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Craig Hickman (Image: Supplied / Archi Banal)
Craig Hickman (Image: Supplied / Archi Banal)

BusinessJuly 11, 2022

I’ve worked the land for 25 years. Am I a ‘classic Kiwi farmer’ yet?

Craig Hickman (Image: Supplied / Archi Banal)
Craig Hickman (Image: Supplied / Archi Banal)

People like me may not have farming in our blood, but we’re just as passionate about the industry as those born into it, writes Craig Hickman, better known online as DairymanNZ.

The classic Kiwi farmer is Fred Dagg. He’s Wal Footrot. He’s Barry Crump from the classic Toyota Hilux ads.

The classic Kiwi farmer may have gone to university and got a diploma in agriculture, but more likely they got a trade or travelled on their Big OE before returning to New Zealand. When they arrived home, they worked alongside their parents in preparation for taking over the family farm and implementing their new ideas.

Today they’re middle aged, white, conservative, weather beaten and set in their ways. When they get angry, they’ll drive their tractors to town to protest and they most definitely took to Facebook to complain about a recent episode of Country Calendar.

 

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Unfortunately the classic Kiwi farmer is a concept that has reduced farmers as whole to little more than a meme, thanks in no small part to the signs displayed enthusiastically at recent farmer protests. Oh, he’s at a Groundswell protest in a brand-new Ford Ranger? He must have inherited the farm off mum and dad, vote National, prioritise profit over all else and be a little bit racist with a side helping of misogyny.

If you met me I guess, on the surface, you might take me for the classic Kiwi farmer. I’m straight forward to the point of being blunt, I prefer to listen rather than talk, I am much happier outside working with animals than I am dealing with the avalanche of paperwork that comes with running a farm in the 21st century and the wrinkles on my face will tell you I’m not familiar with the concept of a regular skincare routine.

I also snorted with disdain at a recent episode of Country Calendar, though I kept my thoughts to myself.

 

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I’m not actually a classic Kiwi farmer, though my deadpan TikToks have drawn comparisons to a modern day Dagg. Nor are the thousands of other people who saw the opportunities presented by the explosion of dairy farming from the mid-90s to the present day and switched careers. I was working in the advertising department of a large Wellington appliance retailer when I made the move to dairy farming at the age of 25, a degree in agriculture ensuring I had plenty of theoretical know how but very few practical skills. Many people made the leap at the same time with even less knowledge about farming than I had, bringing with them different skill sets, different world views and different opinions.

This influx wasn’t always welcomed with open arms by the local, old-school farmers of the district. Often there was suspicion of the new people who didn’t have generations of farming lineage coursing through their veins daring to call themselves farmers. Even now, with 26 years of farming under my belt, I run into this attitude. If I express an opinion that runs counter to what farming leaders endorse, I am easily dismissed as “just an equity manager”, as though the percentage of a farm you own is any indication of the value a person brings to a discussion.

The diversity that tidal wave of new farmers brought to the industry was, in my opinion, a much-needed shot in the arm for farming. A good half of the farmers I interact with on social media are women, and a good portion are Māori or Pasifika. Some are organic farmers who think the Green Party isn’t quite far enough left, and others are of the opinion Act are heading in the right direction but aren’t quite there yet. Mainly we fall in the middle, pragmatic and bound by our shared passion for working the land, doing our best in the face of whatever Mother Nature and whoever is currently holding the reins of power can throw at us.

 

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A strength of New Zealand farming has always been the willingness to get the job done no matter the obstacles, and to share ideas and information. Gatekeeping is a foreign concept to most Kiwi farmers, and the rise of social media platforms like Twitter and TikTok have only accelerated the pace at which we are exposed to new ideas and methods of farming. I’m learning about sheep farming from a 21-year-old Wairarapa shepherdess and the superiority of the modified Toyota Landcruiser from an old school Southland sheep and beef farmer.

Despite the huge diversity in farming, we are all bound by some very common things: we are in it for the long haul, and we look to make incremental gains season on season over a very long period of time. We rarely gamble on big changes that might revolutionise the farm because we simply cannot afford the consequences if it goes wrong. We are planners and incrementalist by necessity, not disruptors.

As a group we also find it very hard to articulate our thoughts. We’ve never had to in the past and the rise of social media makes it easier to blurt those emotions out without being able to articulate the reasoning behind it, and unfortunately those social media posts are very easy to mock.

The Country Calendar episode set at Lake Hāwea Station in Central Otago is a case in point. The approach on display was disruptive, the antithesis of New Zealand farming. Very few of us have the luxury to make wholesale changes to our farming system and simply shrug our shoulders if it goes wrong, which is why there was a backlash from farmers both new and classic alike.

The classic Kiwi farmer is no longer Dagg or Footrot or even Crump. Farmers have always been willing to change, albeit slowly, and the massive growth of the industry in the past two decades only served to hasten the change at a pace more than a few found uncomfortable.

The Hiluxes Barry Crump used to drive in those old TV commercials are now classics simply by virtue of having been around for more than 20 years, and I think that’s a fitting way to classify the new generation of classic Kiwi farmers; we’ve been in the game long enough to know what we’re doing but we’ve not been in it so long that we’re constrained by ties to the past.

Keep going!