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Some thoughts on Farmers…

We spend a lot of time thinking about the ‘food movement’. This idea that informed consumers can demand changes in the way our food is produced to be more ethical, sustainable and fair. We believe in the food movement. We believe that we must actively seek out farmers who treat their animals humanely and their environments carefully… this, without exception, is what Freedom Farms is about.

The role of social media in this movement cannot be understated. We live in an Instagram-ready-raw-cold-pressed-organic-age. I know from our own Facebook page that posts of idyllic pastoral pictures garner more attention than anything else we post. Visiting social media accounts of other high welfare or sustainable producers also suggests pictures of hands also get a great deal of attention: weathered, grubby hands that suggest the ingredients in your kitchen have passed directly from the farms to your home handled only by humans… farmers, butchers, shop keepers and you.

But in reality, this idea is almost comical. Farming is an unforgiving industry. Consumers hold this fantasy farm up as an ideal – we don’t want our food grown by business people. We want flawless ingredients tenderly reared by weathered hands and minimal interference. There’s real risk in the growing gulf between consumers expectations, and the demands faced by producers. We know that modern farming can absolutely exceed customers expectations for animal welfare standards… but it doesn’t look like farming circa-1950s.

This struck me as I was listening to NZ 2016 Young Farmer of the Year, Athol New.  Speaking to Jesse Mulligan on Radio New Zealand yesterday, he was asked if he was always going to be a farmer. Athol replied that he probably was, that he fell in love with cows at the age of ten, and really enjoyed working with animals. The same is true for so many New Zealand farmers. But he went on to talk about the challenges faced by modern farmers: dairy farmers are struggling with low payouts, and everyone faces increasing pressure to make their practices more sustainable. Farming isn’t an intergenerational family business anymore. A successful farmer needs a university education in subjects like financial management, agricultural science, and environmental policy and planning to make the most of the opportunities on offer.

We need to empower farmers, the people who are frequently heralded as the guts of our economy, to make improvements that respect the very real economic and environmental constraints that they face. It’ll take our finest technology, potentially a bit of innovation, and undoubtedly a large number of very smart brains. And maybe, just maybe, we can zoom our iPhone cameras out a little bit from those glorious, dirty hands, and remember that there’s a person attached. The hands can remind us that farming isn’t just about food.