Fewer than 20% of New Zealanders live in the country, making us one of the most urbanised countries in the world.
That’s one of the points made by Associate Professor Hugh Campbell from Otago University’s Centre for the Study of Agriculture, writing for Paddock Talk in today’s ODT.
A particular history of town and country planning tended to protect fertile lands for commercial farming thus constricting population growth into towns and cities with relatively little lifestyle subdivision, village regeneration or holiday cottages, as has become the norm in many other First World countries.
The result is that, by some measures, New Zealand has more than 80% of its population living in non-rural areas – one of the highest levels in the Western world.
In contrast to this, rural-based industries, from farming and forestry to tourism, account for the vast majority of our export earnings.
Democracy being what it is, this widening cultural and economic gap is going to be a significant challenge for politicians both in farming and in Wellington.
Lifestyle subdivision brings problems of its own when people from town move to the country then object to the sights, sounds and smells of rural life and want to impose rules which interfere with normal farming practices.
The challenge isn’t quite as bad as it was before the election because National, Act and the Maori Party all have a high regard for property rights and an understanding of the importance of primary production.
But numbers count in politics and rural New Zealand no longer has the numbers.
We also have a perception problem, highlighted by Federated Farmers vice president Frank Brenmuhl in an address to a horticultural teachers’ conference:
He quoted a report which showed that in 2008 farm workers earned an average income of $41,914, more than $2,000 above the average non-farm income of $39,517.
Therefore, I do not believe we struggle for good staff because we pay poor wages or the opportunities for advancement are not good. After all, I have personally seen many examples of young people aged between 20 and 24, who are receiving salary packages in excess of $70,000 per year. Good farm managers are paid well for good results because it is good business.
Also, I don’t believe we lack agricultural trainees and graduates because we lack agricultural training institutions. But, I do believe that many career advisors and teachers, who play a big part in influencing student choices, do not value the work that those in the agricultural industry do. We are treated much the same as cleaners and waste disposal operators. Necessary, but grubby and you can do better with your life, especially if you have a modicum of intelligence, in which case a tertiary education in arts, culture political science or information technology is your proper option.
I think he’s got a point. Because farmers work outside and get their hands dirty there’s a perception that they don’t use their brains as well.
But it’s not just a lack of people interested in working in agriculture that’s a problem, we need more scientists, engineers and others in the fields which support agriculture and drive innovation in primary production and processing.
As the recession bites people will give up luxuries but they will still have to eat. We’ll all suffer if the export-led recovery we need to get New Zealand back on track is hampered by a lack of skilled people in agriculture and the sciences and industries which support and improve it.