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Why urban NZ needs rural

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

The tether that once bound urban and rural New Zealand has come loose. Urbanisation has disconnected us. Some people even contemplate a country without rural industries.

I don’t.  I am convinced we need to rebind urban and rural New Zealand for the better of our economic and cultural future.

We need to build an urban-rural compact; a renewed modern appreciation of the critical importance of the rural sector to the New Zealand way of life.

I grew up in a purpose-built working class suburb in Hamilton. We were in that suburb thanks to a 3% Government home loan. My Dad was a welder at a farming equipment factory. Mum worked at Waikato Hospital, bringing babies into the world – including many to rural parents.

Our house backed onto a dairy farm. To get to my primary school I followed a creek alongside the farm. Farms and rugby fields were our playgrounds.

My Dad could never resist snide comments at the 6pm TV news reports of whinging farmers who decried poverty or weather woes.

The sector’s government subsidies were the source of that acrimony. But no one ever questioned the existence of agriculture, as they do now.

As my generation has grown up, agricultural industries have become highly efficient and productive.

The output of the agricultural sector has tripled since the 1980s.  The agricultural sector produces two thirds of our exported goods. In 2009, that was worth $17b. Agriculture exports more than pay our entire core health bill.

The dairy industry went from producing 6 billion litres of milk in 1980 to 20b litres in 2014. Operating profit on dairy farms has jumped from $250 per hectare before 1985 to $1300 in the past 20 years (2012 dollars).

During this period something else dramatic happened – New Zealand urbanised.

My old suburb has grown in size, inhabited now by many new immigrants. There’s no farmland within walking distance. To get to school kids to cross under a four-lane motorway.

In 1956, 70% of New Zealanders lived in towns. Ten years later, when I was born, 80% of New Zealanders lived in towns.

By the time I was 10, in 1976, I was already part of a generational divide between town and country. 85% of New Zealanders were urban. Today, almost 90% of New Zealanders live in towns and cities.

We have also stopped working in the agricultural sector. In 1986, 11% of New Zealanders were employed in the sector. This year it’s 6%.

Urbanisation is inimical to rural work and life.

The most visible impact is the decline in resources available for rural use. Since the 1990s, urban growth in Auckland has destroyed 1% of the very best productive land. Future urban growth in Auckland is expect to destroy another 5%.

Urbanisation locks labour in the cities. Rural workers are getting older. Staff shortages are common.

Imagine what it’s like for city-born kids who have a latent interest in the rural sector. Their family lives don’t expose them to the rural environment. The public discourse suggests rural work and living is hard, dangerous and tedious. They are career-guided by city-dwelling teachers.

The less obvious effect is regulatory and attitudinal. Privately, and even publicly, urban intellectuals critique rural people and industries. They impose their perspectives on the rural sector via their actions as lawmakers, consumers and public commentators.

The noise of this city elite could give the impression that ordinary people don’t like agriculture, particularly because of its environmental impact.

In private, two-thirds tell researchers they have an overwhelmingly positive attitude to dairy farming.

That’s because 150 years as an agricultural society has still left us with an indelible cultural mark.

If you ask the public to describe the traits that mark out New Zealanders, they say things such as making do, number-eight wire practicality, modesty and innovation.

If you ask them to describe the traits that typify dairy farming, they list almost exactly the same things.

So the empathetic connection is present. It’s not too late to avoid our urbanisation hardening into a permanent handicap.

Agriculture is central to our economy. Its world-leading productivity and innovation is a massive economic advantage. Our urbanisation has no comparable alternatives.

Rural industries have done a lot of changing – becoming far more environmentally sustainable, and modifying everything from the way they use roads, treat crops and animals, and allow public access.

The onus is now on the urban population. We need to fuel the rural sector with those young, socially immobile people in our city suburbs. We must moderate regulatory expectations.  We can encourage rural perspectives back into our cultural life.

For urbanisation to work, we need to renew the unofficial compact with rural New Zealand.

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