Farming’s unfashionable, but there’s a simple fix to make it sexy

There are huge gains to be made in pastoral farming productivity if the average performers started doing what the top 25% do according to MAF in its Briefing to Incoming Ministers.

That would increase exports by $3 billion a year, just using existing knowledge.

Now, as MAF sees it, we’re missing considerable opportunities. The report says “The problem arises from a complex mix of capabilities, infrastructure, investment, incentives and social factors across a broad range of industry participants.”

If this is shorthand for the fact that average age of sheep and beef farmers is now 58 and rising (see here), and, those very same farmers have continually pushed up the price of land beyond its actual productive value, then MAF’s dead right. Indeed, there’s a demographic time bomb – and as the ANZ bank says in the above article, we’ve lost a generation.

One thing that the MAF BIM doesn’t mention, and to be fair it is probably a bridge too far for a bureaucrat, is that farming ain’t sexy.

This is in spite of the fact that the range of skills – biological, financial, management, (increasingly) IT – that need to be cleverly combined to turn a profit from the land, this and agriculture’s wider story doesn’t resonate with the general public nor with young people.

There is one simple reason.

Farming, the way we do it, doesn’t have a name.

That is, we take sunshine, soil and fresh air and make wonderful protein products. We work in harmony with nature, using all the skills mentioned above, and generally, sustainably, make fantastic raw materials that become desirable food and fibre.

While those in the agriculture industry may be aware of this wider ecosystem approach, others, including overseas consumers, haven’t a clue.

And, as design guru Dorenda Britten says, “you can’t buy into something until you name it.”

New Zealand agriculture’s key comparative advantage is its understanding and utilisation of pastoral production systems. This fantastic transformation of solar energy, the utter underpinning of our economy, is formless and vague.

To the vast majority of Kiwi’s, though agriculture’s stolid, it’s about as sexy as dirt.

But when you realise that once overseas consumers are aware of how NZ produces the majority of its milk, meat and fibre, they are immediately converts to what is effectively “the way you’d farm if you farmed yourself.”

New Zealand Inc needs to wake up to the fact that our farming is much more that a way to produce food. Standing back and looking at big picture, we’re a conceptual ideal.

However, until we name (which is the same as branding) our system, the issues identified by MAF won’t have a hope in hell of being resolved.

Until we own our story (and a brand is merely shorthand for the story) there will be nothing for young people to buy into – or to even consider the possibility of being able to have a fulfilling life by making money by using land wisely.

Now, this may be an innovative leap that a production-oriented mindset finds difficult to conceive.

Nevertheless, to be part and parcel of a modern consumer and young person’s mind we need to reconceive our agriculture as being as much of an ‘experience’ rather than as an item that somehow ends up on your plate.

As soon as we name/brand what we do, we provide ourselves with an entirely different future.


About sticknz

sticK is by Peter Kerr, a writer for hire. I have a broad science and technology background and interest, with an original degree in agricultural science. My writing speciality is making the complex understandable. I am available for outside consultancy work, and for general discussions of converting a good idea into something positive
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3 Responses to Farming’s unfashionable, but there’s a simple fix to make it sexy

  1. Hebe says:

    A prominent Vet said that if he was going to buy a herd of cows, he would buy them off my father because he said, “we spend every week at times of the year trying to keep cows alive on these “so-called” top farms. Your Dad has been farming 60 years and it is rare he needs to call us”. Many top farms are quickly in trouble in droughts and cold snaps; and rely heavily on off-farm grazing, purchased grains, hay, silage and maize to keep them going. MAF might be better to put more effort into Biosecurity than making sweeping claims about farming potential.

  2. linbug says:

    Yes this makes sense. Since when is it the Governments role to run our businesses/farms for us? Keeping the likes of Foot and Mouth disease out of the country is something they have done very successfully for who knows how many years now. Drop the ball on that one and see what happens to your 3 billion dollars!

  3. Farmers are by nature and occupation independent individuals, each farm is different in size, location, soil type, and climate each requiring individual management systems. I guess to try to improve productivity we could nationalize our farms and have experts run them – but I think they may have tried that in Russia with mixed results. There is no single “best way” to run our seventy thousand odd farms, as Hebe intimates. We may not have the best or most productive farming systems but like democracy most of the alternatives are probably worse.

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