‘Essential’ – farmers should keep working

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It’s official – farmers carry out essential work and should continue throughout the Covid-19 lockdown.

Federated Farmers leaders were in talks with the Government on Tuesday and announced late that day Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had confirmed farming was an “essential service”.

Related services including food processing, diagnostics, farm supplies, and trucking could also continue to operate while limiting person-to-person contact.

North Otago Federated Farmers president Simon Williamson, who owns Glenbrook Station between Omarama and Twizel, said there would be extra paperwork as farmers registered with the Ministry for Primary Industries and assured it they could safeguard themselves and their staff from the virus risk.

“Luckily, farming is relatively isolated,” Mr Williamson said.

He and his staff went their separate ways during their lunch breaks and made sure they were not in close physical contact during their work.

Farming would provide the only means of New Zealand being able to recover from the economic downturn caused by Covid-19, he said.

“Demand [for Kiwi farm goods] is already ramping up in China.”

Mr Williamson said he read a thesis written 12 months ago that said New Zealand was the only country in the world able to be self-sufficient.

Although a country like Britain produced a lot of food, it was not enough to feed its own population.

The pandemic “may reset the pendulum”, showing authorities what the real priorities were and emphasising the importance of efficient, profitable food production systems.

“Hopefully some good will come out of it.

“It takes something like this to show people.”

Mr Williamson believed farmers, along with everyone else, had to be “very well aware” of their responsibilities to others and observe safety protocols.

“The more seriously we take it, the shorter the pain will be.”

He hoped New Zealand would be “ahead of the eight ball” when international borders reopened, and maximise its advantages in tourism.

“It’s an opportunity to rebrand ourselves a little bit.

“I’ve got a gut feeling the next couple of weeks are going to be important.”

North Otago Federated Farmers dairy section chairman Alan Harvey said normal practices were continuing in his sector, but farmers must be “very, very mindful to minimise the risk of being seen as a spreader” of Covid-19.

Keeping staff safe distances apart in the milking shed was “difficult but manageable”, he said.

“It’s more outside the farm gate managing their own social distances to protect themselves and the rest of the team,” Mr Harvey said.

“New Zealand’s done the right thing, made the right calls.”

DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle said dairy farmers were a resilient bunch.

“We need to focus on doing what we do well – producing highly nutritious dairy food for people around the world – as well as supporting each other and our fellow Kiwis.”