recent past. This is good for all those in the food production industries.

- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth CNZM CRSNZ HFNZIAHS has worked with university students and graduates for 40 years. The analysis and conclusions above are her own.