If the speech summary of Federated Farmers President Katie Milne is anything to go by, the farming lobby group needs a bit of radical thinking. Ms Milne effectively laid down a challenge to the government to allow land use to continue as before. No change. “This is what we do. There is no other way.” All our past senseless Lincoln-borne industrial maximise-production mediocrity, where each failure is rationalised using selected metrics as justification to stay on the treadmill.
Katie Milne’s rhetoric was wrapped up in clichés of “certainty,” “properly thought through,” “solid evidence,” “sound analysis” and “the business of farming.” Many of us bridle at those so-often poorly thought through, unsound and empty phrases. And life isn’t certain. We can either delude ourselves that it is and strive to develop some soulless machine of perfect fragility – or we build those capacities that make us resilient within our communities, enterprises and farm landscapes. Resilient to inevitable change; the drought, the flood, the fertiliser price leap, the commodity price crash.
Resilience and scope are the new paradigms, replacing fragile commodity and the delusion of factory scale efficiencies.
Her comments that the government’s recent decision not to permit mining on DoC land as “a surprise announcement and policy made on the hoof,” beggars belief. If that comes as a surprise, so I would presume will be the next drought.
The currently prevalent view dominating all the discussion within land use is to make us all cogs of course; all ‘efficient’ producers of lots and lots of cheap stuff on bigger and bigger land holdings run like corporate businesses, processed though large centralised factories, to “feed the world.” And, naturally, without having to worry about things like water pollution, climate change or the effects of those trends on community and local economy. The mechanical construct will support the delusion of certainty.
Let the treadmill keep spinning, ever faster. Never think of getting off.
Where does “evidence-based” fit within that particular model? There is no ‘objective’ framework outside a particular worldview, a paradigm gold fish bowl where the fish don’t see the water within which they swim. If Katie Milne’s comments are anything to go on, Federated Farmers are still very much in the economies of scale, cheap production paradigm dominated by corporate and colonial thought. With all land rightfully open to extractive practices — including DoC – so never mind building creativity and realising a world where healthy commerce, community and environment can co-exist.
Federated Farmers need to change their water. The stagnant backwater of thought over which they preside is part of the reason their membership is dropping. They do not represent the viewpoints of all farmers, for which we ought to be eternally grateful.
Their corporate view of farming is a culture in crisis. It isn’t working. We face vulnerabilities in our markets and our business structures because discerning markets want safe, quality food. Our farms are aggregating, farm families are leaving, real prices are in long-term decline, our large processors lack imagination, we marginalise the ‘scope’ within our landscape systems, the potential of our marketing structures, the creativity of our people and the value potential of our processing chains. A focus on scale ‘efficiencies’ destroys our potential to reduce costs, increase enterprise options and provide the market narrative to dictate a premium price.
In the light of our potential future, Ms Milne’s comments that “there are very limited mitigation measures farmers could take,” is very far off the mark. Let us be specific. A farm can mitigate green house gases by reducing energy inputs particularly of nitrogenous fertilisers – many of which are at levels far above optimum profit and risk – and by building soils, establishing wetlands and adding woodlands. We can do this for climate change and make more profit and lower risks and lower costs and increase enterprise potential and enhance the environment and provide the narrative for market premiums. Think scope, not scale. Think systems, not machines. Think knowledge intensive, not energy intensive. Think soil systems, not hydroponics.
Of course, many will see that as “not what we do,” perhaps even a bit hippy or greenie.
And that is the problem. New ideas that fundamentally challenge the structure of that faith in the “feed the world ever cheaper” mythology, with all its wariness of a tree or a wetland spoiling the monochromatic symmetry of grass, are marginalised.
It is not the potential within our agricultural landscapes and enterprises that is limiting, it is the dominant mindset within land use that we must only think and act as we have always done.
Accepting a little uncertainty would go a long way.
Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural communities and land use strategy.
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