By Anders Crofoot*
Imagine if the mainstream media presented as fact, that cancer could be beaten by eating broccoli and tomato sauce?
The medical community would round on this as quackery and the Press Council would be flooded with complaints.
Of course, this is a silly analogy for when it comes to matters medical or even criminal, the media is on-guard.
That guard seemingly slips when it comes to matters agricultural, where opinions, statements and belief systems face little critical challenge.
As a farming leader, I have often been called for comment when the story seemingly has already been written; all to provide it with “balance.”
At other times, marketing hype is taken as gospel by the media and even some politicians creating problems for farmers. This was rammed home to me by a senior Opposition MP.
After rounding on Federated Farmers over the “One Plan,” he was apparently asked by a member of the rural media where he had sourced his information from and the answer I was told was the Dominion Post.
Yet it was two different media pieces within farming that made me think hard about this.
The first was a Country Calendar story on a dairy farmer who had gone from conventional farming to a more holistic system. When his farm consultant used a refractometer alarm bells rang for me.
A refractometer is used in the wine industry to measure the amount of sugar in grapes to determine the ideal harvest time. The problem is that unless you are planning to ferment grass, there is no evidence the amount of sugar in grass means anything useful. Grass sugar levels vary dramatically with temperature and even the time of day and make up only a very small part of its nutritional value.
If you eat a balanced meal, does a teaspoon of sugar add anything unless you are Mary Poppins? During Country Calendar it showed the sample’s preparation with the voiceover saying how the sample showed good consistency. This preparation consisted of taking some grass, rolling it into a ball and then squeezing it through a garlic press. Logically, the consistency had more to do with the moisture content of the grass and its preparation, than its nutritional value.
Country Calendar however gave the impression there was something objective and scientific going on.
Now I fully respect the farmer’s right to farm how that person sees fit, but what he is doing is more akin to belief than measurable fact.
So why does this cause problems for farmers? At first glance it seems scientific; we have a tool with a long name and measurements being recorded. To a lay person, it is reasonable to think this approach is great and to demand to know why more farmers aren’t doing the same.
This is the problem because there was no evidence it worked.
If you produce fewer goods at a lower cost then it may be profitable on a pure percentage basis.
Yet if your overall profit declines it may not be such a good outcome; especially if you are early into your career and paying off the mortgage.
Farming is complex and is influenced by terrain, soil, rainfall, stocking mix and economics. One system does not suit all, but in putting it on a pedestal, the expectation spreads and can create unrealistic policy assumptions.
Another 2012 example of what I mean came from the kiwifruit industry’s struggle with the PSA disease. A RadioNZ interview I heard had someone promoting their product with the claim Italy had overcome PSA thanks to it.
The problem is that Zespri has evaluated over 500 special products and none have produced a repeatable, reliable positive effect. While many ‘solutions’ taint the fruit, all the layperson hears in the marketing hype is a solution; they cannot understand why the industry isn’t adopting it to help itself out.
The software industry, in which I used to work, has a wonderful expression, “eating your own dogfood”. Do those who plug these products use them? Perhaps that doesn’t matter because the media, politicians and regulators hear these claims and has them asking why farmers aren’t using miracle solutions.
Everyone, except those who pay for them, forget that what counts are repeatable and concrete trial results each and every time.
This is why uncritical media coverage creates problems.
In the pursuit of a story, uncommon practices and hype are presented with equal weight giving the impression they are equally viable. Without qualification, this understandably has non-farmers asking why farmers don’t use them.
Marketing hype is perhaps the greater problem because it seeps into the heads of regulators and politicians looking for a solution.
For me, as a farmer, I do not wish to incur costs unless I know it will benefit our farm and the environment.
Just because it is printed doesn’t mean it is true.
Just because someone says it, doesn’t mean it is so.
Just because we see something doesn’t mean we should believe it.
Demand evidence before making decisions or publishing claims. This is why the media need to retain a healthy scepticism to claims, the same one it seems to show towards farmers.
Anders Crofoot is a Federated Farmers National Board member who farms Castlepoint Station in the Wairarapa, which was 2012 Wairarapa Farm Business of the Year. You can contect him here » or 06 372 6465, 027 426 5324