[Editor: Far and away the greatest use of farmland in Hawke’s Bay — now and historically — is pastoral farming … sheep and beef. This sector of farming has ruled the roost in rural New Zealand, including our region, but that hegemony is ending.

This article by Professor Hugh Campbell, Sociology Chair at the University of Otago tells the story of pastoral farming and the political transformation underway. It was originally published on Newsroom with two companion articles.]

Farming the Future: Trading on animal welfare and emissions, not tariffs

There is a lot of history to live up to in the current moment of farmer politics in New Zealand. Understanding the sheer scope and breadth of pastoral farming power through much of the 20th century provides the essential backdrop for understanding the current moment of farmer protests in 2021.

But we are currently in the midst of a massive transition away from a time in which pastoral farmers were in total control of their own futures and had unfettered access to the machinery of government. Farmers haven’t lost their power in New Zealand, but it is sometimes a bit opaque as to how that power is now becoming re-aligned.

Looking ahead, the next few decades are going to witness the playing out of a new set of conflicts, negotiations and alliances in some places that are very unfamiliar for those accustomed to the old certainties of pastoral power.

Locally, pastoral farming is no longer the uncontested power dominating local body politics in rural regions. Massive diversification of land-use, particularly the rise of tourism and an increasing pace of ex-urban migration, is changing the demographic and thus political character of rural New Zealand. 

This shift is most evident in the emerging cultural crisis of the shrinking pastoral sward in the landscape. The great ecological frontiers between grasslands, commercial forests, wetlands and native bush in New Zealand have been shifting back and forth for centuries, but we are currently in a phase of strong reversal back towards trees. This is causing grief and sadness in many pastoral farming communities, but, in reality, much of that landscape ecologically wants to grow trees not grass. 

An emerging political negotiation between good farming practitioners, supporters of native tree regeneration, and high-quality forestry will hopefully form an important alliance for the next century. Resolving these kinds of mixed land-use tensions successfully will be an important challenge for farm politics at the regional and local level over the upcoming decades.

Nationally, the familiar dynamics of political parties and governments will continue, but they can no longer rule over a landscape bound by 20th century thinking. The key to the future is partnership on the land. 

One of the remarkable and inspirational recent developments in rural land-use has been the rise of successful and forward-thinking Māori land trusts and incorporations. They have emerged from out of darkness. 

In the mid-20th century, the entire political, scientific and cultural world of Pākehā pastoral farming derided and denigrated Māori farming almost as an article of faith. The recent re-emergence of dynamic and successful Māori land-use is both deeply confronting for some whose cultural origins are in that older world, but also hugely encouraging and positive for the forging of new opportunities and partnerships on the land. 

Pākehā family farmers are used to planning and directing their farms to move from one generation to the next – a planning timeline that spans whole lifetimes. Imagine instead the important shifts and decisions that must occur when you start planning, as many Māori trusts and iwi organisations are, for landscape outcomes directed towards a 300 to 500 year timeline.

Internationally, we are moving past the era when our external trade politics started and finished with an aspiration for trade liberalisation. We are now 25 years into a significant shift by food export industries towards greener products and higher environmental standards to keep pace with changes in the world market. 

International frameworks and protocols – like the one struck last week with the UK – are now highly likely to transition towards focusing on the animal welfare, GHG and water or soil footprint of internationally traded farm products, rather than continuing to solely focus on de-tariffication. 

The growing realisation of an inexorable green shift in world markets and trading protocols is placing pressure on even our most intensive pastoral sectors to establish and manage for, at least, a bare minimum of environmental standards. This will force a significant re-alignment of internationally-focused farm politics. 

It will require a shift away from a sole focus on trade liberalisation and towards greater alliance-building and negotiations to establish benchmarks and credentials with a range of other players – from export industries, to accreditation and certification organisations, to powerful overseas retailers, consumer groups and cooperatives. 

These alliances have already begun to build across most horticultural export sectors. Over the next decades they will also become ubiquitous in pastoral export sectors – particularly as the emerging manufacture of synthetic proteins becomes a major contributor to the global market for basic farm proteins, like cheap milk and meat, and squeezes out the bottom half of the market for pastoral commodities.

Within farm communities, the nature of farm politics is changing as the sector becomes increasingly diverse and contains significantly diverging interests. For those who are looking backwards, things feel trapped in a cycle of doom and loss. But this is by no means the whole story. 

Everywhere we can see the rising visibility of inspirational grassroots exemplars of new ways to farm. Across multiple vectors of challenge and change, solutions are not waiting to be found out at some distant future point. Those solutions are all being addressed and elaborated on farms, in regenerative agriculture fieldays, community catchment groups, among hapu and iwi, in land trusts and experimental farms, in significant changes in direction among some older companies, and through a small number of vibrant new start-ups. 

The good news stories are everywhere, reflecting a farming sector that is vibrant and innovative and solutions-focused. We need to move on from the legacy issues of the 20th century which are leaving generations of farmers feeling put-upon, dispirited and distressed, and embrace the innovation and positivity that so many folk are generating on their farms, orchards, vineyards and blocks. 

At a wider political level, we are already seeing the emergence of important new alliances to service greening markets, address some of the new challenges of mixed land-use in rural regions, and push on with the restless and ceaseless search for better farming practices on individual farms around rural New Zealand. 

The key to how our future takes shape is the one big partnership that is still waiting to be established: When the great Pākehā farming world of the 20th century recognises, partners with, and starts to celebrate both its own successes andthat of a resurgent Māori land-economy. 

Māori land use is rapidly becoming one of the emerging powers in the farming politics of the 21st century. That is the new site of potential political partnership that will truly set the pattern of future land-use in rural New Zealand.

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