14 March 2011
The state of the farm
Speech by the President of Federated Farmers, Don Nicolson to the ACT National Conference, Auckland 13 March 2011
I wish to thank your Party’s President, Chris Simmons and of course the Hon Rodney Hide, for this opportunity to speak
to you this Sunday.
This will be my final speech to the ACT Party as President of Federated Farmers, a role I have enjoyed for almost three
Can I start by saying your Party’s leader has been the most effective Minister of Local Government I have dealt with.
He’s a dynamo in an area that wrongly sails under the media radar given how much the sector consumes. All the power to
your pen, Minister.
I’d like to thank the ACT Party for its focus on regulatory scrutiny and reform. It’s courageous and right because
regulation is like death by a thousand cuts. While one may be good, hundreds can kill endeavour though the insidious
costs it adds.
Yet I can’t say the same thing about one Ministerial colleague, who recently said Federated Farmers had overblown the
ETS’s cost because it has been ‘absorbed into margins’. That person is right, except those margins are the margins of
farmers, consumers and taxpayers.
We’ve absorbed the ETS’s cost only to enrich foreign owned forestry companies. Can anyone tell me how that’s improved
Federated Farmers is disciplined, principled and focused. Best of all we have a growing net membership.
Farmers are coming to us for the skills we offer in local and regional government, the discipline we bring to the
Wellington policy meat grinder and overseas, with our ability to talk farmer to farmer.
I must confess the first fielday I attended as President, very few wanted to shake my hand. In year two, people started
coming up to me to say I was doing an ‘okay job’ but now, in the twilight of my presidency, I’ve started to blush.
According to Rural News, it looks like Federated Farmers presidential election will be the first contested one since the
early 1990’s. As one of our staff members observed to me, ‘people want the top job because Feds has its mojo back’.
The Christchurch earthquake
In recent weeks things as we knew them have changed. Before I talk about our earthquake, I think we need to take a few
seconds to reflect on the 8.9 earthquake that devastated Japan on Friday.
These images remind me of how numb I felt as CNN and the BBC relayed images of the Christchurch I know in ruins.
Christchurch happened while I was at the biennial Paris International Agricultural Show, French farmers openly extended
their heartfelt sympathy and sorrow. This was genuine and completely unexpected.
Everyone, everywhere, became a son or daughter of Christchurch. We now need to become the sons and daughters of Sendai.
I have offered to Ministers, Federated Farmers assistance to mobilise a team of farmers to assist our Japanese
colleagues recover farmland inundated by this terrible tsunami. It may be small but it shows how farming is collegial.
We’re all farmers and mates help their mates.
From our local tragedy the response of students and our own ‘Farmy Army', was to me, a big positive for the spirit of
community. We proved communities can self-organise for a common good. That’s a lesson policy makers need to learn from.
It will surprise many to learn but Federated Farmers has no compulsory levy to fund itself. We don’t get any Government
grants but instead survive off a voluntary subscription base. It’s why we are a union of farmers for farmers, as we rely
on people calling 0800 FARMING, emailing us or joining online to fund what we do.
While farmers and students get stick from time to time, we both got stuck into helping Christchurch recover.
Last September it was rural Canterbury, with people like Murray Rowlands dashing from silo to silo followed quickly by a
severe southern storm, that had me and our troops right in the thick of it.
This year it was the leadership of my good friend, ‘General’ John Hartnell, a Federated Farmers board member who was
ably supported by our provincial teams and staff.
Together with 4,000 volunteers from us, Young Farmers, Rural Women New Zealand, Rural Contractors, Canterbury’s rural
rugby teams as well as walk-up volunteers and local businesses, they made the impossible, possible.
In ten days volunteer tanker drivers with Fonterra delivered 5.5 million litres of water from Silver Fern Farms
Islington reservoir. Silver Fern Farms, like Fonterra, also chipped in donations and food as well.
So consider this. Our 4,000 volunteers spent 28,000 hours digging backed by 3,900 machine hours to remove 70,000 cubic
metres of silt and we’re still going. 70,000 cubic metres.
2,000 kitchen hours also generated over 5,000 hot meals to keep the Farm Army fed. Until recently, 500 meals several
times a day were being delivered to mainly elderly residents - all led by dual Federated Farmers and Rural Women NZ
member, Helen Heddell.
We’ll be back over the weekend of 18 March to commemorate Christchurch with one last big clean up effort.
Can I pay tribute to volunteers and companies that have so generously supported us, because we don’t get a cent of
Government funding to assist with what we do.
It’s like an A-Z from Alliance Group to Rabobank. To Jack Lim, a local greengrocer to Turners & Growers, a much larger one. Thank you Lions and there are many, many more who deserve credit but I fear, I’d lose your
But spirit is found in companies like Greenlea Premier Meats, with 350 employees, who made a $150,000 donation to our
charitable Adverse Events Trust to assist Christchurch.
This is what community is all about and is why we need resilience reinforced in our DNA.
This list also includes a certain Hon ‘Private’ Heather Roy of the Farmy Army.
With Mayors, councillors and her parliamentary colleagues from both National and Labour, she pitched into helping urban
As I said there’s more to come over the weekend of 18, 19 and 20 March.
As a membership based movement we have to prove the value we deliver each and every year. The money we deal with is not
our money but our members and we work in their interests as well as the wider community.
It’s a pity not all ships are run so lean.
Paying for Christchurch
Together with Darfield last September, billions of dollars will be needed to repair and replace infrastructure let alone
the 10,000 new homes that may be needed.
Fletcher Building’s rough calculation has put the bill at around $20 billion.
If you are a person whose home has been wrecked and whose place of work has been destroyed, you will eventually get a
payout. Families will then face three choices:
1. Do they stay in Christchurch and rebuild hoping for new jobs and opportunity?
2. Do they move elsewhere in New Zealand and do the same thing?
3. Do they take the payout and move to Australia?
I’ll be to the point on this.
Putting up taxes will be like giving each affected resident a one-way ticket to Sydney.
We’d not only lose the type of people needed to re-build the Christchurch economy but risk recession. So how can we
afford this bill, let alone last September’s? There is a third and fourth way.
The third way is partial asset sales that could raise $10 billion. That is in the public sphere, but is the scope wide
The fourth way is to cap all Government and local council spending to the 2010/11 financial year.
Given this is projected to hit $110 billion by 2015, any spending growth above this cap would instead be redirected
Such an approach could raise $10 billion within four years, while gradually reducing the Government’s size as a
percentage of the economy.
This is without cutting one cent from what’s being spent right now, without increasing tax by one cent and without
adding one cent to the $300 million we’re borrowing each week.
That borrowing, put another way, is $496 a second or by the time I finish my speech, ‘NZ Inc’ will have all borrowed
Some thoughts on narrow interest groups
I don’t wish to make this overtly controversial given recent natural disasters, but just as the Titanic crushed Edwardian belief they’d mastered nature, these natural disasters remind us we live on an ever changing dynamic
Yet a whole industry has been built out of fear.
Fear of the climate, fear of technology, fear of progress, fear of tomorrow. Instead of fearing tomorrow we need to embrace resilience.
We need people who know how to look after themselves, their neighbours and their communities. We need robust
infrastructure to adapt and evolve instead of pretending a treaty signature can magically halt geophysics or
The fact is we are one asteroid away from joining the dinosaurs. Indeed, it won’t be until after 2020, that 90 percent
of all “killer asteroids” larger than a rugby field will be mapped. That of course leaves 1:10 unmapped.
We are also one ‘super volcano’ away from extinction.
Taupo is the youngest of these ‘super volcanoes’ but 26,500 years ago, it ejected 1,170 cubic kilometres of material. If
water, that would fill Lake Taupo some 20 times over. Pinatubo changed the world’s climate in the 1990’s but that event
was 12 times smaller.
Yet this pales beside Lake Toba in Indonesia. 74,000 years ago that single eruption is thought to have reduced humans to
just several thousand breeding pairs.
While I wonder if I should now call Hone, cousin, none of these are valid reasons to fret, to stop living, or to go into
Life is too precious to waste on ‘what ifs’ or suspect computer modelling. We need to understand there are things beyond
our control and geophysics and astrophysics are two.
We are all tenants of this planet. Sometimes we are a very poor one but we are a tenant that exists by the gift of an
For the ACT Party, as for Federated Farmers, this is not a license to ignore wasteful or inefficient resource use.
To fulfil the needs and wants of 6.9 billion people means we are fast consuming the resources of this planet. Yet
farming can also be a lesson in sustainability.
Fringe groups speak loudly but don’t have any skin in the game.
They don’t produce anything but hot air. They pontificate and lecture but have no dirt under their fingernails. The
Greens in particular tell a lie that farmers get a ‘subsidy’ from the environment. Really?
We’ve farmed in New Zealand for 170 years and we’ve become better. Farming is sustainable because we continue to farm
with nature than against it. We have a 170 year track record on that score locally, but a 12,000 year farming pedigree
To me, sustainability is simply being able to do something indefinitely.
Yet the irony of a city slicker who can’t tell a bull from a cow lecturing farmers on how to farm is farcical.
What are people like this without the food we produce? What are people like this without electricity carried on pylons
in the Mackenzie? What are people like this without fuel imported to fly them overseas to swanky weddings?
Farmers know we need the cities, affluent cities, but there are some in Parliament who think they don’t need the farms
but who wish to farm the farmer nonetheless.
That’s why today [yesterday], from Whangarei to Balclutha, we opened up farms near the main centres as part of Federated
Farmers Farm Day. The more people who learn about what we farmers do, the more likely they’ll question the half-truths,
the slogans and slurs put out for selfish political gain.
It’s ‘Dirty Politics’. Dirty, dirty politics.
New Zealanders also need to stop judging ourselves by how we think others should view us.
This was reinforced recently by Professor David Hughes of Imperial College London, who gave a lecture telling us farmers
to ‘get with the green programme’.
Yet the UK totally exempts agricultural emissions under Europe’s ETS. Best of all, he reckoned Australian farmers will
kick themselves for not asking to be put in Australian’s proposed ETS.
Tell that to Australian beef farmers who’ve lost market share in Korea to cheaper American beef that doesn’t come with
the costs of traceability let alone an ETS. Australian farmers are concerned about becoming a high cost producer and
that’s the risk we now face.
So I have a challenge to people like Professor Hughes, Rod Oram and Dr Russel Norman.
Mates, farms are for sale everyday so go out and buy one, work it as you see fit and show us how it’s really done. If
you know the secret recipe for export alchemy then just do it.
Some believe we ought to be the Rolls-Royce of agriculture. But having been on farms around the world, these artisan
like Rolls-Royce’s already exist.
We should instead be the Toyota of agriculture. Trusted food and fibre with an integrity built from excellent animal
health delivering safe, reliable and wholesome products.
Can I also suggest to Professor Hughes that he needs to read research done by the University of Otago's Associate
Professor John Knight.
Professor Knight asked supermarket consumers about food buying preferences before and after they’d been to a supermarket
and guess what?
The principled reasons spoken pre-supermarket, didn’t make it into the trolley post-checkout.
Research like Professor Knight’s, must and I repeat that word, must be expanded upon. Assumptions are dangerous but
assumptions have underpinned public policy for too long.
Let’s find out what truly motivates our consumers instead of overlaying the desires of local policy analysts upon them
A new political direction
This is why I believe there is scope for a political movement to tackle green issues from a disciplined market approach.
Do you know that led by farmers, 111,000 hectares have been voluntarily protected under QEII National Trust covenants
since 1977. If that was a country, it’d be the 184th largest on earth. Who started it? Among others, Federated Farmers.
Being a Scot by descent I can’t abide waste. I know market principles and farming can vastly improve environmental and
Look at Roger Beattie, Mr Weka Weka Woo.
His weka programme massively out performs DoC’s because he uses farming principles. No farmed species I should add has
ever become extinct.
You’d think he would get a trial license to sell weka to high end restaurants or at this weekend’s Hokitika Wildfoods
Festival. No siree. Weka could be our turkey but is DoC interested in increasing its numbers by way of commercial
farming. No siree.
How about trout? Sanfords has said to us that if the ban on commercial trout farming was lifted Monday, they’d start
farming trout on Tuesday.
At US$5.00 a kilogram exported, it could be a US$50 million export within five or so seasons but are we farming trout?
No siree, because the funding for a certain lobby group comes from a license ticket. Is its Chief Executive interested
in exports? No siree.
This is despite faring would lead to much larger and exciting wild trout under catch and release. Farming salmon hasn’t
stopped people from buying licenses to catch a wild one.
While trout is largely farmed in sea cages, it being a member of the salmon family, it can be farmed in artificial ponds
that in turns demands water with nutrients. It’s about integrated farm management because our food export potential is
That’s why a new super Ministry made up of MAF and MFish must be for agriculture rather than of it. You aren’t of something, you are for something.
Farmers need for in the title as that tells public servants what they’re there for.
But what we farmers also need are for political movements to ask the ‘why not’ questions.
So what are ACT’s colours again? That’s right, blue and yellow.
When it comes to the light spectrum, the Government occupies the blue and the Labour opposition, the red. All the Maori
Party’s colours can be made from yellow, blue and red and even the Peter Dunne party is there with indigo.
A very wise member, an agricultural scientist no less, pointed out to me that plants absorb all but one colour in the
light spectrum. You’ll never guess it, but that one non-colour happens to be green.
Plants reflect green light so ironically, the most useless colour in the light spectrum for plants is green, but the
most useful are red, orange, yellow, blue, indigo and violet.
While you can be green by mixing together the various colours found in the political spectrum, especially yellow and
blue, the one that embraces green as a solid colour form the get-go happens to be the one colour in the light spectrum
rejected by plants.
Speaking of ironies, could whales be sending a coded message to anti-farming protestors?
And that message? To lay off farming.
Last month a whale stranding was found on Stewart Island around the same time animal rights activists chained themselves
to a chicken farm’s grain silo.
On 4 February, there was a major whale stranding in Golden Bay, preceding only by hours, an anti-Fonterra protest on a
cargo ship in Taranaki.
On 23 September last year, Greenpeace initiated another protest at Fonterra’s headquarters 24 hours after a major whale
stranding in Northland.
On 18 May last year, Greenpeace protested against Fonterra’s use of a legal fuel, called coal, by chaining themselves to
the Clandeboye Dairy Factory. Guess what? There was an orca stranding at Ruakaka Beach 11 days later but this time, with
a happy ending.
Perhaps the whales are protesting against Greenpeace and their friends not focusing on the sustainability of cities.
Let’s face it, every time it rains in urban areas we’re told not to swim or collect shellfish for at least 48 hours but
no one delves into this, especially those who purport to be green.
So while farmers are monitored by councils and warts and all, these results are published or prosecuted, who actually
monitors the councils or for that matter, the real environmental performance by our pantheon of Government departments
Don’t you think there’s scope aplenty for a political movement to do just that?
the message and all attachments. Thank you.