During the campaign in 2014 I attended a Southland Federated Farmers meeting in Invercargill and John Key happened to pop in and give an impromptu speech. Interestingly he had more to say about the Green Party than anything else. He told those present in blatant terms what he believed would happen to farming if the Greens got into Government and Russel Norman ever became the Finance Minister. He described slashed farm profits, stock being run off farms and unreasonable environmental regulations. More farmers heard about the Greens agriculture and economic policies from Key than from the Greens ourselves.
An older woman in a rural community told me bluntly that I shouldn't even try to campaign in her community because "farmers don't like the Greens". The billboards that I put up on my own property in the same community barely lasted a week before they were ripped off and completely removed apart from the little bits of corflute that remained connected to the screws (although I must add that our vote did double at the local polling booth, 4 votes to 8 votes).
The Greens didn't get into Government in 2014 and yet the very scenarios that Key predicted would happen under the Greens have happened anyway, slashed profits and many farmers desperately reducing stock numbers.
The question farmers should be asking now, leading into the next election, should be: What would have really happened to farming if the Greens had got into Government?
- Research and Development spending would have risen considerably and many farmers would have been able to take advantage of the tax credits for their own efforts to become more efficient and sustainable. There would have been Government support for developing innovative ideas to add value to what we produce so that our economy wasn't so dependent on commodity markets. Fonterra was reluctant to spend too much on R&D because it limited the immediate returns to its farmer shareholders. The extra $1 billion investment in R&D that the Greens proposed would have made a substantial difference to providing some alternatives for farmers now.
- Many within the industry criticised the Green Party's support for organics and any shift in that direction would have saved many farmers now. Fonterra short sightedly reduced it's support for organics and has now been forced to do an about turn as the international price for organic milk powder is now almost five times that of conventional milk powder. Under a Green Government we would have had many more farmers still receiving good prices for their milk and shifting to organic practices would have also reduced negative environmental impacts.
- 75% of our exports markets put a high value on our green credentials and the key point of difference for our dairy industry in global markets was its pasture base. Greater intensification and a focus on quantity over quality has meant that the industry shifted to a higher cost model that relied more on imported feed and fertilizer. $2 million tonnes of palm kernel (PKE) was imported last year from a source that is hugely environmentally damaging. The phosphate we import comes largely from the Western Sahara and we are one of the few countries that ignore the political ramifications of purchasing an illegally obtained resource. Not only does the phosphate come from a dodgy source, but its high cadmium content is slowly poisoning our soil. Under a Green Government we wouldn't have damaged our green credibility to this extent and dairy farming would have shifted to more sustainable practices. One of the reasons for the current financial pain is that the higher levels of externally sourced inputs (feed, fertilizer) has reduced the ability to absorb lower prices.
- Biodiversity is important to the Green Party and this makes economic sense as well. By supporting mixed farming models and encouraging biodiversity actually spreads risk and would enable farmers to more easily shift to more profitable areas. Our opposition to the introduction of GE to New Zealand agriculture is partly because most GE developments in agriculture supports herbicide and pesticide tolerant crops which leads to the destruction of biodiversity and the support of industrial style farming. The high use of pesticides and herbicides has health risks and also contributes to the destruction of useful species like bees that other industries are dependent on. While there are clearly medical and other potential benefits from GE research its use in agriculture has yet to produce benefits for New Zealand and our access to GE free markets is currently much more valuable. We would lose many of those markets if GE organisms were released into our farming environments.
- The Green Party's tax proposals, including a carbon tax, actually would have given SME's (including farms) more business certainty around taxation and encouraged greater investment into low carbon alternatives. Farmers would have been rewarded for sustainable practices and our economy as a whole would have been in a much stronger position to meet our Paris commitments. In reality the impact of fluctuating commodity prices would have greater effects on profitability than a carbon tax and the Green Party had planned to have a reduced carbon tax for farmers anyway.
- Farming is a far more sophisticated industry than ever before and greater investment in ICT would have had benefits for farmers as well. John Hart is high on the Green Party list and his farming and ICT background would have introduced useful knowledge into parliament. There are fewer MPs with farming backgrounds and the Green Party has many candidates that have business and farming experience. If the Greens had been in Government that expertise could have influenced all manner of legislation that would have had positive impacts on the farming industry.
- The Green Party has questioned the National Party's population based funding systems that have a negative impact on sparsely populated rural communities. Considering the value that our agricultural sector adds to our export income and domestic economy it doesn't make sense that the funding for rural roads has been reduced and the health services in rural communities have been cut. With the high level of suicides amongst farmers the cuts to mental health support does not make sense. We desperately need to retain experienced farmers within the industry and we have lost too many good people through lack of investment into caring for our more isolated communities.
- Our current education system is focused on literacy and numeracy and is less responsive to recognising and developing individual skills and talents. It is a pity that our advisors for science and technology have been sacked and the support for hands on practical learning has been reduced. The farming industry desperately needs a larger pool of local workers and farmers who have an interest and passion for the industry. We need our urban students to be exposed to working with plants and animals at a young age and understand the importance of producing food so that agriculture is seen a valuable and attractive vocational option. The Green Party's support of school gardens and Enviro Schools has real value for the future of farming in New Zealand.
- Fiscally responsible, evidence based policies are important to the Green Party and in the last election our policies were independently analysed for fiscal accuracy by Infometrics. This year Metiria Turei promoted the widely supported idea that Treasury should have the ability to independently cost all parties' policies so that voters can more easily compare the fiscal realities of their proposals. It is clear that this Government has not applied robust cost/benefit assessments to many of its major projects. The evidence of the Green Party's economic credibility is in its own fiscal management. We raised more money for the 2014 election campaign than Labour and manage to have a high impact in campaigns with modest expenditure. For the last two campaigns we have stuck to strict budgets and had minimal debt at the end without relying on large corporate donations.
National deserted it's rural farming base many years ago, there are very few in National's cabinet who have any connection to farming and yet rural communities continue to support the party against all evidence. Todd Barclay was a 23 year old ex tobacco company employee when he replaced the experienced Bill English in the Clutha Southland Electorate. His obvious inexperience and angry outbursts at campaign meetings did not reduce voter support for the National candidate and his performance since has been concerning. The fact that National put up such an inexperienced candidate in a safe National seat was also an indication of how much it takes the rural vote for granted.
The traditional loyalty to National as a responsible economic manager and farmer's friend needs some serious re-evaluation from rural communities. National ran a smart campaign in 2014 but governance should be more than slick PR. Policies and track records are actually important and the Green Party deserves more serious consideration if farming in New Zealand is to have a real future.