Northern Advocate Column

5 weeks delivering the morning paper

27th January 2018

The ad said earn some extra money over the holidays and get fit. Yep, I thought, both of those things would be good right now.

“Own car required to deliver newspapers in the morning.” I could do that. And it would be kind of amusing to be working both ends of the industry. “Here’s your paper… by the way, check out my column on page 5.” So I phoned the number and said I was interested. 

“We start at 1.30 in the morning.” Gulp, earlier than I expected. But since I’d talked it up so much with my partner I couldn’t back out now. “Fine,” I said. 

“It’s minimum wage plus an allowance to cover petrol.” “OK,” I replied, hoping it might have been more. 

The first morning was a training run. I was desperately tired at the end of it, as I hadn’t slept at all before the alarm went off. Having major second thoughts.

Next day I was on my own, delivering papers to the Riverside area of Whangārei and part of Onerahi, about 200 addresses. 

A difficult morning, as I struggled to find letterboxes in the dark and took a wrong turn, delivering papers to the completely wrong street. Still managed at least to get the papers delivered by 7am, before the phones started ringing. 

Because you get paid a piece rate, I’d effectively worked for less than minimum wage. The per paper payment is worked out by the average amount of time it’s supposed to take. At this stage I was sceptical about it all. 

However, after a couple of days, and fewer mistakes, I saw that it was possible to do it on time, even quicker if I ran between the car and letterboxes. 

One of the things it was interesting to realise is how computers are speeding up tasks like newspaper delivery. Each morning we got a printed sheet with all the addresses in the exact order you should deliver them. Using Google Maps a computer programme has worked out the most efficient route.  

For the most part, things were going well, in the first week I only missed a few letterboxes and delivered an Advocate instead of a Herald once.  

Once I started back at my normal day job after Christmas, however, boy was I tired. Some mornings I felt like giving up mid-run and lying on the back seat of the car to sleep. Please just let me close my eyes! 

The BP on Riverside Drive was my saviour on occasions, though it hurt to eat into what I was earning. I can say that a beef roll has never tasted as good as at 4am, feeling somewhat sorry for myself. A coffee was just heaven. 

Today was my last day, after five weeks. It will have felt good delivering this final paper. In the weeks ahead, when I wake up at a civilised time, hopefully I can spare a thought for the army of people in New Zealand who work through the night to do the things that, as consumers, we demand. 

On 1st April, newspaper deliverers, like tens of thousands of other hardworking Kiwis, will be getting a pay rise, with the minimum wage going up to $16.50 an hour. More increases are meant to follow, so that by 2021 the minimum wage will be $20 an hour. It’s the least the Government can do. 

To those delivering the papers in Whangārei this morning, I now have some understanding of the job you’re doing. Though not, it must be said, on a cold, wet winter morning. I was only a fair-weather and temporary colleague. Kia kaha. 

Northern Advocate Column

How do I get this possum killing done?

20 October 2018

In my garden shed there’s a wire cage, a trap actually. I saw it for sale at the local second-hand market and thought, yep, time I did something about my possum problem. Singular, as far as I can tell, living in the neighbour’s Norfolk Pine. It scampers down at night and helps itself to the fruit trees. Or the tomatoes, like it did last summer. 

The trap sits in the shed unused, however, because of my dilemma: what do I do with the possum once I’ve caught it? Take it on a road trip? Like I remember my father—an animal lover—doing when I was young, and he had a similar backyard invader. Out of sight, out of mind, but hardly in the spirit of culling these destroyers of native bush.

I’m going to have to kill it. I should kill it. They’re pests, they deserve to die… Don’t they? 

But how should I do it? My mother-and-law, very matter-of-fact and practical about most things, says drown it. There’s a pond on the farm over the fence where this killing could be done. Just drop the caged animal into the water. It’s a shallow pond, not a lake, there would be lots of flailing and noisy splashing about. The suffering might be a little too much to witness. 

There is the hammer method. That’s how my rural-living, hunting and fishing cousin used to do it when he was trapping possums to make some pocket money. This was the early eighties when you could get good money for possum fur in New Zealand. As a kid, three years younger, I remember many occasions going into the bush to check gin traps, those terrifying rusty jaws of death (or so they seemed then). The trapped possum was dispatched with a viciously swung hammer blow to the head. I was in awe. My cousin always pressured me to have a go, but I never did. 

Could I do it now? Seems like plenty of room for error, I don’t want to be clumsily dealing multiple blows like some deranged Mr Bean. 

I have killed before. Many fish. A couple of sick chickens. And some ducks. We got the ducks for their eggs and to eat. Appleyards they were, good for both. After searching the internet for the most humane killing method, it was apparent guillotining the duck’s head with a cleaver was actually the best option, if you could stomach the blood. 

Cleaver duly purchased. Kids banished from the backyard, two big nails hammered into a piece of wood, neck quickly placed between nails and cleaver swung with a heavy heart. Truly, each time, I was sad for the rest of the day. We haven’t purchased any more ducks. 

I still have the cleaver. Could I chop the head off a struggling possum? I’ve visions of a horror scene… a half-decapitated possum clawing at my arm, blood everywhere, and me falling over the wheelbarrow screaming. Maybe not. 

There’s poisoning. Can you even buy 1080? It’s one thing to support 1080 drops done by faceless other people to faceless furry marsupials in a forest far away, but feeding poison to single animal through the bars of a cage? 

I shouldn’t be so squeamish. I’d be doing a good thing. No different to what DOC’s doing. They’re the good guys, right?

I read recently that the kererū, New Zealand’s bird of the year, has a lower population in Northland, in part because of possums. I like kererū. 

One way or another, this killing’s got to be done. Why do I keep hearing the lyrics to that Bob Dylan song in my head? (Abe said, “Where d’you want this killin’ done?” God said, “Out on Highway 61.”) Killing a possum isn’t the equivalent of a biblical infanticide. End this melodrama. 

I need to borrow a gun. I’ve never fired one before, they scare the hell out of me. But I’ve got to summon the moral gumption and just do it. Killing this damn possum will be good for the environment. 

I’ll do it for the kererū! 

For my tomatoes! 

Northern Advocate Column

Do Ardern and Labour have the courage to tax the wealthy?

13 May 2020

It seems like an age, but cast your mind back to Jacinda Ardern’s address to the nation on Sunday, March 21 announcing the Covid-19 response levels and preparing us for lockdown. You might have noticed a framed photograph of a man on the shelf behind the Prime Minister. It wasn’t there by accident, it was a deliberate placement of a symbolic visual cue. Of the kind Jacinda and her team are skilled at using. The photo was of Michael Joseph Savage, the first Labour Party prime minister. He came to power in 1935 in the middle of the Great Depression and on the back of mass civil disobedience and political agitation by worker unions and the unemployed.

What Savage and that first Labour government are most known for, is the Social Security Act of 1938, which secured a free public health system, the unemployment benefit and universal superannuation. The act was fiercely opposed by industry and newspapers of the day. But on the back of popular support, the first Labour government established a social contract with New Zealand citizens. The state would play a role in securing the wellbeing of all. Savage died 18 months later. He was genuinely mourned by Māori and working-class people.

Positioning Savage’s photo behind the Prime Minister’s shoulder suggested continuity between him and Ardern. The message was that this Labour-led government would also look after us in a time of crisis. They could have done more, and may still need to, but they’ve acted so far in broad accordance with the principles laid down by Labour in the 1930s.

What often goes unacknowledged, however, when looking back at the Michael Savage government, is that the social security spending was funded by a new tax surcharge. The rate was one shilling in the pound, or 5 per cent. Increasing taxes doesn’t quite capture the imagination. But if the 21st-century version of the Labour Party wants to claim continuity with the first Labour government, then they too will need to address the issue of tax.

Tomorrow, Finance Minister Grant Robertson will be delivering what he’s dubbed the “Recovery Budget”. The Budget will starkly present the Government’s ballooning expenditure, coupled with deflating revenue from GST, income tax and company tax. The shortfall will be covered by ramping up borrowing to levels never seen in New Zealand’s history. In the not-too-distant future, we’ll have to start repaying this mountain of public debt. Which means more tax.

With incomes for many of us falling – and the tax we pay falling simultaneously – where’s the extra tax revenue going to come from? It has to come from those New Zealanders who are hurting the least and can most afford it. Labour has backslid once on tax reform. Faced with opposition to a capital gains tax they folded. With Winston Peters perhaps playing a decisive hand. That was then, this is now. A fair response to paying off debt, while maintaining social spending, would be to increase tax on the wealthiest 20 per cent of New Zealanders. There will be opposition from the usual quarters. Though even some of our richest citizens must see the moral imperative of contributing more to the collective pot. Selfish opposition to extra taxes on wealth or higher incomes may not look good when so many have paid a high price to win against Covid-19.

The grounds of the debate have clearly shifted since a capital gains tax was knocked back. Heading into the September election, all parties will need a coherent tax policy. Will Labour and Jacinda Ardern have the political courage to present a vision of tax justice that sees the wealthiest among us pay more tax? Will a majority of voters think that’s fair?

Northern Advocate Column

Composting and the ways of the force

13 January 2018

The compost bin should be the centre of any good garden. Coffee grounds, tea bags, carrot ends and peel, cabbage left too long in the fridge, lettuce that’s brown at the edges, grass clippings, tree prunings and raked autumn leaves—all into the compost bin. Where a few million critters, living bacteria, annelids and arthropods (worms and bugs), will do their work. You can think of the critters in your compost bin as your pets, or perhaps more accurately your working livestock. You’re a rancher of worms, a farmer of bacteria.

A compost bin needs to be moist but not sodden. Getting this right comes from experience. A good guide, if you’re going for a slow-burning composting process, is plenty of worms. A beginners mistake is to overload your compost with grass clippings, which if green will have lots of nitrogen, potentially upsetting the balance of your bin, producing a soggy, ammonia smelling goo. To maintain a balance, add lots of carbon, dried leaves, wood chip, or shredded paper even. If you want to get fancy, you can arrange green and brown in layers. 

With your compost bin filled with decaying organic material and what’s come out the rear end of various organisms, you’re dealing with the icky realities of the cosmos: death, decay and new life. Perhaps, as you enjoy the warm rays of the thermodynamic dispenser in the sky, following a morning spent working in the garden, you can meditate on your compost bin. Close your eyes, imagine all the crawlies, slitherers and multipliers doing their work. See if you can hear them with your mind’s ear. 

If you wish to reach further towards gardening nirvana, imagine yourself as part of this process, one day taking all your bodily bacteria with you into the compost universe, breaking down into constituent parts, fed on and giving birth to new life.

In composting, as in all else in life and gardening, you’ll only learn (and understand) by doing. Seek advice, but use your own brain to observe what’s happening. And one day you’ll have built up so much intuitive knowledge that you’ll be a Jedi of the backyard, understanding the ways of the force. 

While you might not be able to lift a wheelbarrow off the ground and spin it around using the power of your mind, you’ll be well on the way to growing food for yourself organically. In turn, you, a compost master, will be able to dispense gardening knowledge like a Yoda, “Turn the compost with a fork you do, much aeration that way, good results you’ll see.” 

Northern Advocate Column

The art of travel in these Covid times

17 April 2021

Not being able to do something can give us the chance to reflect on that thing, weigh it in our minds, examine again its value to our lives. That’s the case with overseas travel, no longer possible for most of us thanks to Covid. 

Even if you’ve never been out of the country, an overseas holiday is likely to be something you’ve dreamt of. All of us have probably got travel to a special city, country or region of the world on our bucket list. Mine is Greece. It’s quite possible, though, I’ll never go to Greece. That won’t stop the idea of going to Greece looming large in my imagination. This is a point made by best-selling English writer Alain de Botton in his 2002 book The Art of Travel.

A big part of the joy of travel, argues de Botton, is the anticipation. We can daydream about visiting far off places while stuck in traffic after work. The thought of drinking ouzo at a white-washed Greek Taverna on the island of Hydra (where Leonard Cohen once lived with Marianne Ihlen) is a nice palliative to the everyday routine. Enjoy the idyll because the reality, de Botton stresses, may fail to live up to the idea in our heads. We build up a picture that leaves out the smog and congested traffic in Athens. Or the desperate street hawkers pestering you to buy cheap souvenirs.

The reality of travel may disappoint in other ways. De Botton humorously recounts how while in Barbados, he got into a major sulk-fest with his girlfriend over who got to eat the perfect crème caramel rather than the ugly one that had toppled over on the plate. Petty, obviously, but not unfamiliar to anyone who’s had a fight with their partner over something innocuous. Even in a beautiful place, trying as hard as possible to have a good time, you can end up grumpy and irritable. De Botton’s realisation was that you can’t escape yourself, and all your faults and foibles, by travelling to another location.

On the flipside, de Botton eulogises the experience of transit places, like hotel lobbies, airport lounges, ferry terminals and roadside cafés. When experienced as a solitary traveller, these places can generate feelings of tranquillity. Alone in a transit place, we are freed from the masks we wear in various everyday settings. We have to be a certain person at work or with different family members, with our spouse. Everyday life has many expectations. Sitting in an airport lounge, those expectations are removed. We can take a break from worrying about what people think of us. Here de Botton nails why travel is often enjoyable. Because it affords us the chance to escape, if only for a short time, the roles in life we normally have to play. This suggests we don’t have to spend a lot of money or go far away to access this “me time.” Sitting at the bus stop on a beautiful autumn morning might do the trick. 

De Botton writes chapters in entertaining prose on landscape, the sublime, on curiosity, on the exotic—all part of the complex motivations for travel. One particularly interesting chapter is about how artists can essentially create a place. This is what Vincent van Gogh achieved for Provence in the south of France with his expressive paintings of wheat fields, orchards, peasant farmers and cypress trees. For de Botton, Provence was inseparable from his love of van Gogh’s paintings of the region. It was the reason he wanted to go there. On arriving in Provence, however, he was underwhelmed. The landscape he observed was kind of boring compared to van Gogh’s paintings. Which raises the question: is viewing a beautiful painting of a place, reading a book about it, in some way more satisfying than actually going there? Experiencing great art, de Botton concludes, can be a substitute for physical travel.

In the last chapter on habit, de Botton urges us to break out of our routines and adopt each day a “travelling mindset”. To consciously observe with wonder the world around us, as we often do when we’re on holiday in a place we’ve never been before. In these times of Covid, perhaps we can work harder on the art of travel, seeing more while moving less. 

Northern Advocate Column, Uncategorized

Dead monarchs and the cancelling of debts

17 November 2022

When the kings of the ancient Sumerians died or were overthrown by a rival, it was customary for a time to cancel debts for ordinary citizens. The wiping of debts was like a society reset. A necessary one in those early days of civilisation, when the cultural memory of more egalitarian communities still lingered.

Four and half thousand years ago, in the land that’s now modern-day Iraq, debt and early forms of money were relatively new, as was control or ownership of land. In these centralised economies, Sumerian peasant farmers could get into difficulty and incur debt. If it got unpayable, they might be forced to hand over land to creditors or the state. Often then having to sell themselves or family members into slavery. A drought, declining yields, invasion by another regional power, raids by nomads, or high taxes, could all see a peasant family’s fortunes and status in society plummet. Meanwhile, those lucky or in a position to play the system could amass a greater share of wealth.

The problem was, hierarchy and inequality weren’t good for society’s morale. When there are winners and losers, what reason do the losers have for sticking around to defend the winners from an invading army or nomad raiders? Some might prefer to join the nomads or engage in some banditry instead. Hence the practice of cancelling debts when a new monarch came to power. It was a practical way of maintaining the allegiance of commoners to the state and to the privileged hierarchy at its centre.

I tell this tale from the ancient world because there are parallels with today. In many countries, personal debt is high, fuelled by a house price boom and the spiralling cost of living. Wealth disparities have only grown since the Covid pandemic hit. Young people who aren’t from wealthy families are feeling aggrieved. Inequality is stoking political tensions in every country, whether mature democracies or oligarchal states like Russia and China. And it’s contributing to military tensions between nations. Rather than deal with the inequalities, one response is to try and unite a country by drumming up nationalism or even starting a war.

This is the world in which New Zealand might start looking at constitutional change following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. There will be different ideas about what we should do and at what speed. But regardless of who our head of state is (or whether one is even needed), shared allegiance to the state is undermined by inequality. The Sumerian rulers understood this. That’s why when one monarch died and a new one ascended the throne they tried to heal society by cancelling debts. The goal was to restore some equality (and political stability) which had been eroded in the previous years.

Skip forward a few millennia. On September 26, New Zealanders will get a one-off public holiday to mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth. A surprising move perhaps in these supposedly modern times. The Labour government has been smart (some might say calculating) in realising the opportunity to try and unite us in mourning, no matter how forced it feels.

While we’ll take the paid holiday, I’m sure many of us would prefer our debts were cancelled, like in Sumerian times. And maybe that idea is not so far fetched. Word is, if Matthew Hooton writing in the NZ Herald can be believed, Labour is considering cancelling student loan debt as its big election year promise. In the United States, President Biden already has plans to cancel $10,000 worth of student debt for low-to-middle income borrowers. At least some in ruling circles understand that you can’t have a functional society when citizens are overburdened with debt and wealth inequalities are left to grow unchecked.

The vast stretch of time and geography between an ancient Middle Eastern civilisation ruled by kings and modern New Zealand seems, on the face of it, enormous. It’s tempting to think we share nothing in common with those people and their attempts at state management. And yet old problems persist, giving rise to the demand for old solutions.

Northern Advocate Column

New Zealand’s Climate Change Commission still puts growth before planet

New Zealand’s Climate Change Commission a few weeks ago released its draft advice to the government for consultation. The vision statement describes the future Aotearoa as a veritable utopia. This future land of ours will be “thriving,” “equitable,” “inclusive,” and “climate-resilient.” Carbon emissions will be low, we’ll have a “flourishing bio-economy,” and we’ll be “respected stewards of the land.” Transport will be “accessible to everyone equally.” Everyone will live in “warm, healthy, low emitting homes.” There will be “very little waste”, and energy will be “affordable.” Sounds wonderful doesn’t it? All we have to do is follow the advice of the report’s seven co-authors. 

Some of that advice is good, like getting heavy freight off our roads by using rail and coastal shipping. And if the government were to take up the commission’s recommendations, new road construction would stop, and spending would be immediately diverted to the electrification of rail and public transport. The more I read through the report, however, the more I started to question its underlying assumptions. A major problem is how carbon emissions are calculated, which forms the whole basis for the proposed emissions reduction targets. Our emissions are those which are physically produced in this country when we travel domestically, fire up factory furnaces, and light our gas cookers. And when the country’s 10 million cows burp. Anything we import into the country isn’t included in our emissions. 

According to the Climate Change Commission, a significant chunk of our transport emissions can be reduced by importing electric cars. They advocate phasing out the import of petrol-fuelled cars by 2032. The point is, the carbon emissions generated by the manufacture of all these electric cars won’t be included in our ledger. Though we’ll be the ones using them. Electric vehicles and their batteries are made with metals, plastics and raw materials sourced from around the world. The mining and manufacture of those materials are heavily reliant on fossil fuels, not easily replaced by renewable energy. Suppose the electric vehicles are then made in Germany, China and the United States. In that case, a substantial amount of the electricity used in the assembly will come from coal and gas-fired power stations. There are limits to how much low-cost renewable energy those countries can produce to cover the energy needs of their heavy industries. 

It’s not just electric cars. New Zealand will have to import solar panels and wind turbines to generate the increased electricity we’ll need. As a country, we’ll be shopping our way to net-zero carbon emissions, consuming products with a high component of fossil fuel use in their construction and transportation. Effectively, we’ll be outsourcing our carbon emissions to other countries, where it will be their problem. 

Another issue with the commission’s report is that our agriculture sector’s carbon equivalent emissions are dealt with lightly. There’s no call to regulate herd numbers or impose costs on our leading export earner, dairy. Farmers will largely find their own way by fine-tuning current farming practices and using new technologies. If every country goes easy on their biggest export earners, global emissions reductions will never progress at the necessary pace. 

The Climate Change Commission is proposing we do something to reduce New Zealand’s emissions, but not too much that economic growth is adversely impacted. This is spelt out in passages in the report. It’s admitted that only a certain level of emission reduction is “possible at home” and that “offshore mitigation” will be needed. That means industries offsetting emissions by purchasing carbon credits overseas or investing in “carbon sinks,” like forest plantations in Siberia. The need for offshore mitigation assumes that other countries can do better than us. If all countries take this attitude to protect their economies and lifestyles, overall emissions reduction is clearly impossible.

The Climate Change Commission’s report is an overly optimistic vision of “green growth” that relies on importing high technology products and offsetting the emissions we’re unwilling to cut. That way, our economy, the commission predicts, will still grow 60 per cent by 2050. If the world economy grows at that rate, carbon emissions will continue to rise globally as a result of the massively increased energy demand. And the worst-case scenarios of catastrophic climate change will be inevitable.

Northern Advocate Column

Referendums: one tool in the democracy toolbox, not always the best

18 November 2020

I used to think we should have more referendums—the binding kind, which gave politicians no wriggle room to ignore us, the people. It seemed so sensible to me, so obviously democratic. Fair decision making simply came down to the maths. More than 50% of the vote and you had a decision. This was ultimate democracy, where everyone’s voice was heard and tallied. 

The high point for me was the 1993 referendum that gave us MMP. We made the politicians do something they didn’t really want to do. And I was on the right side of history (though only by a slim margin, 53.8% voted to change our electoral system).

But later, came a low point. The referendums on changing New Zealand’s flag got really odd. Many people on the left, who you’d expect to wish the Union Jack gone, voted for the status quo because they didn’t like John Key. And choosing from uninspiring alternative designs before deciding to ditch the current flag was the wrong way about. It all got a bit silly, so I didn’t even bother casting a final vote. So much for my enthusiasm for referendums.  

Our latest referendums, on euthanasia and cannabis legalisation, got me thinking more about this democratic tool I’d once been so enamoured with. One problem with having a referendum is that once the referendum is done there’s little likelihood of having another on the same issue anytime soon. But on many issues—cannabis legalisation probably being one—different generations can think differently. So the majority opinion may shift as the years pass. Making decisions by referendum, unless we keep voting on the same issue over and over (which no one wants) doesn’t allow for the majority view to change over time. We’re stuck with the cannabis decision for a while now. For a government to ignore it would undermine the whole point of having the referendum. This tallying of “for” and “against”, doesn’t provide the opportunity for a large minority to make change that others will come to agree with, or at least accept, later. Democracy can tolerate and should allow, on occasion, minority leadership. Referendums don’t enable this, which is a weakness.  

Another problem with referendums was most clearly seen with the Brexit vote in Britain. A narrow vote for leaving the European Union imposed a decision on nearly half the population that they strongly disagreed with. The brutal maths of a decision based on a majority vote leaves no room for compromise or arriving at a consensus. Having close to 50% of the population living with a major constitutional decision they don’t agree with is going to create problems.

It’s not just countries that grapple with how to make democratic decisions. Does a company, a school, a union or a sports club make decisions via consensus or by putting things to a vote? Having a vote leads to winners and losers. It can compromise the functionality of the group, leading to splits and unhelpful antagonism. Getting consensus is a skill, it requires a different kind of leadership than calling for a vote. Building consensus requires everyone (or at least most) in the group wanting to achieve a consensus decision. Majority voting doesn’t require that you engage with the other side to reach a position somewhere in the middle. It may not encourage carefully listening to what other people have to say. 

Now I’m not advocating that we stop having referendums. It’s just that my own view of them has evolved. Democracy is a more difficult and nuanced thing in practice than I once imagined. And it isn’t a prize on its own. It’s worth asking, what are we trying to achieve with democracy? I’d argue it’s fairness, justice and equality of opportunity to lead a flourishing life. Democracy should be regarded as a set of tools, not just a hammer. With multiple tools, we construct a house (a whare) that aims to achieve the greatest human well-being and reduce any harm and suffering.

Northern Advocate Column

Small and big water users on a collision course

9th September 2020

“It never rains but it pours.” Having experienced the extremes of weather this last 12 months, an appropriate re-wording of that old saying would be: “If it’s not a drought, it’s a flood.” 

Northland has always had seasonal differences in rainfall. Droughts and storms that cause extensive flooding aren’t new. But last summer was the hottest and driest I can recall, and it’s been followed by the wettest winter. Our climate is obviously changing. Climate scientists are predicting that what we’re experiencing may well be the new normal. 

Regular droughts will put a strain on water supplies and cause disputes between different water users. Those tensions are already emerging. There’s been much interest in the application by avocado growers to access an additional 6 million litres of water per year from the Aupōuri Peninsula’s aquifer. The only source of water for many Far North locals. It’s not the only area where water consents are being sought. 

A common feature is the large size of the operations wanting increased access to water. In Northland, like the rest of New Zealand, farming enterprises are getting bigger. This is a model of land use and ownership heavily dependent on scale to generate operating efficiencies. Companies are often highly leveraged to banks. Their focus is on delivering a single food product to supermarkets or for export. Leaving aside the justice of land being increasingly owned by a few, this model has a lot of risk contained in it. Prices can fluctuate, interest rates can go up, input costs can increase, or it might not rain enough. 

Too little rainfall at crucial times of the year is a risk that big agriculture wants to mitigate. These enterprises could build water storage themselves, capturing water during periods of heavy rainfall in a similar way to a householder or bach owner collects water in a tank. That would be a private cost. Companies with slim margins and an eye on reducing costs would rather access water cheaply from underground aquifers. Or have the government and local councils pick up the costs of irrigation projects or mass water storage. 

Recently the government gave $12 million for a water storage project coordinated by the Northland Regional Council. The project received $18.5 million last year. That’s likely to be only the start of public money for water storage and irrigation projects that will be essential to new large scale horticulture ventures. 

The high-cost, high-risk vision of agriculture has clearly got backing within government and local councils. It’s not, however, the only vision of farming for Northland. One better adapted to the extremes of weather caused by the atmosphere warming is small scale mixed farming producing for a local market. Of which there are plenty of pioneers in Northland today. 

Regenerative agriculture uses practices to keep water in the land. Organic material is used to maintain healthy aerated soils that can absorb and retain moisture. The emphasis is on a diversity of crops and animal husbandry. Different crops may succeed one year where others fail without destroying the viability of the whole farm. A term often used in ecology circles to describe this type of farming is resilient. It’s adaptable in the way that planting a single crop over 400 hectares is not. 

Given what we know about climate change, small scale organic farming practices producing a variety of quality food for local people needs to be our future. It’s not the dynamic that’s currently playing out across Tai Tokerau. Big is in the ascendency.

Climate change and farming intensification are on a collision course in Northland, with water access the flashpoint. Where does public sentiment lie? Is it with the big landowners and their high-risk model, or with the resilient practices of the small organic farmer?   

Northern Advocate Column

‘A Small Farm Future’ by Chris Smaje

14 November 2020

Imagine no Fonterra, no mega-dairy farms, no super-sized avocado orchards. Imagine that shiploads of rice, wheat, and—oh my god!—coffee, weren’t landing on our shores. Imagine instead that all the food we eat is grown locally on small farms, less than a few hectares. That’s the future for the world envisaged by Chris Smaje, author of the new book A Small Farm Future published by Chelsea Green Publishing in the UK. 

There’s long been recognition in permaculture and ecological circles that small-scale mixed farming is the future we need. The strength of Smaje’s book is that he tackles head-on the possible criticisms of this small farm future. Like the idea that small farms, with little or no fossil fuel inputs, couldn’t possibly feed the world. To counter that argument, Smaje makes a case study of Britain in 2050 with an increased population of 83 million (thanks to the benevolent acceptance of refugees fleeing from countries worst affected by climate change). 

He goes through the process of dividing up the land and labour of the country, factoring in conservative estimates on yields, and making choices about what needs to be grown to produce the necessary calories. There would be more vegetables eaten, including potatoes a thousand ways, and a lot less sugar and red meat. The figures he comes up with, carefully explained and justified with scientific rigour along the way, say, yes, it can be done. There might be political, economic and social reasons why Britain doesn’t immediately embrace small farm self-sufficiency. Still, this doesn’t mean, according to Smaje’s analysis, that it’s not possible. 

You often hear from New Zealand export farmers—of dairy and meat in particular—that they’re performing the necessary service of “feeding the world.” But the rest of the world, if land was owned and controlled differently, and if different social and environmental considerations reigned, could, in fact, feed itself. 

Being a small farmer himself, and with a science background, Smaje is careful about any claims he makes. It’s this sober analysis that actually makes Smaje’s book inspiring and worthy of repeated reads (he’s also a great writer). A Small Farm Future is theoretical, but it’s grounded in the limits that farming (and nature more broadly) has always imposed on the human species. One of Smaje’s common themes, bringing together economics, lifestyle and sustainability, is that accepting limits is healthy. Less destabilising and stressful of people and eco-systems than the illusion of no limits. 

Our high energy, high waste, globalised economy is clearly overreaching the limits of what the Earth can support. Cities, according to Smaje, for a host of social, economic and environmental reasons, will start to empty out. With a city exodus leading to an expanding rural population, then land ownership, Smaje predicts, will be a flashpoint political issue. They’ll be an urgent need for land reform that makes land available to small farmers to own. 

The later parts of the book are perhaps the most fascinating and also original. Smaje speculates on what a small farm society might look like. He stresses, for instance, the importance of avoiding the exploitation of women’s work by patriarchal farmers. There’s no reason why the values we currently hold dear—like gender equality—can’t be part of the legal framework of a small farm society. Smaje does anticipate, however, the eroding power of the centralised state, conceding more power to local populations to decide things for themselves. One interesting chapter is titled “From Nations to Republics.” 

Smaje has lots of good things to say about peasants, both historically and today. As someone who fancies himself as a neo-peasant (more in my dreams than in reality), I’m attracted to his unapologetic advocacy of the peasant life. Though it would have to be free of domination by colonial or financial elites. Rehabilitating the peasant as a positive term might stress them as autonomous, multi-skilled, fiercely independent, creative types, who are keen scientific observers of their environment. 

Smaje never presents his small farm future as a utopia. Without fossil fuels, whether restricted due to attempts to reduce carbon emissions or because of increasing costs over time, farming will require a lot more human and animal labour. Smaje is sceptical of a super high tech world of robots and the automation of everything. The energy inputs of such a world—truly utopian—just don’t stack up. Besides, as Smaje persuasively argues, we might find that working on a farm to sustain ourselves and our families, and generating a small surplus, makes us quite happy. That life might be better than doing a bullshit job working for someone else and addicted to whatever passive entertainment global internet-based media companies feed us. Smaje isn’t afraid to make moral judgements. 

An ever-expanding global economy requiring more and more energy inputs—which renewables can’t possibly satisfy—is the delusional future. In one hundred years (probably less), whether we plan for it or not, more people will be working on the land, cities will have declined in population and influence, fossil fuels will be scarce or non-existent. Getting started on embracing the positives that derive from necessity, and trying to make that transition as orderly, just and fair as possible would probably be a good idea. Books like A Small Farm Future are important. They’ll plant seeds in the minds of farmers and searchers for an ecologically-centred and spiritually satisfying way of life.