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Farmers take the yin with the yang

Some welcome positivity has been expressed for New Zealand’s farmers as they continue to work to feed the nation during the Coronavirus 2019 pandemic (COVID-19).

Agriculture is deemed as an essential service, so it’s been business as usual for the farming fraternity, despite the nationwide lockdown. There are several pressure points within farmer-to-farmer conversations as they work out the best way forward.

One of the biggest observations in-house – outside of how to get everything done without being near anyone – is that farmers are universally sensing some renewed respect and appreciation from their urban customers.

Because, in all honesty, everyone has arguably spent enough time in supermarket queues to ponder what it would be like to face empty shelves once they finally make it through the door.


Challenges day-to-day

At the coal face, the biggest everyday challenges remain in the larger operations. They are faced with managing “practical distancing” for staff within the need to manage time-sensitive on-farm jobs, which sometimes demand more than one person. On the flip side, their staff still have a job.

For Waikuku farmer Rachel Stewart, whose family (headed up by Graham and Nicky Stewart) milks 400 cows at its peak in addition to a secondary operation, Cressland’s Contracting, they are pushing on.

The family provides employment for eight staff locally, and as Rachel juggles her young son, James (who can no longer attend day care), she said keeping their distance from each other – along with repeatedly cleaning everything any of them touched – had taken some conscious effort.

“It has been an added complication to our days, but we appreciate that we’re still working, and know that we are in a much better position than so many out there,” Rachel said.

“We also know it’s vital that we follow the protocols carefully for the safety of our family, and our team.”

She said collecting supplies has added another workload. Because while the vets are deemed an essential service – as is Farmlands – they have to ring ahead to order their supplies, and there have understandably been strict pick-up practices.


The high notes

Rachel said one of the high points for her had been the positive comments regarding agriculture on social media.

“I’ve seen all these posts from people thanking doctors, nurses, and pharmacies for staying open,” Rachel said. “And, then a person asked why farmers hadn’t been included in that list? Two years ago, I don’t think that would have happened.

“It’s great to be acknowledged for the work our industry continues to do – not only for our customers – but, also for our animals from an animal welfare point of view.”


Distance is definitely tricky

For Alastair Robinson, who milks 860 cows at Waikuku and employs seven staff, practical distancing has also been his toughest COVID-19 conversation.

They usually have two people putting cups on cows in their 70-stand rotary. They have had to move them further apart, so they comply with the two-metre gap between staff. While they have an on-farm bubble for five, two staff do live off the property.

“There have been a few practical challenges within getting farm supplies delivered and things like that,” Alastair said. “But, we understand why. The hardest thing has been when a job usually takes two people, and we have to be two metres apart.”

He joined Rachel, in applauding the positive public feedback for agriculture.

“In a funny way, it’s a nice feeling to know that the work we do contributing to feeding New Zealanders is finally being ‘seen’,” he said.

“And, with the uncertainty COVID-19 has brought into our societies farming has proven to be one of the most secure industries, and the easiest to self-isolate in.

“Perhaps – in time – it might bring more people into our industry.”


Country kids part of the solution

Another advantage for farmers is that with their children home from school it has  contributed to more hands on deck to cope with the workload.

It also means they have neatly negated much of the impact and potential boredom that the inevitable “cabin fever” can have on young minds, who have essentially been grounded by COVID-19.


Positive climate change

Farmers have also not missed the positive impact COVID-19 has had on the climate as the global industry, transport networks and businesses have closed down.

Because, they know that they have changed nothing.

According to the BBC compared with this time last year, New York’s pollution levels have fallen by almost 50% because of the measures taken to contain COVID-19.

The BBC also reported that the proportion of days with “good quality air” in China was up 11.4% compared with the same time last year in 337 cities across China, according to its Ministry of Ecology and Environment. In Europe, satellite images show nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions fading away over northern Italy. A similar story is playing out in Spain and the UK.

Its unsurprising that farmers are happily claiming this climate change victory.

Add it to the groundswell of public opinion starting to understand what agriculture collectively (and quite literally) brings to the table, and the reality is that two perspectives have potentially and irrevocably been changed by COVID-19.

What they are saying...