Why does an increasingly more urbanised population care so much about farmland?
Most will never own it nor want to; some may visit a farm but many will never get any closer to one than a trip down State Highway 1 at 100 kph, or faster.
In spite of that they’re very keen to have a say in who the owners can sell it to – or rather not sell it to.
At the moment any sale of five hectares or more of farmland must go before the Overseas Investment Commission if a foreigner wants to buy it.
I don’t have a problem with some oversight over land sales to people from other countries, but why five hectares?
Depending where it is that could be more than enough for at least one thriving horticulture business or not enough to carry a single stock unit. Why doesn’t the ownership of flat, fertile land where the climate is temperate matter if who owns rough, hilly, less productive land where it blows and snows does?
If you looked at farms from the road you may be able to tell something about the owners’ ability as farmers but I doubt if you’d be able to work out where they came from. Even if you went on to the farms and spoke to managers and staff it probably wouldn’t be obvious if the owners were New Zealanders or not.
I can see why people wouldn’t want all or even most land owned by foreigners and I also understand the danger of vertical integration of the supply chain by foreigners. They can’t take the land with them but they could take the produce and valuable export dollars.
But it doesn’t need a total ban on land sales to foreigners to keep processing and some of the export returns here.
However, the anti-foreign ownership feeling isn’t just about people from overseas. A Curia poll (on which Cactus Kate, Kiwiblog and Whale Oil have commented) shows those asked regarded some people as more foreign than others.
Sixty five percent of people polled wanted land sold only to New Zealand residents. That dropped to 55% if staff were locals; 54% if the owners paid tax here; and 52% if the extra capital from the owners tripled exports.
But the most telling result was on the question which moved from foreigners in general to specific nationalities. If the buyers were from Australia 18% were extremely uncomfortable and 42% weren’t uncomfortable at all; if the buyers were French 31% were extremely uncomfortable and 24% weren’t at all uncomfortable; if the buyers were Chinese 41% were extremely uncomfortable and 21% weren’t uncomfortable at all; if the buyers were British 23% were extremely uncomfortable and 31% weren’t at all uncomfortable and if the buyers were from the USA 27% were extremely uncomfortable and 24% weren’t uncomfortable at all.
This means that the opposition isn’t necessarily to foreign ownership per se – the strength of feeling varies with where the would-be owners come from.
That explains why the possible sale of the Crafar Farms to Chinese owners has caused an uproar but the actual sale of Big Sky dairy farm in the Maniototo to Harvard University’s global investment fund has hardly raised an eyebrow.
There is some logic in the desire for some control of farm sales to foreigners. But this poll shows that arguments for a total ban on sales to foreigners is based on emotion and one of those emotions is xenophobia.