While I am a dyed-in-the-wool ‘townie’, it would be hard to travel around New Zealand over the last 20 or 30 years as I have, and not notice how farming has changed. I also think television and the media in general have had huge influence on what a lot of New Zealanders now think of farming in New Zealand. Once upon a time, the countryside was littered with family farms which were in those days handed down to the eldest son. This has been one of the biggest changes in farming. Increasingly, farms are not owned by families but by a corporate and syndicate form of ownership.
From Wairoa to Southland, the book’s team of 14 writers found great examples of resilience and ways in which it was built by different communities. ‘It came up repeatedly that relationships, connectedness and support networks were what made each town,’ the book editors say.
20 years ago, the landscape in rural communities would there would have been farming of sheep and beef but now farms with hard to farm hill country have sheep. Dairy expansion has bought increased total numbers of herds, as well as increasing the size of the herds.
Land management has changed, with storage ponds and a higher number of irrigators which enables farmers to intensify their production systems to grow crops that 20 years ago couldn’t have been grown. All of these changes have affected rural communities. A lot of the farms now need more people to work on them, and to retain good people is increasingly difficult. Less New Zealanders want to work on forms with possible ownership of farms becoming less achievable, so farmers are having to use transient labour. Some rural communities are struggling as a result.
The effect of these changes is not all negative. Some towns are flourishing through the expansion and diversification of agriculture in the area.
The increase in regulation compliance has led to attention grabbing signs on farm gates alerting visitors to all kinds of hazards. There is also an increased monitoring of health and safety regulations, animal welfare regulations; chemical and prescription medicine handling regulations, water quality requirements- fencing and planting of riparian strips on some streams. They are now recording animal movements so they can trace their movements, allowing them to create strategies to lowering the environment impact.
There are also case studies located in a range of New Zealand settings. Only around 20 percent of the population lives in the countryside and while decisions are being made by people that live mainly in urban areas, many do not fully understand or have empathy with their rural neighbours.
While I found this book fascinating, I confess to finding myself out of my depth. This book, in my opinion, has been written for people in the farming industry or on the fringes of it.
Reviewed by Christine Frayling
Heartland Strong – How rural New Zealand can change and thrive
Edited by Margaret Brown, Bill Kaye-Blake and Penny Payne
Published by Massey University Press