Pressures on farming from policy uncertainty is rising and generating anxiety in rural communities. Funding mental health support is a bottom-of-the-cliff approach, allowing policymakers to ignore their responsibility

Pressures on farming from policy uncertainty is rising and generating anxiety in rural communities. Funding mental health support is a bottom-of-the-cliff approach, allowing policymakers to ignore their responsibility

Mental Health Awareness Week highlights how important this area is for our farming communities. It is something that needs constant attention.

What is really encouraging is that farmers are in many cases are getting better at reaching out and seeking support.

In this episode, Marina Shearer provides some good tools and strategies to help people who might be struggling with their mental health. Suicide rates are higher in rural areas at 16 per 100,000 people compared with 11.2 in cities according to Statistics NZ. This data should be alarming to all.

Some urban people think farmers are big whales sitting on the land smoking role-your-own cigarettes with $100 bills, which is of course completely inaccurate. But sadly many many farmers think Wellington policymakers think this and have no realistic understanding of how important the sector is and what the mechanics are of a farming business - or they simply don’t care as their voter support is found in urban biases.

The reality is, farmers work their backsides off. They have much higher debt levels than previous generations, and margins are constantly under pressure. Land is finite, and as our urban encroachment from our cities grow, this constantly chips away at good productive farm land, this then puts upward pressure on land prices.

 

Cameron Henderson mentioned that one of the biggest issues is the unknown around policy and its bewildering changes, and that creates anxiety and stresses for farmers. Creating unnecessary stress, then offering mental health support is a cheap way of policymaking.

Sustainability is a word often used, but also abused. But it is vital human sustainability is recognised too..

I would encourage anyone needing support to reach out Marina Shearer from Profile Coaching or The Rural Support Trust. Farming is the backbone of our nation; let’s not break it.


Angus Kebbell is the Producer at Tailwind Media. You can contact him here.

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35 Comments

In my opinion, farmers know how to farm sustainably - that is, with minimal impact on the environment and in a way that is humane to the animals they are raising.

Farmers also know when they cannot farm profitably whilst also farming sustainably. And hence the anxiety and depression.

My idea to resolve this issue would be to establish a Rural Wellbeing Bank. It takes over the highly indebted, unsustainable farm loans from the private sector banks. It then works with the farmer/owner to reduce debt through debt forgiveness in concert with the implementation of sustainability actions on farm.

Such actions would include for example;

De-stocking;
Retiring marginal land and re-establishing wetlands on farm;
Reductions in supplementary feed;
Reductions in fertiliser use;
Improvement in income diversity;
Improvement in biodiversity.

Such debt forgiveness carries on until such time as an acceptable level of ROI/profitability is restored. Once that is achieved a caveat is placed on the land title setting out the sustainability parameters such that land-use intensification cannot be pursued in the future.

But how do you insulate farming from the massive amounts of debt/money that are flowing around looking for a home as interest rates continue to slide?

If you mean how do we protect farmers from predatory lenders?

Easy!

Provide them with an alternative. Hence, the Rural Wellbeing Bank or similar.

I'm talking about the bidding up of land values though. So 2 local farmers are going to use some rural bank to access some funding to buy the neighbouring block, but the third farmer outbids them with some funding sourced from elsewhere. Then what?

So if debt is the problem how does providing another line of credit fix it? Perhaps the answer is let someone else have a go, they may bring in another perspective and new ideas. Often a change brings success not only for the new but also to the departing.

The only farmers able to use the Rural Wellbeing Bank are those struggling with their current profitability due to high debt. Once they have transferred the debt/loan to the rural bank and undertaken the sustainability initiatives for which debt is written off (i.e., payment of ecosystem services) and returned to profitability, the land title is caveated such that intensification cannot occur on that property going forward.

It is similar to caveats currently used under the Building Act for properties in high hazard zones. The assumption being that subsequent resale value is not a speculative one (based on increased exploitation of the land/environment), but one based on the value of the return on farming the land sustainably.

Your scenario is still a possibility but unlikely a retain bank would lend a predatory-type amount based on a speculative venture/return given the caveat in place.

Kate some with high debt are there because of their inadequate management of either farm or financial systems. I would hate to see every failing farmer being bailed out.

As long as change for good forever is the outcome for the land farmed, I'm happy for the government to pay for that healing process.

No one will agree to those conditions on their land, and will make it virtually unsaleable.

So they sell up or become subject to a mortgagee sale if they don't want the land caveated as a result of a debt forgiveness program.

But, I think you are wrong on no one wanting such a caveat placed on their land. Not all farmer/owners are farming for capital gain - just as not all homeowners are. I think (hope) many simply love the profession and the lifestyle - and the ability it provides to put food on the table and live comfortably, but not indulgently.

Kate, did you even listen to Cam Henderson in the interview? You are well off the mark with the cause of anxiety and depression, which is among the highest it has ever being, especially among young farmers.

An example of land use intensification from an environmental point of view, could include changing from livestock farming to vegetable growing. Be careful what you wish for.

As the article points out, "Cameron Henderson mentioned that one of the biggest issues is the unknown around policy and its bewildering changes, and that creates anxiety and stresses for farmers."

But there is no unknown - the policy is what the policy is. Ask me any question and I'll look at the legislation and regulation and tell you what is. The Zero Carbon Act; the new NPS-FM; Regional and District Plan rules. These regulatory documents are clear and known. What is unknown is whether a new government will roll back these new laws and regulations or not. So, effectively it is the opposition to change which is causing the stress, or generating/creating a false unknown.

I hardly need to be careful about wanting to restore healthy ecosystems. That [be careful what you wish for] is a classic excuse/myth/meme promoted by those who refuse to accept change is needed. Vegetable growers have responsibilities under the regulation as well (unless exempted - which never should have happened and exemptions would not be needed if we had more diversification on all agricultural land).

The real unknown here is the people who are stuck in the mud along with their suffering animals. When will they move on? That's the big question/unknown.

As per this farmer -

Patterson, an Otago sheep and beef farmer, said farmers were innovators and they would handle the new paradigm “for the reasons that we have to”.

“Our challenge is to take farmers with us and raise that level of confidence,” he said.

https://www.newsroom.co.nz/play-for-rural-vote-causing-harmful-divisions

You have no idea what you are talking about Kate in either an implementation or practical sense. First of all the farmers are not opposing change per se. Just badly written (in haste) policy that will be impossible to implement. We all want to see clean rivers, beaches etc.
Yes you can read the legislation, so can I, but that is not the point. The point is that some of it is totally impractical from an implementation point of view, so while you read the words and think you know what they mean (theory), a farmer reads the words and knows what it means for them in their farming context (in practice). The difference is huge. Even those that wrote it only saw the theory, appear to be now realising they don't understand the practical context of what they have written, especially in regards to winter grazing. The government is now aware if this and to quote your link "This has seen the Government forced to walk back some of its new winter grazing requirements from its flagship freshwater policy, as Labour treads lightly in an effort not to further inflame tensions."
More vegetable growers have gained exemptions - again it was policy written in haste. If you wanted to restore healthy eco systems, commercial vegetable growing is not how you would be asking to do it.

Yes, I do know the difference is huge - and so it must be.

As far as winter grazing is concerned, that is weakness on the part of the government, not weakness in the policy. And that goes for exemptions for vegetable growers as well.

Watch "Kiss the Ground" - just released on Netflix. Regenerative agriculture is the only way to go. It means less animals per hectare, greater crop biodiversity and hence no need for supplementary feed or winters in mud. To call the current practice 'winter grazing' is a joke - there's no grazing at all going on in that practice.

Watch it. Your grandchildren and their children are depending on it/you.

I have watched Kiss the Ground which is also about regenerative farming - in the USA - and on it the rancher states they can now run 3.5 times the stock they could before. They also said they have increased their soil carbon to 50, the average in NZ is 90 with a range of 30 -300.
I spoke to a regenerative farmer in our catchment, who is usually the most strident environmentalist in the catchment. We farm in a sensitive catchment - and they said they are going to increase their stocking rate! At an Otago uni ag symposium last year, they had a panel of regen farmers, of whom a surprising number said they were going to increase their stocking rate. So regen does not necessarily equate to lower stocking rates. Also all the farmers use supplementary feed - for some it was hay or balage, for some it was intensive winter grazing on pasture. Do not confuse USA farming practice with NZ.

Note if there was no grazing going on in intensive winter grazing in NZ all the stock would be dead. ;-)

So Kate, we have high soil carbon, heaps of earthworms, use multi species pasture seeds, practice selective no till, rotationally graze, only use grass, silage and baleage - we don't buy feed from anyone, and have been commended for our on farm biodiversity, so in your mind are we regenerative farmers?
Edit: Despite the above, probably not in your mind, because we also use winter crop - in small mobs of 80-90 cows.

Sorry to interrupt but this is the point - there is no one "Right" system - break feeding can work if done in the right place in the right way. As long as you can control sediment runoff, animals can get out of wet areas - that always occur because it does rain - etc. I personally think most NZ farmers do it right and are getting better - we just need to realise that in some places its gone to far and needs to be pulled back.

Exactly my point.

No Kate that is not your point. In your comment further up you said regenerative farming is the only way to go. We are not regenerative farmers - if we are then so are most of the farmers in our area - which is the point Dr Doug Edmeades makes. We do not need a label. Farming evolves.

I think it was Doug Edmeades that made the point that regeneration/regenerative farming is a continuum. And I agree - some farms have evolved further than others toward a more sustainable production system. But the point is - others have gone too far the other way, predominantly due to intensification on land which presently is in a state that is totally unsuited to such intensification (and perhaps never will be suited). It would be hard to argue with the fact that in many cases we have taken intensification too far and need to pull back (i.e., regenerate/restore ecological balance).

Yes, all those methods/practices you are following are regenerative principles. And why would you be surprised that once a thriving ecosystem is restored, one can increase stocking rates. As per the documentary, animals are an integral part of a regenerative system.

If everyone was farming like you are, we wouldn't have articles/discussions like this - unless of course, the issue is debt. Debt, I suspect stifles change, prevents conversion to good practice. The farmer appearing in the first election debate got it right - how are we to farm both profitably and sustainably. That is where my interest lies. Neither of the two candidates for PM offered anything concrete in order to realise that objective. Collins pretty much said it is impossible - so just forget sustainability and go for profitability. Ardern pointed out that is not what farmers want - they want both.

So what about the water quality then Kate? Increasing stocking rates can affect water quality, especially e-coli. When comparing agricultural land uses, sheep and beef farming and dairy farming contribute similar E.coli loadings into waterways, despite the typically much higher stocking rates in dairy farms.....Studies have found 5 sheep/ha can deliver up to 10 times the loading of E.coli/ha, compared with dairy cattle grazing at 3 cows/ha. https://beeflambnz.com/compliance/environment/dung-and-waterways So our catchment strident environmentalist regen farmer will be farming at more than 5.5sheep/ha and we farm at less than 3 cows/ha. Who is potentially contributing most to water quality degradation given N is not an issue?

I'm guessing there are more than just your farm and your regen farmers farm in your catchment. I don't need to explain that, you know better than me that If N is not a problem but E.coli still is, you need to be looking at drains (where the land surrounding should probably be converted back to wetlands), feedpads, fencing of natural streams and rivers, and riparian planting in the catchment. And you likely have other knowledge about why E.coli is a persistent poorly performing catchment-wide indicator.

Wildfowl......

Really could do with changing the report comment. Sorry.

We need to stop this Rural vs Urban stuff - its not a picnic living in an urban setting trying to buy a house, keep a job or run a small business. We all live on 1 world and all face stresses and strains. Change is happening all around us at an ever increasing pace and its bloody hard in todays world were people have been, through encouragement or need, leveraged themselves up too high and returns have dropped be it a farm or house in a town and wages dropping. Farmers work bloody hard but so do people in town on wages (and in Govt department as Public servants) or in small businesses. How about everyone just having some empathy, respect and care for all people and stop bagging other "groups". Stop forecasting death and destruction with every little change that in the end a lot of which is driven by markets outside anyone in NZ control - just read the comments from trade negotiators - if we don't do some things we are in more trouble as a small island at the last bus stop before Antartica.

Yes, we have to solve the outgoings-to-income problem across the board (urban and rural) and for the nation as a whole in a way that restores and heals nature.

Dairy is heavy in 'business within a business' models. Contract based and percentage positions, No employment perks like annual leave, or minimum wage requirements in these positions, or requirement to take any rostered days off. Complicated by the huge hours 4am starts and late finishs. Not uncommon for there to be little to no profit for the contractor if there a surge in costs or drop in milk payout, or the dairy farmer has simply done their figures wrong. Same applies for the owner operators. Theres on farm work level issues that makes farmers question if they can do any more jobs because they are already tapped out.
Are they keen to farm sustainably, yes.

Add in the mix a price taker model and covering farm costs that will increase each year it can get a bit tight. Long as the dairy money flows straight into the economy its all good though ?. Wont get young guys coming into agriculture though.

From these comments it seems the industry itself needs to have a hard look at the model it operates on maybe. Nearly all primary producers in NZ are price takers serviced by some entities that can just increase costs annually - it is what it is and theres always the choice of doing something else I suppose.

It is land prices falling that is more the challenge currently than land prices rising. Along with the likes of Fonterra share price tracking steadily downwards meaning dairy farmers especially are losing equity at a staggering rate.
Combined with government and RBNZ rules saying that farming is a high risk industry and making it more costly for farmers to borrow money while the rest of the population enjoy interest rates quickly falling below 2.5%.
This is all part of a rebalancing that probably needed to happen as land prices have been largely unsustainable for a while now, but that make it no less painful for people who currently own farms.

Just a farmer you can add to that farmers have had flat incomes for 10 odd years and rising costs plus government piling on regulation it’s no surprise farmers are down beat

I think this is the crux of the problem - besides all the reg stuff returns are falling versus costs anyway. This isn't anyone's "fault" but through increasing intensification, land values ie debt and costs up etc many are caught in a vice with no easy way out. Its a very difficult position and when combined with ageing farm owners and inability or reluctance of children to take it over there is huge stress. The next 10 to 20 years are going to be very interesting as baby boomer farmers want/need to leave the farm - who takes it on in a flat return, no capital gain situation. I no a couple of very good farmers who are selling the farm now. None of the family want it as they cant see enough return and as the parents own it now say to me all the neighbours have grey hair as well and most have the same issues with family not keen or unable to pay out siblings and still have Christmas as a wider family. They are selling now to beat the rush of land to the market - their words.

There is a way out. I outlined it above. The principle is called payment for ecosystem services.

I agree with you - what child would want to take over an unsustainable enterprise from both a profitability and ecosystem perspective?

But, convert those barren landscapes to thriving, healthy, profitable ecosystems and every kid would want to live there.

"thriving, healthy, profitable" - any two.....

Ye of little faith, waymad :-).

https://kisstheground.com/