Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, a gaggle of ministers and Labour MPs, National leader Judith Collins and what seemed like the largest fleet of utility vehicles ever assembled descend on the national agricultural Fieldays at Mystery Creek. So does the fog.
They came in their utes and 4WDs in such numbers that by lunchtime the vast hectares of parking were full at Fieldays, the gates were closed and the traffic was left to queue on the approach roads to Mystery Creek.
The southern hemisphere’s biggest gathering of agricultural and food producer exhibitors, farmers, utes and, it seemed, politicians, enters its final day Saturday having already made a huge comeback from cancellation in 2020 due to Covid. Its first day alone had attracted 30,000 visitors to the 1000 exhibits. Friday was said to be record attendance.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was there on day one, and back on Friday for more, with her deputy Grant Robertson, climate minister James Shaw and a phalanx of Labour MPs (27 over the course of Fieldays, she said). It was back into campaign mode, with walkabouts in the farmer and family crowds, live recordings for Labour’s Facebook account and even a live television cross for Ardern to Channel Nine in Australia from in front of a Fonterra milk tanker.
While the PM’s walkabouts were a much thinner, spaced out affair, moving swiftly for the most part through the crowd, unlike the impossibility of her election campaign events eight months ago, and the rural crowd kept any thoughts about levies on new utes, agricultural emissions and special conservation areas on private land to themselves, it was the kids who engaged, for photos and autographs.
At one stop, Ardern’s time being consumed by a man chatting about regenerative farming, Opposition leader Judith Collins, with two MPs and beside a video camera crew, wandered into view from the masses. Her former Hamilton MP David Bennett spotted the Government group metres away and National’s finest strategically swerved right and away, no possibility of the two leaders or the size of their two posses being compared on camera.
Both Waikato-raised, Collins in a ‘state house’ on a farm near Matamata and Ardern in Morrinsville, the leaders seemed at ease under the fog and passing farmer gaze. “That’s Cindy,” “Judith”, and “that other guy.” Ardern wore red band gumboots, Collins what appeared to be streetwear.
Ardern had an early meeting with leaders of agriculture sector groups, which ran overtime. She said the main focus was on labour shortages and – after the domestic push to find 5000 jobs for Kiwis – how to work out ways of bringing in the people to work the land. The question of levying new high carbon utility vehicles to help fund feebates to purchasers of electric vehicles was not high on the agenda, she said, repeating it was not going to be possible to exempt farm vehicles from the new policy.
At a meeting to launch new research into food waste, backed by Rabobank with Kiwi Harvest, Ardern joked that the bank’s move of its headquarters to the Waikato ought to have considered Morrinsville over Hamilton as a venue, but checked herself, noting the presence of Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate before her. For her troubles, Ardern was given a piece of carrot and apple cake made from waste scraps. She handed it to her press secretary to savour some time later.
Fieldays is, more than anything, a trade show about business. Farm tanks, milking equipment, gates, clothing, pumps, magpie trapping devices, farm bikes, food products and, of course, utes. But if the crowd’s unscientific survey responses to a red sticker wall chart at the Labour Party’s stand, tucked away indoors in one of the pavilions is a guide, concerns about trade and the economy were relatively modest on the radar.
Health and mental health, then ‘agriculture’ and housing led the sticker poll.
With Labour’s First Farmer, trade and agriculture minister Damien O’Connor, in London for talks with the UK over a free trade deal, it fell to Rangitata MP Jo Luxton and Wairarapa MP and Labour whip – and owner of a beaten up old farm ute – Kieran McAnulty, to flank the PM through the Mystery Creek site. McAnulty told media he’d keep his vehicle until it clapped out and then consider if he needed a replacement or not.
Fieldays has multiple food halls but the one that tantalised most was this McDonald’s – no golden arches maybe a clue that it was not a pop-up burger restaurant. Instead it offered displays of the lettuces, tomatoes and other food products used in its products from districts like Franklin and further afield. A machine serving free soft serve ice creams eased the appetites of queues of young children.
Businesses at Fieldays report brisk sales. Isuzu told Stuff it had high interest in ute sales ahead of the levy due to kick in on January 1. The crowd numbers and the politicians’ high visibility underlined the status the event has as one of the calendar’s biggest gatherings nationwide. Even the fog, the perennial cars stuck in the carpark mud and the gates being closed early couldn’t dim the buzz.