I can remember a time not so long ago when more than 70 per cent of the country loved our dairy farmers, but it feels like things have changed in recent times. Farmers are doing their best to stay "relentlessly positive" in the face of relentless criticism, but it's not easy.
Some commentators are quick to stand back and fire shots at farmers from a distance, but what does that actually achieve? It's easy to criticise our dairy sector in the New York Times.
Our dairy farmers, in a country of almost 5 million people, provide high-quality nutrition to meet the recommended daily intake for 20 times that number across the globe.
It's much harder to voluntarily put in fencing at your own cost that almost runs the
equivalent of New Zealand to New York and back - but that's exactly what our dairy farmers have done.
New Zealand dairy farmers have fenced off 24,744km of waterways. That means
that 97.5 per cent of the significant waterways on New Zealand dairy farms are now excluded from dairy cattle. We have also constructed bridges and culverts for more than 99.7 per cent of 44,386 regular stock crossing points on dairy farms.
Farmer confidence is currently at its lowest level in a decade. It is incredibly sobering to
think that the last time farmers felt this deflated was in 2009 as the Global Financial Crisis
started to bite. This is despite prices being relatively high, interest rates hitting record lows, and comparatively mild weather.
Farmers, by the very nature of their job, tend to live in remote places. Their business is at the mercy of the weather and global commodity prices, both of which are entirely out of their control. But lately, they have had a lot more to deal with. There is no single person, policy or company which is responsible for this knock to confidence. It is the culmination of a number of unique factors all converging on the sector at once.
In a relatively short time period, the sector has faced New Zealand's largest biosecurity incursion M. bovis, banks becoming more conservative in their lending conditions, and a suite of government policies which will likely impact on farm production and the cost of doing business. There is also uncertainty across global markets with Brexit, Trump and China trading threats, and more.
I love the dairy sector and am enormously proud its agile nature and how we continue to adapt. Our dairy farmers, in a country of almost 5 million people, provide high-quality nutrition to meet the recommended daily intake for 20 times that number across the globe.
We are the most emissions-efficient producers of dairy in the world, have some of the lowest usages of water, and are making significant and fundamental differences to the way they farm in order to look after their animals, land and waterways. That's something every New Zealander can be proud of.
I often wonder if people realise that the dairy sector accounts for 28 per cent of New Zealand exports. We sell our world-class nutrition to the world and that brings in the dollars we need to sustain our rural communities and the wider economy. The challenge for everyone is that when farmers don't have confidence, they close their wallets. When farmers close their wallets, shops on the main streets of towns like Morrinsville, Masterton and Invercargill start to feel the pinch. The old adage that when the dairy sector sneezes, New Zealand catches a cold, still rings true.
There isn't a lot of fat in the dairy sector at the moment with the break-even price rising 8c to $5.95/kg milksolids produced in the 2018-19 season just finished. When half a percentage point increase in bank margins represents $20,000 extra cost to the average dairy farm or about 12.5c/kg milksolids, you can see why many farmers are feeling uneasy.
The reality is farmers are out there every day making real and positive environmental changes. Our farmers are part of New Zealand's history and they will be part of New Zealand's future. Like all New Zealanders, we want to have rivers we are confident to swim in. We want to mitigate and adapt to climate change. This is why environmental
stewardship is our first commitment under our pan-sector strategy - Dairy Tomorrow.
We aren't the only part of the problem, but we can be part of the solution.
Of course, there is always more to be done – but we are on the journey. Making progress and changing the practices that were once the norm takes time. If we continue to tell our story loudly and proudly, I have no doubt that New Zealanders will rediscover their love for our world-leading dairy farmers and be proud to have an economy that relies on the land.
• Tim Mackle is chief executive of Dairy NZ and has a PhD in animal, food and nutritional sciences from Cornell University, New York