The Groundswell farmers have a set of seven demands, listed here.
Stuff have done an explainer of each of the issues they want addressed, and what it means for government policy and for our land, here.
They want the new freshwater policy scrapped.
They want the “ute tax” removed.
They want lots of imported labour for farm work.
They want parts of the emissions trading scheme dumped.
They want the new Significant Natural Area policy dumped.
They want the draft policy on indigenous biodiversity scrapped.
And they want the Crown Pastoral Land Reform Bill stopped.
Let’s see who turns up for this today, and whether it grows at all.
I thought I’d point out a few things in their favour, and then a few against them. Briefly.
New Zealand’s entire export economy depends on our dairy farmers doing really well. They don’t get thanks from anyone let alone government or townies, and actually they should. We have a world-leading position as sustainable pastoral food producers. Our pasture-based farming systems have lower greenhouse emissions than most of the meat and milk produced in the world. For dairy, emissions are an estimated 40% lower per litre than the global average. We have minimal use of machinery, cultivation, spraying, harvesting, processing, fodder transport, and subsequently removal of effluent. And our net emissions are lower still because grass removes carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere.
Dairy exports are the only reason New Zealand remains a first world country with first world public services.
Our national water quality sits in the top five on the Global Open Data Index. And before we frown at how long it takes our almond milk latte to arrive, we should also acknowledge that dairy farmers have a point that our cities have grossly mismanaged our wastewater systems. Witness Wellington, Dunedin, Christchurch, Havelock North, Auckland, and the rest over the last two years. That the government is proposing to simultaneously highly regulate rural water catchments while at the same time stripping them away from local and regional and indeed national control, simply underscores that farmers have reason to feel that the finger is being unreasonably pointed at them, rather than the powers above them.
New Zealand has allowed cheap imported labour to support dairy farmers for multiple decades. Multigenerational business models have been built on it. It is not unreasonable that farmers should protest that this has just been wiped out. Sure, soft-fingered shiny bums from the city churn their kids through university to run the interweb or whatever, but almost no encouragement whatsoever is given to careers in agriculture. So rely on willing foreign labour they must.
The question about the Crown Pastoral Land Reform Bill is important, when you cast off the blinkers that presume that the Department of Conservation is any good at its job. Almost no-one gifts land to the DoC estate, because DoC have been too shit at their statutory task for too long. The QE2 Trust now has over 190,000 hectares under protection and rapidly growing, in private hands, and it’s a fair argument whether these transfers have better conservation outcomes than DoC’s vast holdings.
Weirdly, the government has had plenty of recent opportunity to redirect Fonterra – the monolith – to do the landscape protection job that regional councils have failed to do. Fonterra farmers have nearly excluded all dairy cattle from waterways on their farms. It’s as close to 100% as is possible for permanent waterways and regular waterway crossings. Dairy farmers could reasonably argue that their farming practices are indeed directed by markets through the supplier agreements. Three of our biggest core public service entities – MFAT, MAF, and MBIE – are pretty much just subbies to NZ agricultural business, and they know where actual agricultural and business power really resides in this country: it ain’t with Ministers or farmers. It’s in the hands of less than a dozen Big Ag companies. So hey government, stop attacking farmers and start concentrating your attacks on corporate dairy manufacturers and exporters.
Ok a few points against the protesters.
Dairy has been really bad for our environment for a century, and it’s continuing to make this land worse. Doesn’t need Greenpeace to point that out. Ever since GATT we’ve had an explosion of dairy farms and dairy production. You won’t get any sympathy until you admit that fact.
The ute protest is a joke. The first dude in Masterton to get a Ford 150 will pull the girls faster than a flying gumboot. Every tradie knows that ute depreciation and travel costs are a key part of their tax efficiency and actual profitability every year. So every ute comes to an asset end, and buying the next one in whatever fuel use they arrive, is just another reason to keep that tax bill down every year.
It’s really not that hard to imagine a New Zealand where farming can clean up rivers, can tackle the climate crisis, and at the same time make sure every Kiwi has fresh healthy food. Except that there’s no will to have any imagination. Other than Tatua and a few tiny exceptions, farmer-owned dairy companies don’t pressure themselves to do more than churn out low value high bulk products. Farmers need to turn their rage to the corporations who enslave them to being commodity producers, ‘cos that’s where the real power is.
The Emission Trading Scheme is about as accommodating to farmers as it’s ever going to be. Suck it up farmers, like everyone else is. If farmers had an ounce of marketing sense they would have pressured Fonterra to dump its coal-fired milk dryers decades ago.
The political reality right now is that this government is so popular and the opposition so weak that Jacinda Ardern could probably fire a Browning hunting rifle down the mainstreet of Fielding and everyone would come out, nod, and presume she’d finally seen sense and gone into business with Clarke Gayford. There is literally nothing farmers will get out of this protest once the weekend news cycle finishes.
So in conclusion, thank the farmers, then ignore them.