Just when we thought we’d moved past the rhetoric of the ‘rural-urban divide’ it rears its head again. Laura Walters takes a look at this week’s flashpoint issue

“Farmers are feeling like they’re bagged all the time by this Government.”

During the TVNZ leaders’ debate, National Party leader Judith Collins was quick to jump on the opportunity to discuss what was one of the biggest flashpoints of the 2017 election: a perceived divide between the urban left, and the rural right.

In response, Ardern pointed out agriculture was the country’s biggest emitter, making up 48 percent of emissions. 

“I say that not for blame, I say it just because it’s reality.”

But Collins says the Labour-led Government did place the blame on farmers. She said the Government “demonised” farmers, that farmers were “treated like pariahs”. And speaking after the release of National’s agriculture policy, she questioned why Ardern “hated farmers so much”.

The National Party has made a strong pitch to the rural sector over the past week, taking advantage of cracks forming in the relationship between the primary production sector and the Government. 

Collins has promised far-reaching repeals and reviews of the Government’s flagship policies, including freshwater reforms, the Zero Carbon Act, and the inclusion of agriculture in the Emissions Trading Scheme.

Ardern said National’s plan was “backwards-looking” and “hugely disappointing”.

The Greens went further, with co-leader James Shaw saying the plan was “anti-science and anti-climate”.

The past week has shown the policy gap over climate and environment – as it relates to the primary production sector – is wide open.

And to a farming sector that says it’s being asked to do too much, too fast, with little acknowledgment for how much they’re already doing, Collins’ comments must sound appealing.

“Every farmer and every farmers’ family needs to know that that is valuable work – that’s the best we can do,” she said in her hometown of Matamata earlier this week.

“I will always stand up for farmers… that is worth gold, frankly,” she said.

But farmers, and some politicians, are warning against divisive rhetoric, which pits the urban left, against the rural right – especially at a time when farmers are struggling with mental health issues.

The last government came a long way in improving relations with farmers, but maybe not as far as they thought. Now Judith Collins is accusing the govermnment of regulating farmers “into oblivion”. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Three years ago, about 500 farmers protested in Ardern’s hometown of Morrinsville. They gathered with tractors and a giant fibreglass cow, holding signs saying things like: “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”. Another round of protests saw farmers march on Wellington.

The protests came off the back of comments from Labour and the Greens about “dirty dairying” and talk of “peak cow”. Relations were stretched further when Shane Jones called protesting farmers rednecks.

Since then, the left-wing Government has worked to build a relationship with the sector and build consensus for a raft of environmental reforms.

Ardern’s response to Collins’ comments in the TVNZ debate implied she thought the partnership was honest and genuine.

She referred to He Waka Ehe Noa, what Dairy NZ describes as a “ world-first partnership between the farming industry and government, aimed at building a framework to reduce agricultural emissions”.

But over the past month cracks have formed in the relationship, and there is again talk of protests and boycotts.

This has seen the Government forced to walk back some of its new winter grazing requirements from its flagship freshwater policy, as Labour treads lightly in an effort not to further inflame tensions.

While some politicians are using this particular culture war to their advantage in the lead-up to October 17, it’s the farmers who are stuck in the middle.

“Farmers have had a huge number of pressures coming at them at once whether that be drought, finances, or regular everyday things that impact all Kiwis.”

The question that led to Collins and Ardern discussing what’s been labelled the farmer confidence crisis, during the televised debate, came from Matamata dairy farmer Tracy Brown.

“We want to play our part in the recovery, but are feeling under pressure. How would you support farmers to farm both sustainably and profitably?”, Brown asked the pair.

Her question related to a recent Dairy NZ survey, which found 62 percent of farmers said they or someone on their farm had suffered mental wellness issues in the past 12 months.

And 60 percent of farmers saw changing government regulations as the biggest driver of mental health issues.  

“Farmers have had a huge number of pressures coming at them at once whether that be drought, finances, or regular everyday things that impact all Kiwis,” Brown said.

“After all – we’re all just people.”

The survey also found 64 percent of farmers expected their situation to decline over the next three years, while just 6 percent expected things to improve.

And more than 40 percent said regulatory changes were the number one issue impacting their profitability.

Farmers understood the need to constantly strive to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly, Brown said.

“But the targets need to be fair and realistic for farmers and at the moment they aren’t.”

Earlier this week Labour also released an agriculture policy, which aimed to relieve the regulatory burden and cost placed on farmers. And while it’s been acknowledged by farming groups as helpful, it hasn’t been held up with the same acclaim as the policies put out by National and ACT.

During the TVNZ debate, Jacinda Ardern said the idea there was a war between the urban left and the rural right was “a view of a world that has passed”. Photo: Getty Images

While farmers wanted regulation reviewed and to be listened to by whoever forms the next government, Brown said she wasn’t buying into any kind of culture war.

The past few years had seen an increased understanding between urban and rural communities, she said, adding that recognition of the part food producers played in the economy, and in working on improving sustainability, had grown further during Covid-19.

Brown’s position is backed up by a 2019 UMR survey, which found the majority of those in urban centres held positive attitudes towards farmers and farming. 

And more recent surveying found perceptions of dairy farmers continued to improve.

In a recent online debate, James Shaw and New Zealand First’s Mark Patterson both warned against politicians stoking the divisive rhetoric

Shaw said it was this type of conversation that further impacted rural mental health outcomes. Negative media and divisive rhetoric was what farmers heard during the day, while out on the farm, with talkback radio for company.

Patterson, an Otago sheep and beef farmer, said farmers were innovators and they would handle the new paradigm “for the reasons that we have to”. 

“Our challenge is to take farmers with us and raise that level of confidence,” he said.

Where to get help:

1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

thelowdown.co.nz – or email team@thelowdown.co.nz or free text 5626

Anxiety New Zealand – 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)

Supporting Families in Mental Illness – 0800 732 825

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