Allan Barber hopes that with other immediate priorities, farmers may be left to get on with farming and growing food to supply New Zealand and international consumers

Allan Barber hopes that with other immediate priorities, farmers may be left to get on with farming and growing food to supply New Zealand and international consumers

My last few columns have dealt with the potential impact of Covid-19 on world trade, exports to China and meat processors, but suddenly in the last two weeks the virus has become the main factor in our lives. What was previously just a growing concern has, with alarming speed, destabilised the whole global economy with no certainty about how or when, even whether, it will revert to normal.

On the personal front, little more than two weeks ago the annual Warkworth A&P Show which I chair was cancelled, closely following the Prime Minister’s announcement of a ban on mass gatherings. A planned holiday in Morocco and Portugal in September won’t happen this year and, with the uncertainty about timeframes for a vaccine, border restrictions and the survival of airlines, may not happen at all.

Less than a week after the scheduled date for the cancelled Show, the country was in lockdown, which at least put the rest of the country on the same level of restrictions as over 70s who had already been told to stay home. While I understand the need for older people to protect themselves, both in their own and the general interest, as a fit and healthy over 70, I find it more than a little irritating to be treated as if I’m infirm, especially since five days earlier I would have been jointly responsible for putting on a large community event.

This would have been the 153rd time the A&P Show has been held, with previous cancellations only occurring during the two world wars and infrequently because of rain. The planning for this year can be transferred to 2021 when hopefully we will be able to go ahead without problem. With what appears in retrospect to be remarkable foresight, I had already told the A&P committee I would retire after next year’s Show, little realising at the time this year wouldn’t happen.

Since lockdown began, my wife Vanessa, our two dogs and I (our bubble) have settled into a routine which involves longer than usual walks, fertilising the vegetable garden and planting seedlings which need regular watering in the still drought affected north, phoning children, grandchildren and friends, much reading and listening to the radio, interspersed with music or silence when the news gets too repetitive and depressing. This morning, magically, we were caught in a downpour while out walking the dogs, but there’s no sign of the drought breaking in the foreseeable future. Walking round our village and at low tide on the estuary, we can practise legitimate distant socialising with friends who are doing the same, so lockdown hasn’t entirely removed human contact.

We have been successful in restricting our shopping trips to a minimum, although I’m on the horns of a dilemma, whether to stay at home as required by my age or avoid overloading the local supermarkets’ online ordering capacity. We can now devote plenty of time to planning and preparing gourmet meals to entertain and sustain us, although it doesn’t pay to include cauliflower on the menu, now costing as much as $15. I was lucky enough to place an online order with our local butcher who thought he could supply during the lockdown, but suddenly had to fulfil the first week’s orders for immediate collection before midnight on the Wednesday.

A big advantage of being forced to stay at home has been the chance to do relatively little without a sense of guilt; it’s amazing how easy it is to get swept up in a whole range of trivial commitments which have suddenly disappeared in these extraordinary times. The diary has emptied of real appointments which have been only partly replaced by virtual arrangements like an online doctor’s call to renew a prescription.

There is a big contrast between the expanded time available for personal activities and the speed at which world and national events are moving. Another massive contrast is how the pandemic has crowded out other news and government priorities. Murders, car crashes, me too and Harry and Meghan are no longer plastered over websites and newspapers. It’s tempting to hope farmers may be left to get on with farming and growing food to supply New Zealand and international consumers instead of being bludgeoned by the constant imposition of environmental regulation.

This might of course only be a short blip before everything returns to normal. But it’s possible this pandemic may bring the world to its senses and put the brakes on what had become unbridled consumerism, making people less intent on growth whatever the cost. In a more restrained post Covid-19 world, sports may be restricted to their seasons, pollution may not return to previous extremes and agriculture will still be seen as a crucial contributor to the global economy.

In New Zealand at least, the population may come to the grudging realisation agriculture remains the one truly sustainable foundation of our past, present and future prosperity. We would be stuffed without it!


Current schedule and saleyard prices are available in the right-hand menu of the Rural section of this website. This article was first pubilshed in Farmers Weekly. It is here with permission.

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27 Comments

"It’s tempting to hope farmers may be left to get on with farming and growing food to supply New Zealand and international consumers instead of being bludgeoned by the constant imposition of environmental regulation."

But two factors tend to downplay this entirely understandable hope:

  1. There is gonna be New Taxes to repay the startling debt we are running up to tide us through, and yes, Environmental taxes may well be part of this.
  2. Short-memory syndrome: while there is temporary recognition of the part farmers and the Food Supply Chain play, there are plenty of commenters even on this august site who seem eager to keep putting the boot in. And the Election is not all that far away.....where all that bile may well come out in emergent and unexpected ways.

I too hope for a better, more relaxed future, with greater understanding all round. But there's this pesky thing called Human Nature.....

The aftermath is absolutely unknowable at this stage .
In fact, there could be a flight to de-globalization and to national self-sufficiency in food production if not straight away then in the longer term.
And the thousands of the possible unemployed may mean the reversion to a peasant-like economy with thousands working small plots of land just to keep them occupied in something useful to give them a little dignity and avoid social upheaval. Existing farmers may be required to contribute a modest share of their land for such purposes.

Yes we live in hope of some sanity returning to this world! There are too many humans on board this little ship called Earth - mother nature has a way of controlling this.

The shaded glasses will come back onto the urban population and the pollution they produce will return....... none of them will see this and start blaming the farmers once again! I say we should tighten up our supply of food to the locals and look after our offshore customers - lets see how the townies react then!!
The only way I see the environmental rules working is that weve got to demand higher prices to cover the lower production we will produce - anybody know how to do this?

Those fresh food producers, backed by another larger than OZ largest Bank conglomerate. But yea sadly, with the backing of certain factions in this world, mostly the majority of OZ/NZ banks were all just happy to loan the fund into wealth ponzi scheme of Real Estate/properties. May be? there'll be change of hearts soon, as this Covid19 proof that country true wealth/strength is actually as good as it's healthcare system strength. More loan into local PPE productions? local science/engineering R&D? - World is not just about a greed consumption, if China can start to change it's traditional delicacy appetite?, then why not? to channel the banks loan to others than RE? - Here's the link of changes that could inspire... the change ahead:
https://www.msn.com/en-nz/news/world/china-signals-end-to-dog-meat-consu...

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The Green Party and its fellow travellers have the biggest problem at present. As someone else has described it on this site, their Great Satan, farming, is the only thing keeping us afloat, and the virus has done all their work for them. Carbon emissions must be crashing world wide, but if the Greens were to advocate for a permanent state of lockdown they would be tarred and feathered and laughed out of town.

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Is the danger not that we rush back to where we were and so, yes the pressures on production will return.
It is a difficult scenario to address - meat and dairy were facing serious social pressures two months ago and now these sectors are being seen as the leaders in the economic revival. The pressures will return and the industry needs to take these on-board. I really think the pasture based meat systems are easier to defend when compared to the grain-based diets in other parts. consumers will always want meat. However, the intensive dairy sector is flawed economically and environmentally. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, but now is the time for the dairy sector to take the bull by the horns and look to address these issues; how to this is less straight forward.

The international perception of NZ as a clean green safe and reliable primary producer has certainly diminished this century mainly due to the negative publicity of environmental impact, rather than the product itself although the dairy set backs in China and France have hardly helped either. However the world generally is presently looking at NZ rather kindly, rose tinted yes, because the handling of CV19 has been acclaimed virtually from here to eternity and this is underpinned by the undeniable popularity and recognition of our PM on the world stage. Brand New Zealand now has a certain opportunity one would think, to reinvent and re-project itself and go forward accordingly. Make hay while the sun shines in other words.

Rabobank price predicted $5.60 next season I recall difficulty farmers experienced under $6.00 a few years ago if this comes to pass our heavily leveraged farming sector may be vulnerable. In downturns usually most commodities including food get heavily discounted .

Only a fraction of farms are heavily indebted - they certainly make the headlines. But there are many dairy farms with break-evens in the $4's, so they just soldier right on. Things like no bought-in feed, low debt, good relationships with sensible banks, and a keen eye on accrual-basis accounts. No magic involved.

Indeed the PM is globally held in high esteem and many of NZs significant markets don’t have significant environmental concerns over production methods. These pressures come from within and the rural / urban divide will reappear as the dust settles. Ignoring these concerns given the current turmoil would be easy to do, but maybe not the best longer term approach.

The social pressures that you refer to have largely been drummed up by the Green movement and its fellow travellers as they have attempted to establish politically a point of difference between themselves and other parties that are more sympathetic to business in general and agriculture in particular. They wanted to see farming brought low because, as they were busy telling the electorate, it was the main source of carbon emissions. But now carbon emissions are nose diving due mainly to the cessation of non-essential activities, but farming is carrying on as an essential activity. My point is that it will be hard for the Green movement to bring to bear the same pressure going forward that they have been able to do thus far.

Interesting points - so you are happy to sacrifice the aviation and tourism industries that have been wiped out by Covid restrictions?
What happens when these industries try to re-emerge post lockdown?
That's my point - it will be a rush back to the norm and the norm doesn't work.
The pressure on agricultural production will return, maybe not tomorrow, but it will.
See comments below - now is a great opportunity for agriculture to embrace change and address the issues head on.
That would really blow the 'green' arguments out of the water!

The problem with spending all your time on the farm and away from the rest of society is that one develops the high risk of becoming ignorant of mega trends in the wider society. There is nothing currently sustainable about nearly any aspect of NZ agriculture, never has been and unless dramatic changes occur, never will be. Like it or not our economy is centred on the consumer, not the producer. Of late, the rise of the ethically concious consumer is an enormous threat to agriculture in NZ and its outdated methods. They are turned off by sights such as cows inhumanely kept in knee deep mud during winter grazing or bobby calves taken from their mothers at an early age. Effluent discharge and freshwater pollution....unforgiveable. Then there is exploitation of workers on farms and orchards...still a thing. Consumers are very switched on these days, they aren't gullible, they can see everything and analyse everything at the click of a smartphone screen. The bad stories that continually stream out of the ag scene spread like wildfire in this digital age and agriculture NZ needs to switch on to that fact fast...and stop trying to justify its ongoing environmental, ethical and animal husbandry failures when it really out to be trying to change as fast as possible before the growing numbers of ethically conciencious consumers pivot away to better suppliers.

Stay well in your little bubble 4th estate. Sounds like lock down may be negatively affecting your stress levels.

Very happy bubble here, is that lamentable contribution the best you can do?

4th Estate - your uneducated comments about the rural sector are far from the truth! Your no doubt sitting in your little bubble while the farmers are out there earning export income which is more than can be said about most kiwi's.

You ARE grumpy as your name suggests. But let me ask you, whats your point? There is always more than one side to any story and the writer of the article is in my view taking a very one sided view and misses the facts completely that farming needs to move with the times and be the best most responsible industry it can be. I suppose you're a tail snapper?

Hi there 4th, yes farming needs to up its game in certain areas. However there is another view. That is us farmers looking at those that live in towns and cities. The truth...we are pretty revolted by you guys. (Possibly more than you are revolted by us)
Merely the air in towns and cities is ghastly. Its wonderful to get home and smell clean air. The rivers and beaches around urban areas are filthy. I am told a lot of beaches in auckland are unswimmable.
The appearance of many humans in towns is frightening. Diabetic obese heart attacks waiting to happen. Clearly missing the magic of vitamin d.
I wont ramble on. But you get the picture 4th Estate. As much as you think of us as hayseeds, we think of you as alien weirdos far removed from anything remotely natural.

Just advise, if you need to move out the liquid funds right now from heavily leveraged Banks with RE loan book? one of best bet is to move it to agri banks, just don't put it in TD. We still need fresh produce to consume, rather than over valuations piece of RE. Here's where NZ got fundamentally wrong the past 25years of neo-liberal moves, it's okay to move your plastic based production off shore, but the primary produce? - sure, it needs advanced sustainable management.. but it means need funds isn't it? - move it off shore too? same like our rubbish? - that's another neo-liberal easy approach. Hence, where do we export our rubbish? also.. who convince the whole planet to move more than 50% of world garlic production to China, line them up.. you shall see the 'actors/actress' that being paid handsomely within ruling elites worldwide.. they opened their mouth to crush down the local practices (rather than fixing it).. then 'outsource' it from 'overseas' cheaply.. (silently, at the planet cost) - It seems planet now have couple bullets of it's own; Covid-19, soon to be a different strain, Then it's just stop. Hopefully different approach worldwide.. 2023. Globalisation is intended for true collaboration, fair exchanges/bartering of everything, not something that being hi-jacked by individualistic ruling elites of each nations, shifting out to 'cheaper production zone', shifting/moving out debts, then announced the overrated own self nationhood.. as an established.. Finance, Insurance, Real Estate economy.

It could be argued a lot of the economic failings affecting NZ in the neoliberal era is simply down to lack of conciencuous leadership in this country. Our governments have made term after term of disasterous decisions. Neoliberalism OUGHT to have worked far better for NZ than it has in reality. Take exporting rubbish for example. That only happens because of the failure of government to lead the country in dealing with our waste. It would be very easy to deal with our relatively small waste stream if our leaders actually bothered to do something about it 10 years or so ago. Speaking of leadership, the current lot in the beehive might not be my cup of tea but I have seen more spine, courage and leadership from them than the previous 30 years combined. Leadership....its a thing!

Sigh - we are starting to get this " leave me alone" from a lot of agri comments. Reading a lot of other agri market reports customers, those people who actually pay us not the stock agent, meat works or Fonterra - are now more than ever focused on Safe, healthy, sustainable and traceable food. This crisis is a real opportunity for NZ Inc to really get into branding us as something different. This wont be the same old same old. Its not about tipping the baby out - in fact many of the changes are not that great to achieve this and will be done over time and now is the time as the Government is likely to want to hand out money to achieve this. Just wanting everyone to go away and stop annoying me is wasting an opportunity and will backfire as after this change will come quicker than ever. Seen the sky's above big cities - blue sky, Pollution levels way down. Imagine having to live in a clean environment - now wouldn't that be a change for the better if we could work towards less pollution going into the air but business still functioning.

yeah, as usual the primary sector is going in precisely the opposite direction to that which their market is headed and they wonder why the sector is relatively impoverished... Questionable sector leadership not withstanding, what do you think is the root of this disonnance?

I think its a combination of things
1. Change - no one likes change and for many this is very hard to accept or understand. I think every sector has this.
2. Status - farming once was the only real industry in NZ but its shrinking, as is all primary industry, as a % of GDP in the economy - this is scary to a sector that once was the kings of the country - why arent we revered as the top dog so to say. Don't get me wrong its still very important and could still be a star for NZ. Many farmers don't think like this and are making the move.
3. Complexity - life/business is far more complex for everyone. Many farmers really struggle to comprehend this and take it on board - not all by any stretch but I have found the vocal ones are the ones that struggle the most.
4. Transparency - everything can be seen today - you cant hide from Google earth, social media etc etc. Whether we like it our not we are measured, and sometimes unfairly, but thats life and unless we can demonstrate what the customer wants someone else will - look at the British Farmers Union - they are going for Carbon neutrality - yes the National Farmers Union, there fed Farmers - they have the customer on there doorstep but realise they have to move or else they are going to loose those customers.
Its also scary when the capital gain model stops - as it has at present - you cant defy basic economics and this is catching up along with demographic changes in NZ.
Im actually very positive about ag in NZ and believe in the end economic and customer reality will force the change and it will come out stronger for it

Thats a really well reasoned comment, made my day!

NZ public & current govt, would love to watch this - during the lock-down period:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGrBCtOt4Qs

https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL1507/S00101/the-fire-economy-new-zeala...