The great farming divide: why the Greens could become (some) farmers' new party
The Greens’ new farming policy is “a huge step forward” in agricultural policy, says one regenerative farmer.
“I think it’s fantastic because if humanity is to get out of this predicament we’re in, farmers have to be the heroes,” Hawke’s Bay sheep and beef farmer Greg Hart says.
The Green Party’s farming for the future policy pledged a raft of changes including $297 million to transition farmers to regenerative and organic farming.
The party would also ban imports of palm kernel expeller animal feed and tighten up the limits on nitrogen fertiliser application. A levy would be placed on nitrogen and phosphorous fertiliser sales to fund cleaner farming practices.
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It would also overhaul plantation forestry rules to move away from pine monoculture plantations, an issue that many farmers had been unhappy about.
Hart said that because regenerative farming was new to many farmers, there was a need for the kind of support the Greens were offering to support a transition.
“This approach is more about knowledge as opposed to relying on inputs,” he said.
Through the fund farmers could access advisory services and money to implement new regenerative and organic farming methods or pay for certification. It would also be used to fund research and provide funding for organic industry associations.
Marc Elliott, director of rural research at UMR Research, said while governments in the past had provided grants and incentives to make changes on farms, including money for planting up waterways and putting in fences, putting cash behind promoting sustainable ways of farming was new.
And while he said regenerative farming was “beginning to get legs amongst farmers”, with many interested in the lower cost approach, the policy would go down better if it was coming from the National Party.
“I think they’ve just been so burnt by the Greens over the years, they’ll be concerned about who’s saying it rather than what it is,” he said.
Farmers were not averse to change, and would respond to consumer and export demand for regenerative and organic products, he said.
National’s agriculture spokesman David Bennett said while there were some premiums offered for organic production it was only a small part of current exports, and regenerative agriculture was not yet providing the market signals farmers needed.
National did not support the Green’s stance on capping fertiliser, arguing it would push up the price of vegetables, he said.
“Agriculture is essential to our economy, particularly in light of Covid-19. National wants to see the industry continue to grow in a sustainable way and we will aim to help it with sensible, pragmatic policy that is based on scientific advancements rather than taxation and regulation.”
ACT rural spokesman Mark Cameron said regenerative agriculture had its place but it needed to be driven by farmers and the industry.
Government programmes would have “unintended consequences”, he said.
Former conventional farmer Ian Harvey, who has 30 years experience in the sector and had run nitrogen trials on hill country using “extreme rates” of the fertiliser, said cutting nitrogen “was the right thing to do”.
“It’s been a wonderful tool, but I didn’t understand what it did to the soil and to the plants,” he said.
Now he farms a lifestyle block regeneratively and said he applauded the Greens for being at the forefront of change making.
“Everyone says the National Party are the farmers’ party, but that is only because it’s comfortable. I am quite happy with floating the idea that the Green Party might be the farmers’ party of the future and might be the farmers party right now,” he said.
Farmer friends he has posed the question to thought he was “completely nuts”, but Harvey said it was a serious question.
When it came to values, the Greens and farmers were not that different, he said Clashes emerged over the details of how to get things done.
North Canterbury dairy farmer Alan Davie-Martin said some farmers had felt “quite disgruntled” by recent changes to freshwater, winter grazing rules and caps on nitrogen fertiliser, and felt the Greens had driven them. Understandably that made farmers a bit “nervous” about the party, he said.
But he was open to new ways of farming.
“If they make a difference I’ll be the first cab off the rank. I thought Kiwi farmers were quite good at, once they’ve realised something was on, at making it happen.”
He said the market would decide if a move to greater organic and regenerative production was on the cards, but farmers had no real objection to change if it stacked up.
But Southland regenerative sheep farmer, David Crutchley, said the farming practice would stand on its own merit, without government interference.
After decades of practising chemical agriculture Crutchley adopted regenerative farming techniques in 2009 to rebuild the microbiology in his soil.
He said what the Green Party was proposing would end up being a box-ticking exercise.
He had been unhappy with freshwater rules introduced under the Labour-Green coalition because they had been rushed.
“Now there will be a whole bureaucratic empire built up to get it correct, instead of having just individual farm plans that cope with modern biodiversity requirements,” he said.
He feared the Greens would make farming unprofitable due to their fondness for levies, caps and taxes.
Instead, Crutchley said the consumer would drive the growth in regenerative farming.
“With regenerative agriculture it's like any farming practice. If its successful, the success looks after itself and you don’t need Government interference in it.”
Crutchley sold his lamb to chefs at high-end restaurants under the brand name Provenance, for a premium.
He previously told Stuff that while many traditional farmers remained sceptical about regenerative farming, consumers got it because they were tasting the end product.
But another farmer, David Clark, said the Greens’ policies would bankrupt farmers, which would have knock-on effects for the economy.
“It’s business-ending. But it’s such a poorly conceived policy that it’s got no relevance or credibility to actual farm economics. It’s a real shame that the Green Party never sat down and talked to farmers about commercial realities,” he said.
Farming businesses operated at best on a 1per cent to 5 per cent return on equity, he said. The Green Party’s wealth tax proposal, a 2 per cent yearly tax on equity, would significantly erode returns, he said.
The value of food production assets, things like combine harvesters and tractors would be included in the wealth tax. On top of that a fertiliser tax would make it impossible to farm crops, Clark said.
“It would just mean our food gets imported.”
Nor did the agriculture policy acknowledge all the work already done in the regional plan in Canterbury to cap nutrient losses. Farmers were fully engaged in achieving those outcomes that were achievable. The goals set by the Greens were not, he said.
Elliott said there was an attitude among farmers of wanting to stand on their own merit. They had become much more attuned to market signals in the last 10 years.
“And one thing the market wants is definitely clean and sustainable food,” he said.