OPINION: Farmer resilience and well-being are hot topics.
Achieving both has been at the forefront of promotions for alternative modes of farming based on work overseas.
The question remains whether what is being promoted will achieve what is promised.
The New Zealand experience suggests that we already have the answer: uncertainty undermines well-being, but when the crunch arrives, our farmers are up to the challenge because they are resilient. We know this from the economic data through the Covid lockdown. It was the primary sector exports that kept new dollars coming into the country.
Resilience is not necessarily the same thing as well-being.
The View from the Cowshed, published by DairyNZ and available on its website, received media interest in August and should not be forgotten. The report indicated that 62% of dairy farmers had experienced mental health issues in the last year or had someone on their farm who had suffered. It also reported that ‘changing regulations’ was the issue most likely to keep farmers awake at night.
From research on organisational change we know that uncertainty breeds anxiety. While the architects of change are excited, workers are worried because their jobs are on the line. Being close to the action makes the difference.
Proximity also affects resilience; it is strongest in people who have been exposed to suffering.
Farmers are resilient because they have to adapt all the time. Unbuffered by subsidies, farmers react to markets, exchange rates, interest rates and weather. They identify opportunities and adopt technologies to improve operations.
The post-lockdown report from the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) was titled ‘Inflexibility a challenge for the agri-food sector’. It stated that the farming sector was less adaptable than other sectors during Covid.
This is hardly surprising given the planning cycle for agriculture and horticulture. But what NZIER’s research didn’t capture was the extra work that farm-owners did on farm through Covid in the absence of assistance. Nor the extra time spent considering, for instance, the various new fertiliser options for minimal environmental impact – while maintaining plant growth.
Extra paperwork didn’t appear in the survey, either. Nor the fact that more time and money were spent on temporary fixes because the rural professionals were subject to ‘social distancing’. However, the potential exports were still being milked, drafted and harvested.
Given the evidence, the promise of even greater resilience and wellbeing achievable from non-conventional farming systems, though attractive, should be challenged.
Australian research on resilience, defined as ‘stable income’, shows that farmers with no or low reliance on chemical inputs do experience more stable incomes than those who are farming conventionally.
However, the Australian Farm Institute has since shown that the low input farmers earned a quarter of a million dollars less on average each year over a decade. Their income didn’t fluctuate, but they weren’t adaptable enough to take advantage of good seasons to increase it. Return on assets managed annually was 1.66% for low input farmers in contrast to 4.22% for conventional farmers.
Resilience is evident in New Zealand farmers already.
Mental health is an issue and can be ameliorated with support to do an even-better job. Context, starting point, goal and impact of potential unintended consequences should always be considered before solutions are plucked out of statements based on research of alternative farming systems from overseas.