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Psychology swaying pace of change

The site location of the Wakamoekau Community Water Storage Scheme reservoir. PHOTO/FILE

Farmers are acutely aware of the need to keep evolving, but is the famous Kiwi No 8 wire mentality holding us back? Susan Goodfellow, director of Leftfield Innovation, is lead author of a new report that suggests our mindsets must evolve along with our practices.

Nowhere is the Kiwi No 8 wire mentality more ubiquitous – and effective – than down on the farm. For more than 100 years ingenuity and resourcefulness have been synonymous with the men and women of New Zealand’s backbone primary sector.

A new study has looked at whether the same dogged, steely determination is fit for purpose for the next 100 years. Change is happening, driven by a combination of factors, most of which Kiwi farmers seamlessly adapt to – but is it enough to ensure that they maximise all the opportunities?

In September 2020, I was part of the research team that drilled into the thought processes of some Wairarapa farmers through workshops and a series of one-on-one interviews, as part of the Next Generation

Systems research programme funded by the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge.

The objective was to help Wairarapa farmers and rural professionals discover what is required to develop future-ready farm systems – and not just what they farm, but how they farm.

The study comes after work with Canterbury farmers led by Leftfield Innovation in 2018. The farmers showed strong interest in considering new land use futures, with the Central Plains Water irrigation scheme providing an opportunity for transformative change.

Similarly, Wairarapa farmers are interested in sustainable land use diversification opportunities associated with reliable water through the proposed Wakamoekau Community Water Storage Scheme.

The workshop and follow-up interviews were clear: Wairarapa farmers are acutely aware of the need to keep evolving to make the changes that are required.

Getting in the way sometimes is the very trait that has made Kiwi farmers so successful: that No 8 wire mentality. When there is a lack of clarity on exactly what the market opportunity is, and specialised skills are required to navigate this unfamiliar territory, no amount of resourcefulness is going to make meaningful progress in a hurry.

The solution, and a key out-take from the study, is more collaboration among farmers, coupled with access to quality, trusted data.

Several farmers in the Wairarapa study recognised that while many farmers know the processes and technical aspects of farming through their formal training and hands-on experience, understanding the psychology of farmers and farming is less understood. Some farmers who have been curious have developed knowledge in this area.

There were sector differences when it came to the responses from the farmers. Dairy farmers were less open to the need to change than arable and sheep and beef farmers.

Mixed-cropping farmers in both regional groups tended to have the strongest views about the need for a future-focused mindset and willingness to collaborate with other farmers and parties in the value and supply chain, to meet their future business goals.

Sheep and beef farmers were already heavily invested in capturing more value from their outputs, as many were members of co-operatives.

It’s clear that we need to give consumers the food they want, at the same time showing them that it comes from authentic sustainable agriculture. Now, we need to help farmers make the link between their decisions on farm and how that is valued by consumers, and demonstrate the important role trusted data plays in linking these together.

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