The urban-rural rift is a myth a forum organised by the Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science concluded. But there is tension where country and town conflict in lifestyle land.
A day-long discussion at Massey University, to look at the link between town and country, was set against the backdrop of the sale in the past year of 46,000 hectares of farmland in lifestyle blocks of less than four hectares.
About 100 scientists, academics, farmers, students, lobbyists and other interested observers at the event organised by the Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science heard from nine speakers – a politician, an historian, a bureaucrat, an economist, a walkways commission member, a geography professor, a local government planner, a farmer and an environmental manager.
Historian Jock Phillips looked at how we got to where we are.
As New Zealand’s population changed from being rural to urban last century a romantic myth began to grow of the farmer as a larger-than-life sporting and war hero.
This lasted till the 1980s when it began to disintegrate amidst the humour of the Footrot Flats cartoon and television’s Fred Dagg.
A rift began to open, according to Dr Phillips. Rural people did not like being made fun of and at the same time two issues arose that further polarised town and country.
They were the 1981 Springbok Tour and homosexual law reform.
“These cultural issues became a battleground where people came to terms with their rural and urban identities,” he said.
These issues are often given as ones on which there was an urban-rural divide. There may be figures to back up this contention but anecdotal evidence suggests country people’s views weren’t markedly differnt from those in town.
The rift had closed in recent years as farmers had learnt to take on urban values, he said.
For example, country shows had changed to appeal to town visitors – where once pigs were shown in pens now they raced over obstacle courses.
But if this goes too far shows lose their rural character and they become just another event. We went to the Melbourne Show last year, most of it was just side shows and entertainment with stock and country exhibits looking like an after thought. The Upper Clutha Show in Wanaka hs got it right – with high quality exhibits which appeal to town and country yet it still retains its rural character.
City life and values had become central and country people had been forced to turn to that world. They could no longer assume their children would want to stay on the land.
One speaker at the AGMARDT breakfast at last week’s National Bank Young Farmer contest said in the old days the bright offspring were sent away to the city and the slower ones stayed back on the farm, but it’s the other way round now 🙂
Dr Phillips said that while the physical rural image had been dented it had gained values of science, technical knowledge, education and specialisation.
“It is the making of modern agriculture and horticulture.”
However, some stereotypes still remained in the thinking of urban people.
Many children had a Fred Dagg image of farming and did not see it as a viable career and some city dwellers yearned to escape to the country, seeing it as a “geriatric rest home”.
I wouldn’t think many of today’s children recognise Fred Dagg because it’s more than 30 years since John Clark took the character across the Tasman. As for a resthome, if that’s what you want surely you’d be better in town close to public transport and healthcare?
Other address came from Kapiti Coast District Council strategy planner Gael Ferguson and Rangitikei sheep and beef farmer Ruth Rainey.
Dr Ferguson agreed with the rest home analogy. “Rural areas are increasingly seen as places to view beauty and contemplate the quiet life,” she said.
But some people who moved from the cities to lifestyle blocks developed a “reverse sensitivity”.
“They don’t like the fact the dogs bark and the cows moo…”
She pondered what would happen as fuel prices continued to rise. It could force people to decide where they lived and where they travelled.
“I suspect you will see a movement back to consolidation around the edge of major metropolitan areas and rural towns and away from the rural lifestyle. It is going to be interesting to observe,” she said.
The value of rural land to lifestylers would fall.
“You can already see that in the United States where you’ve got rural lifestylers trapped in some of these peri-urban areas.
“The values of their properties are falling, the transportation costs are huge and they cannot move.”
This could happen in New Zealand, she said. Kapiti lifestylers would see a fall in property values in the next round of valuations.
Living in the country because that’s where you work means the rising cost of fuel is a fact of life. When you live there as a lifestyle choice the cost of fuel could make that choice too expenisve, but if land values fall it might also make shifting difficult.
She said that though there might not be an urban-rural rift, there was a form of alienation. It came from having to distinguish between landscapes of beauty and landscapes of productivity in future planning.
“It has never been totally clear about how we handle the tension between the two,” she said.
One person’s blot on the landscape could be another’s source of interest and wonder.
The Resource Management Act, with its mention of subdivision size and building character, was no help.
A further complication arose from the emphasis of rural productivity on export rather than local food.
The infrastructure that would have supported local production had been dismantled and communities were separated from it.
Urban dwellers were even more remote – “They know it happens somewhere out there, but they’re not sure how and they’re not even sure about the time, the seasons or the ways in which it occurs.”
The peri-urban areas, which were in transition from rural to urban, were where this conflict was most common, she said.
“Often, limited economic value is placed on farmland’s productive role. It is traded off against the present value of future urban development; whether it’s more economic to convert it into urban uses.”
However, some urban people were becoming concerned about the loss of productive land close to the towns in a time of increasing fuel costs.
Farmers are criticised for changing landscapes by irrigating to make land mroe productive, but residentail developments and lifestyle blocks take up productive land and increase its price.
On the Kapiti Coast, there was a growing resistance to allowing more rural residential living.
“The local government response to this, in my view, is to not be transfixed by the Resource Management Act at the outset. We need to be very clear about the role of rural areas over time, particularly where they are areas significantly influenced by surrounding urban areas,” she said.
“The key issue is not what production might take place in an area but whether it can over time. It is building in resilience both for the urban and the rural communities.”
Mrs Rainey said it was largely up to farmers to narrow the gap with town people. Efforts by councils to bring country life closer to towns had met with mixed results.
Auckland had a working farm at its centre but in Kapiti a community-owned farm, acquired to run as a sustainability showpiece, was struggling under a heavy financial load.
Farm stays in cottages and bed-and-breakfasts, petting farms and on-farm adventure activities were all options for farmers. She and a neighbour had built a walkway across their farms that introduced visitors to farming life.
Winning over the young generation was the best place to start closing the urban-rural gap, she said, but schools reported a dearth of teaching resources.
She suggested exchange programmes where a rural school adopted an urban one, spending five days in each other’s community, and backed a British plan to ensure every schoolchild visited a farm to “reconnect with where and how their food is produced”.
This would be a lot cheaper than trips overseas.
A “hoof and hook” competition for schools organised by Future Beef NZ this year had been a surprising success.
Competitors were each given a steer to handle and prepare for showing before the animals were sent for processing and the carcasses judged.
“I must say I was quite impressed that this also includes killing the beast that the pupil may have got attached to.”
For older students, programmes by DairyNZ, Meat & Wool New Zealand and Horticulture New Zealand were aimed at attracting them into careers. According to Meat & Wool, students “go home buzzing after a day of dealing with people that love the agricultural industry”.
However, it was on the edge of towns, in lifestyle block country, where tensions rose.
While the lifestylers should accept that farming often involved noise, smells, land and aerial machinery, sprays and fertilisers, all at varying hours, it was also important farmers actively work to avoid conflict.
Mrs Rainey asked farmers to be more welcoming to lifestylers and “nurture” this link between town and country.
“In some areas there is a surprising amount of industry happening on these blocks and in general they do seem to plant more trees and fence off more waterways. Sometimes there are animal welfare issues but the arrival of fresh blood has often revitalised rural schools and boosted sports clubs and other volunteer groups.”
Farmers that offered help to join local groups would soon find the education and information gained would flow both ways.
All good advice – it’s finding the time to do it that’s hard.
P.S. Philippa Stevenson discusses the forum at Dig n Stir.