Over the Gate
Monday, 20 July 2009
Ian Walker is the chairman of Farmers of New Zealand Inc., a national advocacy organisation representing farmers, small block lifestylers, rural people, and those with the rural community of New Zealand at heart.
| Ian Walker. |
Rural Living – How do you see things ahead for the rural community given the current economic climate?
Ian Walker – The rural community will be affected to an extent by the downturn in commodity prices particularly for dairy. However, apart from high debt levels some dairy farmers have taken on, the debt burden and investment losses in rural areas are less than their urban counterparts. Provincial areas hardest hit are areas dominated by the retired reliant on investment income. Many have lost capital due to finance company failures.
The drive for increased wealth by chasing capital gain through property purchases rather than income and productivity was not as prevalent in rural communities with the exception of coastal property and the dairy industry. A significant portion of that money came from high spending urban investors so many rural communities were the beneficiaries of inward investment. In some communities this inward flow has allowed local businesses to diversify or reinvest in their businesses so are now better able to manage the current economic situation.
In addition, a drop in dairy payout does not mean that local communities are directly affected as the majority of spending cuts will be areas that have minimal impact such as fertiliser. The bulk of this spending would normally flow out of communities and not enter the local economy. Whereas an increased use of lime as an alternative is normally sourced and spread locally and therefore the benefits stay local.
In general, shopping is not a recreational hobby as it has become in large urban areas so the drop in spending patterns are not so pronounced. While retail in Auckland is well down in some quarters similar businesses in rural areas are currently holding and some have experienced slight growth.
RL – How do you see the growth of the lifestyle block in New Zealand?
IW – Lifestyle blocks are a direct feature of poor urban planning. Local government, in its attempt to reduce urban spread, has restricted land subdivision areas. Many people like the idea of a rural aspect but few really want 4ha of land. The turnover of lifestyle blocks is high because people struggle to manage an area too small for stock and too large to manage as a domestic section.
New Zealand has less than 2% of its total land area in urban subdivision and has three times the norm in conservation estate or bush remnants. Our population is not likely to increase above 5 million people so managing land as if we live in New York or London is silly.
Government, both local and central, are big promoters of smart growth, or what I like to describe as dense thinking. They want to increase the density of housing in urban areas and make rural expansion less attractive. They believe by forcing people into more intensive urban living will reduce transport congestion, increase public transport use, and be better for the environment. Most of this thinking is not supported by the facts or international experience.
Rural areas should be able to subdivide off small half-acre sections so people can enjoy the rural aspect without having the burden of managing land they really do not want. While we impose questionable restrictions on land use I suspect lifestyle blocks will continue and, because we are artificially restricting land supply, prices will remain artificially high.
RL – Farmers – especially dairy farmers – seem to be accused of being responsible for everything from global warming to the rising cost of living. Do you think this is accurate or fair? How can we change this view?
IW – It’s a complete nonsense and is based on various groups competing for resource use rather than on solid scientific fact. If we look at global warming first I would be described derogatively as a skeptic or denier because I hold a view that differs from the current political view.
First I acknowledge that global anthropological emissions have increased and also that methane is a greenhouse gas. However, the science or in this instance mathematical models that determine our impact on global climate change is far from certain. The argument that New Zealand has a high per capita emission due to farming is more likely to be argued from a trade barrier standpoint than from science.
This is a very large complex subject that cannot be explained in a few hundred words. Domestic animal husbandry in New Zealand is ‘climate neutral’. Why? Because all the CO2 emitted by forage digestion and respiration is captured from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.
Therefore, not a single CO2 molecule is added additionally to the atmosphere that had not been there before. Makes sense doesn’t it? In the United States farmers are being offered climate credits if they manage their farms on grass production and use rotational grazing techniques. In New Zealand where this type of animal husbandry was invented we are about to tax our farmers.
Another undisputed fact is the methane concentration has stabilised or even passed its peak at the beginning of this century and this infers just as much methane is being oxidised in the atmosphere as is added to the air. The resulting CO2 is re-captured by photosynthesis and the cycle of life continues. Therefore animal borne methane forms part of a natural cycle, and not a single methane molecule is added additionally to the atmosphere by rumen fermentation. To state that New Zealand has high per capita climate gas emissions because of agriculture is fallacious and any competent government and a competent industry would expose the claim for what it is – nonsense.
Even greater argument is the results from the European satellite ENVISAT that for the last three years has measured the world-wide close-to-the-surface-methane-concentrations. Methane is low in high cattle producing areas. How can the big grazing areas of the world (Australia, Southern Latin America, South and East Africa, and Western United States with hundreds of millions of cattle) and even India with the highest cattle density worldwide show such low methane concentrations? It is because animal emissions are not the issue.
So there is definitely no need at all to be concerned about our livestock’s emissions. We won’t save the planet by attempting to find ways for our cattle to emit less methane. It’s time farming in New Zealand started to defend itself from the scientific and political nonsense. It is also time that the New Zealand government started to consider the welfare of New Zealand and its people rather than playing international politics with the Europeans and Americans who are very quick to subsidise their farming industry.
In actual fact rather than vilifying our farming industry we have a very green story to tell.
With regard to cost of living the actual opposite is true. Consumers only react negatively when retail prices climb. The fact is farmers because of low returns statistically work the longest weekly hours of any occupation in New Zealand. They work not only long hours but often in trying conditions that most would not even contemplate. Apart from the recent milk price spike that did not last most dairy farms have been making a slight loss and living off equity. The average farmer works more than 60 hours per week for less than the minimum wage.
The reason farmers get extremely poor media is our industry groups are very poor at presenting our side of the equation. The industry needs to inform the public much more effectively and act proactively rather react in a defensive mode against often ignorant and ill-informed comment.
RL – What is the one thing you do everyday to help the planet?
IW – Increase our knowledge and improve our management practices. Agriculture is the only industry in New Zealand that has been able to increase its productivity at 4% per annum – a growth rate required by all sectors of the economy if we ever expect to improve our economic position in the world.
There are many things farmers can still improve and as we understand more about the impact of farming and have the technology and skills to mitigate them the industry is implementing them. Far better than urban counterparts who turn a blind eye to their poor sewerage treatment systems, the weed infestations caused by introducing new species into domestic gardens, road and transport pollution and so forth.
Farmers live in the environment directly and have a direct relationship with sustainability issues. It affects their business and therefore their pockets. There is a very good story here if anybody is prepared to listen. Most are not.
RL – What is the most interesting book you have read recently and you would recommend to others?
IW – It’s been beaten up and written off as another off the wall Ian Wishart book and it has its issues but so does most of what the other side of the global warming debate talks about. Rather than listen to the 30 sec ramblings on television – Aircon: The seriously inconvenient truth about global warming by Ian Wishart along with Gareth Morgan’s ‘Hot Topic’ are both worth reading. If you have no time to read, try a very informative video on the subject I posted on the New Zealand Farmers website. http://netlist.co.nz/NZFarmers/NZF_Org/Global_Warming.cfm
RL – What three people would you invite to dinner if you could?
IW – No politicians. Robin Williams, the actor and comedian- because he would be fun and interesting. Prof. David Bellamy- because he is a great personality and a greenie with brains. Bill Gates- because he has been so successful and is prepared to spend his money to improve the world plus I like IT.
RL – Is New Zealand still the clean green haven it has traditionally been viewed as?
IW – Compared to many places in the world it certainly is but I have always found this brand position of ours more a definition of our smug selves than a viable long-term brand.
This is a brand that we can never live up to because the bar will continue to be raised if not by ourselves then our trading partners. It is also a position that can easily be eroded at no fault of our own.
We have made ourselves an easy target and if clean green is the only reason our products are bought around the world we should be very concerned. As an ex-brand marketer this position is as stupid as not protecting the brand ‘kiwifruit’.
While it may make us all feel all warm and fuzzy it is only viable because of our low industrialisation and small population. I believe this position says more about the New Zealand psyche than about selling exports.
RL – What is the most important thing lifestylers could do to help the environment?
IW – Understand that it is not some landscape painting but a production zone. There is no such beast as a natural environment or a balance of nature. It’s about management and sustainability and understanding the implications both positive and negative of what we do.
RL – What single aspect of civilisation would you change today?
IW – With our increasing knowledge it would be great if wisdom would grow at an equal pace. While we put men on the moon and manipulate genes we too often interact with each other as if it was still the 11th Century.