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AgResearch Farmer Welfare Workshop - Ruakura - 16 September 2009



Family - The Success Factor in Farming

Written by Liz Evans, National Vice President for presentation by Sue Saunders, National Councillor, Region Six Rural Women New Zealand.

Rural Women New Zealand has members serving on many Rural Support and Adverse Events Trusts. This presentation outlines:


  • information and views gathered from these members,
  • identifies indications of farming families under pressure and
  • solutions available.

Rural Women New Zealand (RWNZ) is the leading rural community organisation working for families and communities. It began 85 years ago, is not-for-profit and is apolitical. RWNZ offers a wealth of rural knowledge and advocacy experience.

Back in the 1970’s and early 80’s, RWNZ had well in excess of 30,000 members. Today there are 4000. You may wonder why we would draw attention to this extraordinary drop in membership. A major reason behind it has been the on-going wind-down of rural communities support policies since 1984.

A further, recent illustration is the disconnection of the Ministerial Rural Affairs portfolio.

The fact that Rural Women New Zealand is still here today is the positive point.

But how have the family-based farms fared in the constant upheaval of change?

Farming is business. Especially in times of recession the success or failure of the small to medium-sized farm business is dependant on the attitude and contribution of the family, and, to some extent, the support of the rural community surrounding that family.

What are the Key Triggers which put Farmers and their Families Under Pressure?:


Undoubtedly, a major cause of current farmer and family partnership stress is the constant uncertainty of income (made worse by inconsistent markets and the NZ dollar fluctuations).

Followed by:


Climatic Events eg: weather bombs:

Floods, snow storms and drought, which would more accurately be described as a “weather war” for many pastoral farmers.

Reportedly, the most stressful is drought.



Many farmers, already with mortgage debt, have had to run such high overdrafts they have been forced to put them into structured loans.



And still more regulations – all with “public good” costs involved.


The aging of the farmer work-force:

The average age of the New Zealand is 58 years and increasing. This can lead to more on-farm accidents, the slowing of reaction times and the pressure of nearly always having to work alone. This also applies to new entrants of any age to rural employment including immigrant workers.


Family tension:

One or both farming partners may be forced to gain off-farm employment for the business to survive and the family to have food on the table.

An assessment sometimes has to be made: do we work to keep the farm? Or should the farm work to keep us?


Inter-generational succession and expectations eg: what happens when the older generation wants to retire and the younger generation can’t make the transition.


Family/Marriage Breakdown can cause huge financial problems for the family-based farm business.


The huge demand for an increase in personal productivity resulting in fatigue.


Increasing demands from markets and communities for accountability and control:

Especially over land use, landscape, food production, animal welfare, emission taxes – all these generally at the expense of the family farm.


Infra-structure cut-backs eg: school closure, loss of school bus.

But, again, all, or most of these factors can be overcome with guaranteed consistent income levels.


How do we know if our neighbour is under stress?

Dame Margaret Millard, a past National President of Rural Women New Zealand and current chair of the Manawatu Rangitikei Rural Family Support Trust, says that

“If people aren’t opening their mail that is a strong sign they aren’t coping”. In other words, stress can cause some to isolate themselves from family, friends and community.


Other signs can include:


  • Increased use of alcohol and drugs
  • Neglect of stock – creating animal welfare investigations
  • Relationship conflict
  • Neglect of personal hygiene and physical appearance
  • Anger, anxiety, moodiness, loss of motivation, suspiciousness
  • Loneliness: while the New Zealand farmer has been traditionally seen as tough, self-reliant and personally resourceful, more and more are forced to work by themselves. This is because they often cannot afford to pay enough to attract and retain good staff. And, their partner and family are away at school and off-farm employment all day.

See also the Adverse Events and Stress (draft) Fact Sheet accompanying this presentation. This fact sheet will soon be published in a pamphlet form by MAF. It has been produced in partnership with RWNZ and Ministry of Social Development.

So, What Is Going On Out There?

Here are some edited responses from the brief RWNZ survey to Support and Adverse Events Trusts seeking feed-back for this presentation:


West Coast: “Dairying is the biggest rural activity on the West Coast. The recession doesn’t come into it but the low dairy payout is having a severe impact. Farmers have cut back expenditure to the bone and reduced staff. The weather here is adversely affecting morale, more so than the economic situation.”


Ashburton: “There has been quite significant belt tightening, but only a few cases where farmers have been forced to sell up. The few cases we have are being managed well by accountants etc and our Trust has not had to become involved”.


Hawkes Bay:  “We have now had three dry summers in a row which has compounded many problems. We now have 17 farming families on the Rural Assistance Payment Scheme up from the 7 of last year. Stocking rates are down by approximately 30% which is making budgets very hard to balance. Many farmers have increased debt to get through this period and are now at the maximum of their borrowing capabilities. Generally, farmers are a very resilient industry and have buckled down to make their cloth fit to the current situation by reducing spending to absolute necessities.”


Manawatu: “There have been problems in the area with farmers who breach regulations being dealt with in a very heavy handed way by bureaucracy – it can be the thing that tips the balance. Some Councils can be very inflexible.”


Otago: “The impact of the recession has had mixed results. Some farmers have obviously closed the purse strings, but on the whole, most have ridden it stoically.

It is important that all farmers have a good relationship with stock firm and bank managers to ensure that when things are tough, there is good dialogue going on.

We have been experiencing good weather, good growth, and no major infestations (as yet). All this helps with farmers’ (and their families’) abilities to cope”.


Top of the South: “We have a co-ordinator who we contact if anyone needs to talk or needs help. There is concern for the survival of some of the small vineyards through the recession. A helicopter was used to fly in medical supplies and food to a family who were all sick and who lived at the very top of a valley and had lost their road and bridge in a snow storm. A survey has been done on communications – many rural areas with no cell-phone coverage”. (Inadequate, or non-existent, affordable broadband and cellphone access is considered by RWNZ to be a major risk factor for rural families).


South Canterbury: “The MAF animal welfare people do a great job and deal with many family situations where farmers are under stress. Often he (MAF person) has to work through the family situation before he can address an animal welfare situation.”

Rural Community Response

Sustainable, go-ahead farm family businesses need vibrant, involved rural communities around them to help them achieve their full potential.

Rural Women New Zealand says that strong, adequately-resourced rural communities are vital in this partnership.

If rural towns are allowed to wither away through lack of health, educational, communication, transport and labour force resources, this will severely impact on the viability and future of the family success factor in farming. The result could be further amalgamation of properties and the industrialisation by corporates of primary production.


Current National President, and South Canterbury farmer, Margaret Chapman, says that RWNZ provides “the glue” which helps keep rural communities together.

One of the core functions of RWNZ is to advocate for farming and rural community services.

To support rural families, whether directly involved with agriculture or not, RWNZ offers the following:

  • Advocacy:
  • Group membership: branches, Women in Farming, dinner groups
  • Educational opportunities:  life-long learning, business seminars, bursaries, leadership and governance training courses.


RWNZ National Finance chair and Hawkes Bay farmer, Jacky Stafford, says: “the conditions and criteria of the assistance available through government agencies are so rigid, and, by the time they can be put in place the family literally has pennies left to their name. Farmers may be asset rich but cash poor at these times and this causes a huge strain on families – especially if they have children at boarding schools- because of the distance and transport situation - not by choice. RWNZ can see this in the number of applications made for the RWNZ secondary school bursaries.

  • Community emergency response financial grants.
  • RWNZ is the sole shareholder of Access Homehealth Ltd. It is NZ’s second largest provider of homecare services. It began in 1927 as a bush nurse scheme delivering services to isolated rural families.
  • Communication: through a range of publications including the RWNZ published Rural Bulletin.  This is a free email bulletin which aims to build community capacity by circulating relevant information so people in rural communities have an opportunity to make informed decisions. Also at:
  • Social interaction: RWNZ is experienced and adept at promoting and facilitating rural community events. These may range from a small get-to-gether in the local hall to a week-long range of events for rural women (for example: the annual Southland Rural Women’s Week). Many of these events have an element of sponsorship to them as illustrated by the MAF drought fund donation managed by RWNZ. All these are open to non-RWNZ members.


  • Enterprising Rural Woman Award: a national award to recognise and celebrate rural business women. Open to all rural-based women.

Conclusion:  People under pressure need the hope and opportunity to believe their circumstances can improve.

Further programme development to better support farmers and their families would not be necessary if primary producers were consistently and adequately paid for their contribution to the national economy.

The flow-on benefits from this would ensure the continuing of the traditional farming family operation and the rural communities and organisations which support them. Under present market and economic policies, it could be argued that this is unlikely to happen.


RWNZ recommends that more commitment is made to both broadband expansion and cell phone coverage in rural areas.

While publicly welcoming the Government’s recent announcement of some increased funding for rural broadband, RWNZ National President, Margaret Chapman, said:  “At the end of six years, rural will still be playing “catch-up” with their urban counterparts who already have high speed broadband, and who are now set to upgrade to ultra-fast broadband thanks to further significant investment.

“The primary sector makes a key contribution to New Zealand’s economy and rural should be given broadband access relative to the contribution made.”

It should also be noted that 86% of rural people are not directly involved in agriculture. But, they live and may work in the country in farming related industries.


Post Script:

Communication Communication Communication:

As a local area Civil Defence contact, Margaret Chapman was very involved in the Canterbury snow storms of June 2006.

“The one thing that came through from all our post snow debriefing was the importance of having good communications systems in place in times of adverse events. This is not only people personally taking responsibility for this but also the Telcos and Civil Defense authorities.”

“With no telephones for up to 7 days, cellphone coverage non-existent and electricity off for up to 14 days many, many people were isolated. If it wasn’t for the community working together clearing roads and checking up on people, many would have seen or heard from no-one”.





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