One of many similar signs scattered around the Fonterra Open Gates event in Mangatawhiri (Photo: Alex Braae)
One of many similar signs scattered around the Fonterra Open Gates event in Mangatawhiri (Photo: Alex Braae)

BusinessNovember 19, 2019

A day out at Fonterra’s PR farm

One of many similar signs scattered around the Fonterra Open Gates event in Mangatawhiri (Photo: Alex Braae)
One of many similar signs scattered around the Fonterra Open Gates event in Mangatawhiri (Photo: Alex Braae)

Were Fonterra’s Open Gates events a shallow PR stunt, or was there something deeper going on? Alex Braae went to Mangatawhiri to find out.

This feature is made possible thanks to the Spinoff Members Fund. We need your help to make journalism that matters. For more information, click here.

Walking into the Fonterra Open Gates event in Mangatawhiri, the first animals to see weren’t actually dairy cows. 

In an enclosure just next to the welcome tent, there were three beautifully clean and fluffy sheep. Their faces were sharp and alert, like the healthy energetic dogs that herd them. A throng of kids hung around them, reaching out to touch the exotic creatures. 

Unfortunately for the poor old dairy cows, they were relegated down the order for another set of attractions. There was gumboot throwing and tractor rides for the kids, and a coffee cart for their parents. The local school was doing a fundraiser sausage sizzle. The heavy thunderstorm being threatened hadn’t broken yet, and apart from the Fonterra information tent, the whole scene looked for all the world like nothing more than a typical country fair. 

The Fonterra Open Gates programme was the subject of a few stories in the weeks before they were held. Critics noted that only 14 farms were taking place around the country, with most being quickly booked up. The accusation was that they were nothing but a shallow publicity stunt for an under-pressure industry trying to greenwash their image. 

It is absolutely right to say they were an exercise in PR. But that doesn’t really tell anybody anything new – of course branded open days with activities for kids are PR exercises. Much more interesting is what Fonterra is trying to say with such events, whether there is an underpinning of truth to that messaging, and what it all says about how rural and urban New Zealand struggle to communicate with each other.

To do this they used real farms, which Fonterra’s managing director of co-operative affairs Mike Cronin says are broadly representative of the wider industry. Farms self-selected, and then there was a light vetting and preparation process undertaken by Fonterra to ensure they met the standards. An immense amount of work appeared to go into each Open Gates event behind the scenes, and hundreds of people turned up at each one. 

The Lyon farm – just on the Waikato side of the Auckland border – has dairy and beef cows on the paddocks along the Mangatawhiri Stream, and sheep up in the hills above it. The marketing material around their farm indicated that the stream would be the focal point of the visit. 

Jamie Lyons speaking to a tour group in front of the milking sheds (Photo: Alex Braae)

And here, Jamie and Lu Lyon had the perfect points to show. When new fencing rules come into effect, they’ll already be past the five metres they need, at least in the parts we saw on the tour. There was now a way to get across the water without getting wet hooves, with a bridge built over it, featuring a muddy track showing most cows walking straight down the middle. 

Riparians were being planted – in fact, visitors were invited to get involved and plant a tree along the riverbank. There’s no doubt that any encouragement to plant a tree should be welcomed, and a few families picked up shovels. They might happily remember that forever and go on to plant more trees, even if these particular plants might have a tough time growing in the rapidly approaching summer heat, at least according to Dairy NZ’s advice about riparian planting seasons in the Waikato. 

The animals looked healthy. They were well fed. There were big water troughs. The paddocks were a lush green. The milk tanker turned up on time. It didn’t even smell heavily of cowshit. Why weren’t all dairy farms like this? 

The welcome at the Open Gates event was very different to that received by environmental activist Geoff Reid when he went to visit some farms earlier in the year. 

He was campaigning against winter grazing – the practice by which a large number of animals are crammed into a small amount of space and then literally eat everything they’re standing on. There are huge concerns about effluent and nutrient runoff, not to mention animal welfare. 

Reid took his campaign to Southland, an area which has seen a massive expansion in dairying in recent decades and, incidentally, a region where there wasn’t a single Open Gates event this year. He says his presence sparked an almost vigilante-like response from locals. 

He listed off a reel of allegations against local farmers. “Vehicle rammed, window smashed, road blocked, the place where we were sleeping surrounded. Everywhere we drove we were chased.” 

And what did he see around Southland? “Just about every farm in Southland is a complete embarrassment to our country,” said Reid. “As a photographer, one of the hardest things for me is documenting the sheer scale of environmental degradation.” Reid said farmers were acting like gangsters. Farmers, in turn, accused his group of trespassing, though a counter-argument could easily be made that the wider environmental effects of such practices were in and of themselves a trespass against the public environmental good. 

An example of the winter grazing photographed by environmental activist Geoff Reid (via Instagram, @GeoffReidNZ)

The episode garnered nationwide media attention and was one of many that illustrated how quickly arguments about farming practices became extremely polarised. It also cut to the heart of how the New Zealand dairy industry is branded – with rolling green fields basking under sparkling sunlight. 

In contrast, many contend that the branding is largely a true and accurate reflection of farming, and that it is just a minority who let the rest of the industry down. “That’s what we want to show,” said Cronin about the farms that were picked for Open Gates. “They’re a representation of a large number of our farmers.”

“Sometimes some of the more difficult, challenging stories are the ones that get across. And we accept that’s the case, we’re not hiding from that. It’s just knowing there are plenty of farmers doing a great job, and we wanted to champion them,” he added.  

Someone who can see many viewpoints around the impacts of dairying is Glen Herud, founder of Happy Cow Milk. 

“The problem with the dairy industry around the world is they’ve just got bigger and bigger, and more intensive. They’ve got their head down and ignored what the public are thinking, and now they’re into such a spot, where their system doesn’t really look that good from the outside.” 

“If they turn around and argue that animals are needed in an ecosystem, nobody believes them any more,” he added, making the argument that the most environmentally problematic system of farming is a monoculture. 

Founder Glen Herud with his cow 47 (Photo: Nancy Zhou)

“When you put cows and diverse species, and trees and crops and rotate them around – basically the mixed farming model that we all used to do in the 50s, you have a really sustainable farming system.” He added that entirely plant-based agriculture would also come with huge problems around fertiliser use, which isn’t actually a major problem currently for the dairy industry because cows produce more than enough of their own fertiliser.

On the other hand, when it comes to something like winter grazing, he’s very clear that the campaigners are right in saying things have to change. “You can’t have miserable looking animals like that, and what that means is fundamental change for a lot of dairy farmers. What used to work – having very efficient intensive dairy farms – is not going to work in the future.” 

That underlines one of the most interesting aspects of the public relations battle around the environmental impact of farming – that when it comes to behavioural change, public pressure from urban New Zealand actually works. 

It sounds counterintuitive because the vast majority of milk produced in New Zealand gets exported. But those exports rely in part on dairy producers being able to tell a good story to the world about the quality of their product. As such, public pressure has been an extremely effective tool in getting environmental standards strengthened and enforced, as well as forcing farmers to demonstrate that they’re actually making improvements all on their own. 

The recent accommodations around emissions reductions are a classic example. When the current government came out with their opening gambits, there were howls that they would bankrupt farmers. But if anything, the calls for farming to do their bit to reduce the massive share of emissions they contribute to the country’s total profile were even louder. 

So farming organisations came to the table, and after long and often ugly wrangling, they ended up thrashing out a carrot of a compromise deal which – if it is actually followed through on – will see farmers manage their own emissions down. There’s every reason to suspect that if it isn’t successful, the public pressure for the government to swing a huge stick at farmers instead will be immense, and rightly so too given the involvement of farming organisations in coming up with the system.   

Sometimes farmers make the case that urban New Zealand’s concerns are hypocritical or disingenuous. That’s certainly one subtext that can be read into Dairy NZ’s ‘The Vision is Clear’ PR campaign on freshwater quality, which includes, for example, none too subtle radio advertisements encouraging people to go and take part in a beach cleanup or rubbish collection day. They’re right of course – those are problems, especially in cities. But they come across as more than a little self-serving from an organisation that advocates on behalf of dairy farmers. 

The point stands on stronger ground when it is applied to the rivers that run through farmland. Mangatawhiri River Catchment coordinator Matthew Dean farms just down the road from the Lyon family and was there for the Open Gates event. He was very clear about why the group formed in the first place. 

“It was basically started in response to this feeling that we were being presented through the media as being environmental vandals, that we didn’t care about our local waterways. And other farmers thought they were doing a lot of things on their own, had their own private projects going. We became aware that if we all coordinated together, we could tackle a project as one.”

Recently appointed Fonterra CEO Miles Hurrell (Photo: Dan Cook/Radio NZ)

They’ve since successfully shored up the Mangatawhiri stream’s banks through the construction of groynes which help reduce erosion. The project cost about $90,000, paid for by the farmers, with half of that reimbursed on completion by the Waikato River Authority. And Dean believes that the water quality of the stream now is better than it was fifty years ago. He tells a story that outlines how the river was once treated. 

“I remember swimming in the Mangatawhiri when I was 15, still at school. As I was swimming I put my hand into something squishy and sat up – it was a dead pig.” 

As to the attitudes from urban New Zealand, farmers often feel like there isn’t an understanding that rivers are their livelihood, he said. “City folk would like to think of the New Zealand farming countryside as like their park, you know, where they can go out into the country and enjoy. They want to enhance its recreational value – that’s the way they view it.” 

Incidentally, ‘swimmable’ is no longer the quality standard that waterways will be required to reach. Rather, they’ll have to meet overall ecosystem health standards, based on rivers being healthy on their own terms being the most important priority. 

But on the urban-rural divide, perhaps the most interesting factor in how farms were selected was where the demand was coming from. The farms selected were almost entirely within an hour or so drive from a big city, and Fonterra says that was largely based on demand. 

Mike Cronin noted that when he was growing up, almost everyone in the cities had some connection to the rural world, and the idea of going to visit a farm wouldn’t have had any sort of novelty value. “Most of us would know or have connections to farms somewhere. And so it seemed a bit more accessible then. I think as cities have got bigger, it has been a bit harder. So I don’t think there’s that opportunity that we used to have to just be on a farm.” 

Hundreds of people took that opportunity to go to the Lyon farm in Mangatawhiri, and thousands more have done so in the last three years that the Open Gates programme has been operating. It was easy going into it to be cynical about what would be there to see, and much less so after being earnestly shown around the farm by Jamie Lyon. 

Answering the question about whether the programme was a shallow exercise in PR became much easier too. The experience spoke to a much deeper, more fundamental level than that. Because at the end of the day, the Open Gates events aren’t really about the cows. They’re about humanising the people who farm them – it becomes much harder to criticise an industry when there’s a human face attached to it. 

This feature is made possible thanks to the Spinoff Members Fund. We need your help to make journalism that matters. For more information, click here.

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