Institutions, individuals, land, community

1983 in retrospect: radical changes in the wind

 

When tossing out piles of old documents recently I came across a paper I presented in 1983 to a conference of agricultural scientists, farm advisers and some leading farmers. It’s reproduced below.

I was then in a space after relinquishing the editorial chair of the country’s leading farm journal, continuing to contribute articles, about to be ordained an Anglican priest. The intention was to be a worker-priest, touching base with the gathered life of the institutional Church but remaining part of the broad milieu of agriculture in New Zealand, sowing seeds of deep connexion without presumption. Instead, more than a year later, after further study and contemplation, I became a parish priest, a fulltime vicar, in rural multi-centred parishes where I hoped to celebrate not only the faith shared by the church’s lovely door-darkening people but also celebrating, in representative community, the whole environment of local life – the life of the land interdependent with the life of the human presence.

Well, within constraints of a societal culture steeped in a tradition that gives a marginal (if highly valued) place to religious faith, and by an institutional church with a vision dominated by urban and suburban values – and even in those settings with limited engagement in the full environment of all local humankind – that was more-or-less OK through to retirement in the year 2000.

Anyway, when glancing through that old paper, I realised the extent to which 1983 marked a threshold of profound change not only in my life but in the life of the land-inclusive rural communities of Aotearoa-New Zealand, in the story of this entire country, indeed in the story of human engagement in the life of this little planet.

  • It was the last full year of Muldoon’s Government. Its “Think Big” response to profound economic shifting of global terms of trade included subsidising increased farm production of bulk commodities tailored in the colonial era which had ended with Britain’s entry to the EC half a generation earlier.
  • Terms like “globalization” and “post-modernity” were starting to be heard.
  • A year later (1984) New Zealanders were to be shocked by adoption, by the hitherto leftist Labour party, of radical, neo-liberal economic governance with links to US business school thinking, demanding faith (yes “faith”) in the hidden hand of the free markets, with realities measured in monetary sums uncorrected by deep values. The Church made its voice heard in the early years of growing inequality in wealth and incomes, but later this voice faded from the ears of a culture turning away.
  • The foundations of neo-liberal free-market model was soon shown to be of shaky when measured by the wellbeing of people representing the median of the population. Meanwhile, as gross consumption grew, so did personal, corporate and government indebtedness and not-quite-totally-suppressed public anxiety that there must eventually be a costly day of reckoning. Life became desperate for many at the wrong end of the inequality gap. A more just and sustainable economy became too costly a choice to be given a political mandate by a people too enmeshed in short-vision realities, too indebted, and too divided between the powerless and the powerful to lift heads and look to the good of future generations.
  • Farms became much fewer and many farmers too pressured by the necessarily greater scale of their heavily leveraged enterprises to engage with emerging environmental wisdoms about deep caring within the web of the life of land. Nevertheless, beacons of visionary hope have emerged for those who dare lift their eyes; not only
  • The institutions of agricultural research and advice referred to in the 1983 paper were in 1983 already engaged in a restructuring programme involving business models, some privatization, much fragmenting, and precious little listening to the people living within the life of farmland – their former clients. These include not only fringe life-stylers but also mainstream farmers demonstrating that it is possible to produce profitably while leaving the land in better heart to hand on to successors.
  • Meanwhile, I believe that hope for a more just and caring society, in synergy with more sensitive care of most land, with eyes fixed at least two generations ahead, must, in spite of today’s short-vision cynicism eroding of democracy, requires a lot of shared sacrifice, a lot of faith

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Institutions, Individuals, Communication

A paper by Boyd Wilson, of The New Zealand Farmer magazine, to the NZ Grassland Association, 1983

 

One could begin 3000 or more years ago when it was natural for people in a reasonably well developed agricultural society to see a subtly tensioned connexion between the degree of wisdom spoken by the mouth and the understanding of the meditative heart); fulfilment of the principle of true community and the increase of the land (e.g. Psalms 49, 85); and we could pause there and reflect on the words of a contemporary prophet, “We are (now) far too clever to survive without wisdom.” (E.F Schumacher, “A Guide for the Perplexed, 1977).

 

But, for our purpose, a more appropriate point at which to begin to understand the state of communication in New Zealand farming may be the Europe of  a mere one to three centuries ago. It is from the turmoil of agricultural and industrial revolution then, its origin and its aftermath, that many of the attitudes of modern New Zealand stem. When we think at all of that era it is often to recall names like Tull (inter-row cultivation), Coke (crop rotations), Boussingault (understanding nitrogen’s role), Blomfield (improver of permanent pasture), Bakewell (animal breeding), and so on. Without delving further, it may be as well to remember that:

  1. People of that ilk tended to be not so much discovers as definers and assemblers of the discoveries of former generations living close to the land;
  2. All were farmers – practical and observant or wealthy and observant;
  3. Especially in the case of the Englishmen (the record says little or nothing about the feminine contribution), they tended to be among the survivors, the new elite of material technology, emerging from a time that was brutally oppressive towards most people of the land;
  4. Disciplined agricultural science, as we would now understand it, was only beginning to re-emerge (centuries after its genesis in monastic communities) under the implied patronage of the landed classes. (See R Whitlock, “A Short History of Farming,” 1966).
  5. Many early Pakeha settlers of New Zealand land had not only emigrated from countries with more robust soils than our young ones but also tended to be a generation or more distant from participation in the life of land as a result of Britain’s industrial/agricultural revolution.

 

This is not the place to juggle the historical chickens and eggs. It is clear, however (or it seems so to me) that our modern farming, with its twin gods of technology and profit, is founded not only upon the manipulation of chemicals in soil, species in pasture, genes on chromosomes, but also upon the manipulation of people. This was particularly so in relation to ownership and control of land. The concept of husbandry moved away from having much in common with the concept of community. The word communicator became a comfortable euphemism for the person or institution speaking from a position of insulated, manipulative authority.

 

These ideas may seem strange in the context of a languidly pretentious national society 20,000km and more than a century removed from the England of the Enclosures; a Pakeha society which seems sometimes to have forgotten the deep ethics of both husbandry and community. Nevertheless, I believe they hold true. We seem to have lost sight, somehow, of the point that the words communication and community stem from Latin roots to do with people holding things and values in common. When one group of people says to another, You must believe or behave as we say, that is not communication. At worst it is elitist, manipulative patronage. Often it is manipulation or patronage of the insecure and humble by the insecure and ambitious.  There’s a lot of it about; in the politics of central planning, in education, in social movements, in what’s left of religion and, of course, in the field of agricultural technology.

 

“Human beings appear to be sufficiently selfish and calculating to be capable of infinitely greater harmony, writes E.O. Wilson (“On Human Nature,” Harvard, 1978).

 

The structure of reality is not self-evident;

the structure of the scientific language is not self-evident…

…all our prejudices about the outside world tend to be built into the language of science,” writes Jacob Bronowski (1978)

 

The key mechanisms of communication are always in the perceptions and responses of the individual reader/listener/viewer. Secondary mechanisms include group dynamics. Compare, for example, the level of response among individuals following a yarn in the pub on sale day with the response following a solitary viewing of a televised Government-department extension programme. So often, one hears self-styled communicators voice their frustrations:  If only the stupid freezing workers could see what they’re doing to their own industry…. If only the stupid cockies would feed their ewes a bit better before tupping….. These, I think, are implied confessions by those who have not themselves been reading, listening, seeing with sympathetic perception and therefore are incapable of communication at any depth. People (Including journalists and farmers) with some awareness of basic economics and biometrics often infer that it is shameful for a person to be below the median in (a) the pace at which the community’s material wealth is siphoned off or (b) the rate at which gift-wrapped technologies are adopted. I think we really understand the extent to which we act out a fallacy and that this explains some of the widespread frustration of our time. Nothing draws people more tightly into an inward-facing circle than shared frustration tinged with guilt. And so is born that most damnably negative tendency of human institutions. As long as I face the centre of my circle, it is easy to see my group in a box on which is boldly stencilled the words Press and Righteous. It is then all too easy to mentally run everyone outside my circle through the drafting gates into other boxes where I can perceive them as faceless blobs labelled “Ivory Tower Research,” “Weak extension,” ”Sloppy producers,” ‘Inept meat trade,” “Visionless Government,” and so on. I may see these other boxes as forming a fairly neat ring around my box, straining against one another, the whole assembly moving only spasmodically and then in directions I think inappropriate.

That, you may say, is just human nature. And that, I would reply, is precisely the trouble. I confess that the Press has often failed to challenge the myth of a public or industry consisting of faceless blobs while often failing abjectly to perform its first duty which is to listen – listen to the questions posed and responses offered among all those we are supposed to serve as vehicles for true dialogue. But we are certainly not alone in this. Whether by merit or default The New Zealand Farmer is more deeply read by farmers than any other journal in this country and its contents are reputed to stimulate more practical response in farm management decision-making than any other single mass medium. Part of the reason for is that we see ourselves not as a one-way information pipeline but as a vehicle for constant cycles of dialogue embracing farmers and those who work with and for them. We speak a common language.

It is depressing to note that few within the farming industry’s research and development institutions appear to regard this dialogue as pertinent to where they are at. The ratio of Crown research and extension workers to farmers in this country is in the vicinity of three per hundred. In 1980 we surveyed readers asking them to critique our service. Research and extension workers numbered considerably fewer than 1% of respondents. Informal discussion with staff of research institutions indicates a high degree of selectivity in reading from the popular farming press. There is a heavy bias toward articles in which they, their colleagues and institutions are cited; less attention to the subjective impressions and questions posed by grassroots farmers. This tendency seems to become more pronounced as one moved up through the hierarchy of research policy-makers.

One must, of course, acknowledge the magnificent efforts by the Grassland Association, with its open membership, to break down barriers to information flow, and, equally, acknowledge that research workers who are association members tend to be exceptions to the rule. One must also acknowledge that farmers and others who lack the discipline of science are often wrong. Nevertheless, we have not come so far toward control of the farming industry by bureaucratic-corporate elitists that down-to-earth farmers should not be listened to carefully in the corridors of power, not as passive consumers but as partners in husbandry. It may be disconcerting to a pasture ecologist seeking to convey a proposal to dynamically raise a whole production system only to find that the farm manager is at that moment more interested in the quality of galvanising on staples, or in the market for second mortgage finance to allow purchase of an adjacent piece of land resulting in a fall in overall production. But if the ecologist doesn’t accept that there is where the farmer is at, learning why this is so, s/he may as well retreat to an ivory tower and stay there. Stupidity, always, is in the eye of the beholder. Is it not stupid, in the eyes of farmers, to establish priorities and programmes on development and extension of technology in isolation from the 45,000 or so staunchly individualistic entrepreneurs who must make the only effective decisions according to the pressures, opportunities, talents and prejudices that motivate them? I hasten to emphasise that I am speaking not so much about the disciplined pursuit of base scientific knowledge, with intra-discipline communication, as of farm systems development projects and extension strategies.

There are, of course, farmers who are inefficient users of resources and abusers of the land, just as there are journalists who fail to check facts and research workers a bit selective with data. Yet down-to-earth farmers have always been numbered not only as adopters but also among the greatest developers of technology. Inside the first quarter of its 100 years of publication, the Farmer reported on how carefully observant farmers using some degree of control in their trials identified superior pasture cultivars and evolved controlled grazing systems not noticeably different from those now advocated. Sensitive approaches to topdressing of permanent pasture were identified. Such watershed innovations as the shearing hand-piece, cost-efficient fence designs, the herringbone cowshed, kiwifruit production systems, all stemmed from farmers aware of the available fruits of science but rarely aided by professionals in developing new technologies.

The story goes on. True, the successes of on-farm innovation are seldom verified by statistical analysis. Farmers, it is sometimes said from the towers of professional research, observe what they want to see, and to act upon incomplete data. So what? Given the intricacies, even mysteries, of the biological and economic environment of farming, who can offer general recipes that are both positive and failsafe? Are failures in the field, generally each confined to the consequences of one person exercising free will, not also sources of valuable knowledge? Why do people in research institutions seem so ready to subjectively rubbish deviant farm practices – the hill farmer and the soil under his management doing remarkably well without input of phosphate, the dairy farmer making a good income while leaving all his gates open – and to be so unready to properly investigate what is happening in these systems?

Communication begins with listening and continues with dialogue. My listening leads to the conclusion that the most soundly, sensitively and profitably farmed land is usually husbanded by people who hold to a principle of utmost simplicity in management. They need factual answers to specific questions. They want better information, not more information.

 

“If the computer doesn’t enable us to simplify our organizations it’s being abused….

                                The question is not, ‘How many figures can I get?’ but ‘What figures do I need?’”                                                                             (Peter F Drucker, 1970)        

                                

Chorus: Did you perhaps go further than you have told us?

Prometheus:  I caused mortals to cease foreseeing doom.

Chorus: What cure did you provide?

Prometheus: I placed in them blind hopes.

(-Aeschylus)

When I see more evidence of a real readiness to listen and to discuss and serve among the central purveyors/controllers of information flow to farm folk I will cease to be as defensive in upholding the importance of a strong, independent farming Press accountable directly to its readership. The inadequacy of our resources of people, money and talent is, I know, obvious. To some extent this is inevitable in a farming sector market that is small by international standards and eroded by a wide array of services provided free by the benign taxpayer. Nevertheless, a Press totally accountable to its subscribers is at this stage of farming’s evolution of very great importance indeed to all who value the principle of freedom.

We must distinguish clearly between information which is the stuff of personal and institutional power and communication, which always means relinquishing power and risk-taking. Before any of us presume to declaim in more specific terms upon the state of communication in pastoral farming we would do well, I think, to take a long look into (a) ourselves in terms of self-awareness, (b) ourselves as others see us, (c) our concerns as others see them and (d) the concerns of others as they see them. Such analysis carries risk of insanity so should not be attempted alone! But the conclusions can be both exciting and healthily humiliating.

Two thoughts to conclude: The first is from the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu (c. 604-521 BCE); the second a paraphrase of the obverse side of statement said to have been uttered by someone else half a millennium later:

He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.

That which does not set people free is not truth. (cf. Gospel according to St John, 8.32)

 

 


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