Newsroom: October 4th 2023

From a dairy farm to a city cafe, we measure the rural-urban divide

Two interviews, 100km apart. Two very different settings.

The first interview is on a Mid Canterbury dairy farm. As Align Farms chief executive Rhys Roberts speaks in a wind-buffeted office, halfway up a milk tanker track, cows emerge from the shed and wander back into the nearby paddock.

The second interview takes place in a bustling cafe in southern Christchurch. Suit-wearing Research First director Carl Davidson talks and sips his coffee (later, he orders another to go), while pre-schoolers compete with the coffee machine for the prize of highest decibel rating.

What’s surprising about these two conversations is though they’re far apart in many ways, there’s a huge amount of common ground. That’s not to say, however, there’s universal accord on such a complex, emotive subject.

“There’s no better time to be a farmer,” declares Roberts, the Align Farms boss, who grew up in Waikato and has been farming for 20 years. His grandfather, and his great-grandfather, were also dairy farmers.

You have to be a perennial optimist, he says, as you’re dealing with biological systems, climate, animals, people, soil, and living organisms. There’s an elusive goal being chased – “this could be the perfect season”.

Align has six dairy farms in Mid Canterbury, and four dairy support farms for young stock.

The company milks 5000 cows on about 2200 hectares. There’s a small market garden, and Align also owns a yoghurt factory.

The whole operation employs 60 people, 45 of them on the dairy side.

Dairy’s been Roberts’ life, and he loves it. But, oddly, he’s farming agnostic.

He looks out at a fenced paddock of pasture.

“If that land class is better suited to growing pineapples in the future by all means I’ll grow pineapples.” He pauses. “I’d love to grow pineapples.”

He also mulls growing hops, or planting a couple of paddocks in potatoes.

Climate a national issue

That’s the optimism. Roberts then shifts to the challenges.

“I guess we feel a bit like we’re getting told that we need to pay for a prevention of a disease we already have, whilst also trying to prove that we could be the cure.”

He’s talking climate change – something his company felt keenly two years ago when 27 hectares of its farm near Mt Somers was lost – or reclaimed, perhaps – to the river, in floods amplified by climate change.

Agriculture accounts for 49 percent of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions. But, says Roberts: “This is a national issue, not just a rural issue.”

We’ll come back to emissions. But for now, is there a rural-urban divide?

“I don’t think we have a rural divide in New Zealand, I really don’t,” Roberts says.

“We have a divide in the way that we interpret our challenges, and at the end of the day, that’s quite common.

“In a highly functional community, you’re going to have difference of opinion. If you don’t have difference of opinion, there’s going to be issues.”

One extreme voice is the lobby group Groundswell, whose founders headed north in a “Drive 4 [political] Change”.

(One protest sign says: ‘WE CAN’T TAKE THREE MORE YEARS OF LABOUR’.)

“Yeah, you could argue going into Auckland with bloody tractors and stuff’s not super-healthy,” Roberts says. “Everyone, ultimately just wants to feel like they’ve been heard. And if people feel they haven’t been heard they’re going to do that type of stuff.

“Good on them.”

Something often heard from farmers is they’re dealing with unworkable regulations. Are farmers really swimming in red tape?

Roberts says though some regions are only just grappling with having to measure and monitor things like nitrogen loss to soil, and livestock emissions, Canterbury has been on that journey for at least a decade.

“We’re probably not putting our hands up saying, ‘hey, look, this compliance is coming at us too fast’.”