What's the future of family farming?

Please contact Robyn McPhail if you intend to use this material

A story

Away back near the beginning, the first farming couple left the garden of easy living, Eden, lush and fertile and never-failing. They had to leave (let’s not go into the reasons - it happens!), but if we note carefully in the story as it is told, we see that God went with them.

Generations later, our story tells of a family that’s large and in need of a new home. It has escaped the overcrowding and oppression of Egypt and is travelling on mass through wilderness territory. The struggle to survive goes on, but, as at the beginning, God keeps in there with them.

They’re parched with thirst. They grumble. Their leader Moses looks for a solution and finds it - a rock that reveals a deep spring of flowing water.

They carry on.

That’s it, in a nutshell, as the Bible tells it. A useful resource, this book, for experiences of struggling, of things going wrong, grumbling, and carrying on, surviving, even doing better than surviving - dwelling in a land flowing with milk and honey!

I reckon our pioneers in this country drew on that story a lot. They were a bit like the wilderness wanderers. And I’m sure they grumbled - some of them every week here in the church that stood on this site. They grumbled and they made it.

Now, are we again pioneers? A new, uncharted future. A hinge-time is how I’ve seen it described. An uncharted future for living and livelihood from the land in Aotearoa New Zealand.

A story from America

Letter written by Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), on the recommendation of the Rural Ministry Advisory Committee and the General Assembly Council of that church.

February 17, 1999
President William Jefferson Clinton
The White House
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear President Clinton:

I am writing to you as the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) regarding the escalating farm crisis in America. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is the highest elected governing body of the denomination. The General Assembly meets annually and is made up of elected representatives of our 173 presbyteries, who represent 2.609,191 Presbyterians, worshiping in 11,298 congregations. Among those Presbyterians are many family farmers, and the well being of those who produce our food is a long term Presbyterian concern.

The family farm has been the bulwark of this country throughout history. Today the continuing existence of the family farm is in question because of an escalating economic crisis that exists in many rural communities throughout this nation. A significant percentage of our Presbyterian congregations are serving rural communities. Economic distress in rural communities impacts many Presbyterian churches. Therefore, we call upon you to bring attention to the current plight of family farmers and ranchers; examine the issues that are causing this economic crisis; and advocate for and support legislation that will provide just compensation to family farmers and ranchers so that they, too, may enjoy a safe, healthy and abundant life.

A primary issue affecting the farm economy is the extraordinary grip that agricultural monopolies have on markets. During this winter, farmers throughout the Mid-West have gathered at public forums to share personal stories of their own attempts to deal with catastrophically low hog prices. Throughout multiple decades as well as today, catastrophically low prices have had a negative economic effect on many farm products including corn, oat, wheat, beans, and cattle. At one such gathering, held on December 28, 1998, a bitter wintry day, in Sioux Falls, SD, more than 700 producers gathered to hear farmers tell worried tales. One young farmer said that he was the sixth generation on his family farm, but he doubted there would be a seventh.

At that time in December, prices dropped as low as 8 cents per pound live weight for hogs while packer profit margins increased during this period. Packers were making more profit per pig than the producer was grossing on the same animal. A pig that cost the producer $75-95 to produce was returning only $25-30 (gross amount) to the producer, a loss of $50 per animal. During this same period published reports indicated that packers were earning net income of $35-50 on each hog. Yet, within one month of the public forums, the price for hogs increased from 8 cents per pound live weight to 29 cents, without a marked change in the supply. This price roller coaster is but one example of a controlled and manipulated market.

Captive packer supplies, vertical integration, declining foreign markets and uneven trading fields (many countries continue to subsidize their domestic agriculture production) are also contributing to this current farm crisis throughout the country at a time when much of the American economy is prospering. Agricultural North Dakota anticipates negative growth in 1999, while South Dakota budgets predict a weak year from sales tax revenue.

This is but one example of the economic stress experienced by today's family farmers and ranchers, tobacco farmers and African American farmers who have lost their land, and seasonal farm workers also face extraordinary challenges.

Farmers know and accept the fact that farming is an inherently risky business. They accept that risk and don't necessarily want to be guaranteed a large profit, but they would like the playing field to be level.

We seek your support and pray that the economic concerns of family farmers and ranchers will be a priority for you today and in the future.

Cordially yours,

Clifton Kirkpatrick
Stated Clerk of the General Assembly

Two Stories from the Awatere

[From VISION NZ Congress 1999 Rural Manual "Rural Churches Sharing Good News with Rural Communities]

1. The Struggling Farmer

We’ll call this local farmer Bill. He moved onto the family farm 16 years ago, buying the stock and plant and leasing the land from the family. Having established himself, Bill bought the land in the seventh year with the aid of a mortgage. The 90-year-old farm house, located in a damp hollow, was on its last legs and, as his family were growing, Bill decided to build a new house up on the hill. He could not have foreseen the impact of government and market changes and the drop in income that resulted. For example when he started 16 years ago he could make a living from 1500 stock units while today he would need 2500-3000 stock units.

To make the farm pay Bill did what a lot of farmers have done in the past and he went out contracting. He enjoyed meeting people but as time went on they became more and more dependant on the income to survive. Bill’s long contracting hours meant he had less time for the work he had to do on his own farm.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the 97-98 drought which meant not only no feed for the animals but also there was no contracting work. $25,000 worth of work budgeted dried up as quickly as the pasture shrivelled in the heat.

He had made the decision to keep all his sheep through the drought and was greatly helped by the free kiwi fruit and apples from Nelson. Unfortunately it came with the cartage cost of $6000.

Stock farming is simple: it is about growing grass and then putting it through animals so they will grow. You only need three things: water, heat and fertiliser. Bill had a lot of heat but unfortunately he did not have enough water and last year there was none. As to fertiliser, it of course needs money which meant it was in short supply.

In May Bill was told by the stock firm he would have to sell the farm by Christmas.

2. The Modern Farmer

It is like a new breed of farmers are on the scene. They are farmers who approach farming in a new and radical way. Some come from farming families while others come to farming after having one or more career paths. Their approach to farming is that of being agribusiness people. They seek to move with the times and be on the cutting edge of farming practice.

There is the man who farms the family farm in a way that Dad never thought possible or the farmer who made major advancements in genetics, another who over the years has increased his farm land area by 400%. But this story is about a single woman who shocked the district by buying a farm in one of the driest areas in our parish, alongside the salt lakes. We’ll call her Anne.

Anne’s first career was with the Marlborough catchment board. She came into farming with the expectation of growing a business. She had no traditions and was hungry to learn. She searched for the right farm and set about developing the farm into a model that is in tune with her land and economic pressures. In time she married Dave. He too did not come from a farming background, he had worked for the Department of Conservation and been a commercial fisherman.

They have spent many hours researching their model of farming, considering and reconsidering appropriate plant, subdivision and stocking. Much time has been spent recording and developing feed budgets that work for their type of conditions, with at least one of them attending every field day in the region. Everything is questioned and analysed. Hard choices are tackled head on with a business mentality, even to the point that Anne’s beloved merinos have had to go in favour of a more productive breed.

They represent a type of farmer who expects nothing from the government. They believe that if they cannot do it on their own they should get out.

Anne and Dave like all the other farmers in our area were hit by the drought, but because of their ethos and business approach they were at the stage where the development and research was beginning to yield dividends with increased profitability. Farms of their size typically lost around $40,000 dollars due to the drought. For Anne and Dave this has not meant a physical loss of that amount but rather a slowing down of the increased profitability curve they are charting. Their increased productivity meant their income remained about the same as the year before. Once the weather improves their development and research guarantees (if there is such a thing in farming) continuation of improvement of the farm and their income.

What’s the Future for Family Farming?

  • Who can answer that question!
  • But it’s a very real question, real and relevant, so let’s work on some starter questions:
  • How do our young people see the future? Do they want to go farming? If yes, why? If no, why not? 
  • Do farming parents want to encourage them? If yes, why? If no, why not? 
  • What is needed to make a go of farming now?
  • Education? Personal commitment? Money?
  • Is it the last mentioned that calls all the shots?

In relation to the following issues discuss the questions in italics below:

  • What is happening in the marketplace? (e.g. internationalisation, monopolies, "ticket clippers")
  • What is happening in science and technology? (e.g. intellectual property, terminator genes, GMO’s)
  • Will farmers of the future be independent producers or just piece rate contractors?
  • What do these questions mean: what are the issues involved; why is there a problem?
  • Which questions take priority for you, and why? In other words, what needs to be addressed urgently?
  • How could we find answers and/or deal with the issues involved?

It may be helpful to keep the following question in mind as you discuss the above issues together:

What can we do something about and what needs to be just accepted and adapted to as best we can?

Note that the goal of the evening is not so much getting answers from experts as raising questions and expressing concerns in a supportive environment. Small group and forum discussion may suggest strategies for action, but one aim certainly would be to plan strategies for future support for one another.

Two Articles published in the Methven newspaper

1. Family Farming: Looking to the Future

Farmers have a reputation for being moaners. "They’re always grumbling about something or other" is a popular perception. Recently 26 farmers got together in St John’s Church and were invited to do a bit of grumbling together. The topic was the future of family farming and those present were encouraged to follow the example of our pioneers in this country and the wandering Israelites of a few millennia back and tell it as it is: speak their thoughts and concerns with a view to seeing what comes out of the conversation together. Perhaps people would get some new ideas, broader goals or a deeper sense of their purpose in farming the land.

The result fulfilled the organisers’ dreams and much more. In lively and open small group discussion everyone contributed and found mutual benefit in hearing different views and experiences. In the open forum some of the data and views were gathered but humour at times took over perhaps to the detriment of getting an orderly and exhaustive report of all the discussions. But there was probably greater gain in the simple enjoyment of chewing over farming issues together in a safe and neutral place. It was like a dose of tonic!

Do our young people growing up on farms want to go farming? Do their parents encourage them? And what’s needed to make a go of it? Those were the starter questions and here are some of the responses.

Yes, there are children in farming families who want to go farming, because it’s in their blood. Farming however needs commitment, total dedication and above all PASSION. Basic enjoyment is needed to balance the sacrifices to be made. It certainly helps to have the right partner, a spouse with personal commitment to the farming venture. The desirability for the next generation to continue with the family farm depends too on the viability of the original unit. It needs to be regarded as a business, with options weighed carefully, including whether land ownership is the best option. The pattern of sharemilking in the dairy industry could be developed in other sectors. Leasing may also be a viable way to go for a new farmer.

Farming parents are generally encouraging of their children but more towards excelling in the work of their choice than specifically towards farming. A good education is encouraged to discover choices and develop wider skills. Farming needs people who are ‘brain smart’, who can weigh up evidence, evaluate ideas, make decisions and update them as required. Education develops an ability to keep up with technology and the continual need to update. Fear of technology is no barrier for younger farmers, although it has to be recognised that technology itself is no guarantee of success. Education is also one area in which a young person can quickly develop a track record in achievement, something that carries weight when borrowing money is on the agenda. It was suggested too that education has a daily benefit: every farmer needs to be able to decipher the "rubbish", the assorted circulars, newsletters and other papers (potentially helpful but rather voluminous) that come with the mail.

When the need for occasional days-off to regenerate was mentioned as one of the essentials for family farming, the minister-facilitator Robyn McPhail couldn’t resist reminding those present that this was the whole point of the Sabbath and that it is definitely something to enjoy.

It was also suggested that a young farmer needs to go and work off the home family farm to gain experience, develop one’s own ideas independently of parents and discover different ways that a success can be made of farming. Role models and success stories are the best way to pass on enthusiasm for farming. The message was to encourage family and friends and develop support networks.

The evening itself developed a few links and people were keen to continue the conversation. (More on the discussion plus future plans next week.)

Published in Snowfed Schoolline 7 June 1999

2. More Farming Issues and Future Plans

Science, the marketplace and change: what can we do something about and what needs to be just accepted and adapted to as best we can?

These are some of the issues those present at the Family Farming discussion evening really go their teeth into. Twenty six farmers turned up at St John’s Presbyterian Church recently to share concerns and ideas for family farming to continue in a viable way for this generation and the next.

The marketplace now is difficult, but we need to face it and move on. There are concerns about cartels, monopolies and big business pushing farming profits down, not in themselves guaranteeing efficiency and using science and the ownership of knowledge and experimental results to control producers on the land. It was suggested that some controls used by corporations are outside the law, but the power difference between farmer and big business is loaded against any viable challenge to, for example, royalties collected on a farmer’s own seed. There are mixed views about genetically modified organisms: these developments (e.g. weed-spray resistance) may mean that crop production for local farmers remains viable but there are so many unknowns about wider and longer term effects. "Ticket clippers", people who collect their portion as a product moves through the system from producer to market, are considered too numerous, much to the disadvantage of the producer.

Internationalisation and its monopolies are pitting farmer against farmer, locally and internationally. In the past farmers have formed co-operatives: can this be done now? Co-operation has always been at odds with their independent character of farmers. However a level of assistance between farmers has been a reality in the dairy industry, in contrast to greater secrecy among arable farmers and the predominantly solo operation of sheep farmers.

Government’s code of non-intervention is well established. The view was expressed that it is not helping the current situation. Perhaps there needs to be a shift from non-intervention across the board to government input into community development. Rather than support to individual farmers (with all the pitfalls of subsidies and creating an artificial environment that seems to entail) the building of sustainable and viable communities of people in rural areas could be a primary government role. It would not mean the favouring of one sector against others. For our community it would mean benefiting a whole range of economic activities, farming and tourism included. For example, in relation to an irrigation scheme, government could have input on the environmental portion of the scheme, or act as loan guarantor.

Will farmers of the future be independent producers or just piece-rate contractors? Sharemilking arrangements may include piece-rate aspects and arable farmers work regularly with contracts, but there are concerns. How wide is the gap between the "piece-rate bottom" and the "independent top" in farming, is the gap increasing and are some farmers getting stuck at the bottom?

The wider scene in New Zealand has some issues for farming too. It is noticed that educational institutions and society in general discourage people from going farming. What is more, students loans are an incentive for young people with agriculture qualifications to go overseas. Pay scales available in town give little encouragement.

New Zealand farming needs to find unique products and seek out niche markets, with people in the system between primary producer and market who are not ticket clippers but value adders. Farmers also need to clarify what counts as success and how to measure it for themselves. This is a topic for another discussion perhaps: success and satisfaction in farming; having goals and reaching them. But the topic that was chosen definitely for another evening was Succession: aging farmers, family farm transfers and keen and able young people getting on the land and in charge of the cheque book.

There will be many stories to tell of how a person begins in farming - as many as the people who gather to talk. We acknowledge that none of us has a birthright to farming: we work as caretakers more than owners. And one comment was apt: if there is a problem in feeling an obligation as the next generation on the land, then one shouldn’t be there.

Watch Snowfed for details of the next Farming Discussion in St John’s Church in July.

Published in Snowfed Schoolline 14 June 1999