Farming’s unfashionable, but there’s a simple fix to make it sexy

By Peter Kerr 22/03/2012

There are huge gains to be made in pastoral farming productivity if the average performers started doing what the top 25% do according to MAF in its Briefing to Incoming Ministers.

That would increase exports by $3 billion a year, just using existing knowledge.

Now, as MAF sees it, we’re missing considerable opportunities. The report says ‘The problem arises from a complex mix of capabilities, infrastructure, investment, incentives and social factors across a broad range of industry participants.’

If this is shorthand for the fact that average age of sheep and beef farmers is now 58 and rising (see here), and, those very same farmers have continually pushed up the price of land beyond its actual productive value, then MAF’s dead right. Indeed, there’s a demographic time bomb — and as the ANZ bank says in the above article, we’ve lost a generation.

One thing that the MAF BIM doesn’t mention, and to be fair it is probably a bridge too far for a bureaucrat, is that farming ain’t sexy.

This is in spite of the fact that the range of skills — biological, financial, management, (increasingly) IT — that need to be cleverly combined to turn a profit from the land, this and agriculture’s wider story doesn’t resonate with the general public nor with young people.

There is one simple reason.

Farming, the way we do it, doesn’t have a name.

That is, we take sunshine, soil and fresh air and make wonderful protein products. We work in harmony with nature, using all the skills mentioned above, and generally, sustainably, make fantastic raw materials that become desirable food and fibre.

While those in the agriculture industry may be aware of this wider ecosystem approach, others, including overseas consumers, haven’t a clue.

And, as design guru Dorenda Britten says, ‘you can’t buy into something until you name it.’

New Zealand agriculture’s key comparative advantage is its understanding and utilisation of pastoral production systems. This fantastic transformation of solar energy, the utter underpinning of our economy, is formless and vague.

To the vast majority of Kiwi’s, though agriculture’s stolid, it’s about as sexy as dirt.

But when you realise that once overseas consumers are aware of how NZ produces the majority of its milk, meat and fibre, they are immediately converts to what is effectively ‘the way you’d farm if you farmed yourself.’

New Zealand Inc needs to wake up to the fact that our farming is much more that a way to produce food. Standing back and looking at big picture, we’re a conceptual ideal.

However, until we name (which is the same as branding) our system, the issues identified by MAF won’t have a hope in hell of being resolved.

Until we own our story (and a brand is merely shorthand for the story) there will be nothing for young people to buy into — or to even consider the possibility of being able to have a fulfilling life by making money by using land wisely.

Now, this may be an innovative leap that a production-oriented mindset finds difficult to conceive.

Nevertheless, to be part and parcel of a modern consumer and young person’s mind we need to reconceive our agriculture as being as much of an ‘experience’ rather than as an item that somehow ends up on your plate.

As soon as we name/brand what we do, we provide ourselves with an entirely different future.

0 Responses to “Farming’s unfashionable, but there’s a simple fix to make it sexy”

  • We work in harmony with nature,
    I rather doubt this one – it’s a feel-good fuzzy statement but no more. If humans ‘worked in harmony with nature’ we’d probably still be nomadic hunter-gatherers, our population size would be several orders of magnitude lower than its present level, & we’d have generated far less in the way of environmental problems.

    The state of many of our major rivers, in terms of pollutants from agricultural run-off, would also contradict the ‘harmony’ thing.

  • branding’s an awful lot more than naming/slapping a logo onto something – if nothing else, brands need to be internally and externally consistent: something with which NZ battles enormously (and increasingly).

    just think, for example, of the enormous disparity between our ‘clean, green’ image and the actual stats around how we treat our landscape, including the extent to which agriculture is having serious negative impacts on our waterways.

    brands are also about the experience of _every single person_ who encounters them in any way. both the people internal and external to the organisation: the brands which do well overall do this very well. they also have a compelling story to tell, and again tell it well and consistently.

  • The problem with the branding approach is that it generally involve someone from outside the sector who likes the clean/green branding developed for tourism (not too many tourists go to dairy farms or meatworks) and wants to apply it to agriculture. Many parts of agriculture aren’t clean and green and the agriculture sector has rightly resisted a brand that would only apply to niche parts of the industry.

    I also suspect that the average age of the sheep and beef farmer at 58 actually relates to the average age of the person who owns the farm. Which is quite a different issue for a labour shortage, of which there is relatively little evidence.

    • I’m not suggesting branding would be easy, nor that we’re squeaky clean. But, compared to a lot of other ways of creating protein, we’re missing a trick in not owning our story.

      As soon as we did, we’d have a much better focus for research efforts, and more importantly a way of engaging with consumers that currently doesn’t exist.

      This is our nation’s major comparative (though not necessarily competitive) advantage. If we look up and think about it, collectively it is an opportunity going to waste

  • we’re missing a trick in not owning our story
    But it seems, from the part of your post that I commented on initially, that “our story” – the one that we’re supposed to own – is one seen through rose-tinted spectacles. We aren’t “in harmony with nature”, & it would be all too easy for any branding claiming this to be picked apart.

    How would “owning our story” provide a better focus for research efforts?