Tractor protests aren’t enough.

Driving farm equipment through local urban centres to show disapproval of government policy is a great way to win headlines. By the time we rev up our engines, however, we’ve already lost.

That’s why farmers must resolve to become more active and less reactive as public officials design regulations that determine the way we go about our work.

This will require the leadership from all of us, women and men working together for a better outcome is the better focus for us all.  As a farmer and a woman, I believe there is a real urgency for us to become involved, especially as we mark International Women’s Day on March 8.

We’re learning this the hard way here in the hills on the South Island of New Zealand, where my husband and I raise sheep and cattle on pastureland. We produce meat and supply stud rams and bulls to fellow farmers in our country as well as in Australia.

We’re also committed to conserving the environment. We’ve planted 200,000 trees on our property, introduced native shrubs, and fenced off waterways. We counter soil erosion by keeping tillage to an absolute minimum. We’ve sworn off antibiotics and anthelmintic medicines because we believe this practice contributes to human and animal health.

On top of that, we’ve let science show us how to do more with less. The use of efficient genetics allows us to maintain our production levels even as we run less livestock. This helps us achieve environmental and economic sustainability—and we anticipate doing even better in this area, as technology continues to improve.

Despite all of this, New Zealand’s government wants to micromanage our use of freshwater with a “one size fits all” approach to farming.

A new set of arbitrary water rules legislates behavior for all of New Zealand. These decrees impose mandatory dates for forage crop sowing without regard to our country’s vast differences in climate, seasonal constraints, and farming intensity. What makes sense for a dairy farm near the coast on the North Island may not make sense for a farm hundreds of miles away and near the mountains on the South Island.

The new directives also neglect to appreciate what farmers are already doing on our own to protect our water. With regional authorities and environmental groups, we’re working to achieve better outcomes. In recent years, for example, New Zealand’s farmers have fenced off more than 25,000 km of waterways, for the purpose of excluding livestock.

Moreover, our dairy farmers have spent more than $1 billion on environmental initiatives. They’ve volunteered these investments, working with people in their own communities to figure out solutions to local challenges. Nobody in the national government told them what to do.

Unfortunately, some in power still seem to think we require heavy-handed guidance, the way children need the supervision of adults. The difference is that while parents tend to know what’s best for their kids, these regulators don’t appear to understand the huge gains farmers have already made in the environmental space and the fact that when we are left to come up with our own proactive environmental solutions, we ensure that these innovations are also beneficial to the economy, the community as well as the environment. Their water rules will cause food prices to rise, food production to drop, and environmental outcomes to languish.

Our concern is that with these regulations in place, farmers now will spend too much time, money and focus on filling out compliance reports and applying for consents to meet the rules—instead of focusing on and developing unique solutions to improve their environment, step by step.

Our tractor protests have called attention to this conundrum, but they aren’t enough. We have to do a better job of anticipating threats to agriculture and confronting them before they have a chance to manifest themselves.

One of the most important things we can do is tell our stories. We can speak up in public, go on radio shows, and become active on social media. Every farmer’s voice counts. We are our own best advocates. Apathy is our enemy.

As we describe what we do to produce food and conserve resources, we’re able to make well-balanced arguments that build understanding between those of us who work in agriculture and those of us who don’t, for mutual benefit.

New Zealand’s farmers already are world famous for our commitments and innovations. We possess the planet’s lowest carbon footprint per kilogram of meat, milk, and natural wool fiber. We’ve achieved much of this without financial inducements: We’ve farmed without government subsidies since 1984.

If we focus more on prevention now, we won’t have to scramble for cures later.

Nominations are being accepted for candidates to the 2021 Global Farmer Network Roundtable and Leadership Training. Tentatively scheduled to be held during summer 2021, the next Roundtable will include a virtual component prior to meeting in person in Brussels, Belgium. The face-to-face event date is dependent on when travel is allowed and people feel safe. Learn more about the event here.

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