KPMG’s global head of agribusiness, Ian Proudfoot, reports morale in NZ’s farming industries has slumped over the past year, with industry leaders struggling under the pressure.
“We could sense anger during our conversations, particularly in relation to the labour shortages the sector faces”.
Proudfoot is the author of the KPMG “Agribusiness Agenda” , delivered at a breakfast session at the opening day of the Fieldays, billed as the largest agricultural event in the southern hemisphere.
He believes NZ’s role in a global “food renaissance” could be hampered by Covid-19 fatigue and sweeping regulatory changes.
That presents a huge challenge for any government – particularly one that has been perceived to be no friend to farmers. Yet Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern put on a bold front when she and several of her ministers appeared at Mystery Creek.
Only a cynic would suspect she sees an opportunity to sustain the strength of Labour’s resurgent vote among rural communities at the last election.
The government, she says, is
“ … really grateful for the role the primary sector has played in NZ’s COVID recovery, and is continuing to play as we look to further strengthen and accelerate that recovery. I want to acknowledge the efforts of our primary industries in keeping New Zealand’s export revenues flowing in. Their hard work has helped us all hugely in hard times.
“We’ve had a strong performance in the headwinds of the past 12 months and the outlook is positive, but we recognise that significant challenges lie ahead.
“The government has always said we’ll work in partnership with farmers. That’s what we’ve been doing to date, and it’s what we’ll continue to do.”
How far that will strike a chord across the wider farming community is uncertain. As Proudfoot discovered in his conversations with farming leaders, it seemed he
“ … had been talking to people who were primarily focussed on finding the strength to fight another day, rather than the energised leaders of previous years”.
He noted the pace of regulatory change has been greater than in recent years.
“Each new rule brings new compliance and reporting requirements and often requires changes to core systems… in addition, the Climate Change Commission’s final advice on farming has also presented pressure on the sector to do its part, or even do the heavy lifting for NZ”.
Whether ministers empathise with this is far from clear. The demands made on farmers by the Ardern government are severe, not just on climate change, but through its waters reforms, and also its penalties through the feebate scheme for motor vehicles.
Meanwhile Ardern sails blithely on. Announcements being made by her ministers at the Fieldays event include co-funding for a new project aimed at helping farmers improve freshwater quality, an update on “our great work together” as part of the Fit for a Better World Roadmap, a rural connectivity milestone, and the release of the Situation Outlook for Primary Industries, which she expects will show the sector is in a strong position to drive prosperity for all Kiwis over the next few years.
Ardern listed as examples of work the government had done with the sector:
- Co-investing in innovative projects through the Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures Fund (MPI is providing $111m of a total $250m invested)
- He Waka Eke Noa to support farmers and growers manage on-farm emissions
- Funding catchment groups to improve on-farm practices
- Supporting Rural Support Trusts and community hubs to help rural communities
- Developing an integrated farm planning framework with the sector, supported by $37 million in Budget 2021
- Agricultural greenhouse gas mitigation research and development, supported by $24 million in Budget 2021
- Pursuing free trade agreements with the United Kingdom and Europe, and signing our FTA upgrade with China
- Backing sector training programmes, such as GoDairy, and attracting more than 5200 Kiwis to sector jobs through initiatives like the Opportunity Grows Here campaign
- The mycoplasma bovis eradication programme
- Providing spaces for RSE, dairy workers and vets to enter NZ while border restrictions are in place for COVID-19
- Significant investments in rural schools and health.
It remains to be seen whether this will soothe an industry which – as Proudfoot pointed out – is working under extreme pressure.
Given there is a global food renaissance happening right now, the government should be placing a priority on expanding farm investment and production, rather than culling cattle numbers. It needs to ensure there is a plentiful supply of labour to fulfil rural needs.
And it should be taking aboard the simple request, in Proudfoot’s survey from agribusiness leaders:
“Please ensure that work is co-ordinated across agencies so that consultation occurs and regulations are drafted in a way that reduces the burden on executive time”.
Still, those attending Fieldays may welcome the presence of ministers, some of whom they may have never seen before, and any further announcements they might have.
PM Ardern, along with her backroom strategists, will have their sights set on longer- term objectives as they seek to cultivate the rural communities. They may have convinced themselves that as they get to grips with climate change, they are pulling away the Green Party’s main platform—and if the Green Party’s vote falls away, so does the support Labour will need in the MMP environment to continue governing.
Point of Order suspects the farmers themselves will not be persuaded that a Labour government has turned over a new leaf, and now identifies itself as a party which can draw in other rural votes.