July 26, 2008

Give the women a go!

Give the women a go!
By Clive Dalton

Years ago when working for the New Zealand MAF Quality Management, my Farm Dairy Adviser mate Peter Gascoigne came in exhausted after being out all day inspecting farm dairies. We tried in vain to kill the term "dairy sheds" to remind farmers they were in the "health food business". We failed - totally.

Peter said he'd had a gut's full as after 30 years, there were still as many "dirty dairies" as when he started. MAF advice had clearly fallen on deaf ears as at that time, only 8% of farmers achieved a Grade-Free Certificate for the season. Financial penalties and appealing for "searching for excellence" had no effect.

But then in a flash, our failure was obvious; for the last 100 years MAF had targeted its dairy messages to the wrong sex!

We'd been trying to get men to develop a passion for hygiene, detergents and cleaning methods. We'd assumed that teats, their care and the cost of mastitis would have soaked in to problem farmers' brains. Instead we started to look for flying pigs!

We tried to tell our bosses that all these issues were natural to women on farms, many of whom used to remind me of the agony of mastitis, swollen mammary glands and cracked teats! Most of them had been in professional careers before farming.

Peter and I gave up. It was far too revolutionary for an industry run by males who sat alone around the polished tables of Dairy Companies, the then Dairy Board and Livestock Improvement boardrooms.

This background came to haunt me recently when thinking about the parlous state of the sheep industry, and who was out there who cared and wanted to help. I really wondered if a major cause of the current economic mess is that for the last 100 years, technical advice and political decisions have all been targeted at "HIM" the sheep and beef farmer.

This was natural I suppose, as sheep farming was a massive part of our New Zealand pioneering history involving the hard physical job of scrub cutting, fencing, dagging, crutching, shearing, dipping, led by All Black icon Colin Mead's image of carrying strainers up steep hills!

If you'd suggested that each sheep farm was a multi-million dollar "business", where financial and marketing skills were far more important and needing more brain than brawn, you'd have been dagged, crutched and kicked out of the woolshed.
So muse on these questions. If women had been in charge of sheep farming for the last 40 years, would things have been the same, better, or worse than they are today? By being involved, I mean making the major operational and business decisions on farms, and driving sheep farming politics off the farm.

You'd have to say that things would NOT have been the same. Then you'd have to admit that they couldn't have been worse! So, you're left with the conclusion that things would have been better!

Now that's a scary conclusion, and needs time to absorb, as the obvious rider to this is – is it too late to let the women take total control of the sheep industry to rescue it?

The real hope for the future of the sheep lies in the New Zealand "Women In Farming" movement. Let's urge them to infiltrate and take major control of meat companies, wool marketing organisations, research organisations, stock and station companies, fertiliser companies, Federated Farmers, get broadband to all rural areas, and be a permanent lobbying force in Wellington where real farmers in the House are as rare as Kakapo parrots.

Women also need to kick agricultural education in the backside and promote farming as a "business" career in schools to young folk, and not just about hooning on bikes. Males should not go near schools to talk about farming as a career – as they look like "farmers" and all the kids' prejudices gained from the media and TV are aroused.

Sheep farming has been based on the ethic that if you were not out the back cutting scrub, fencing or spraying gorse and you appeared back before dark, you were an idle young lay-about. And heaven forbid if you were ever caught in the house, even for lunch, if the bank manager or agent phoned.

"Women In Farming" needs to kill this stupid attitude which came from "the old country" and now get Dad on to the computer, starting off with emailing the kids and grandkids. Then you can get him on to looking for bargains on TradeMe.

At the average age of 55+, male sheep farmers cannot work any harder with stuffed backs, knees and hips. They have to work smarter, and the women in the sheep industry need to take total control of this to make it happen. The men have had a go for long enough and look where we are? Stand back and let the women have a go.

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