For many of us our frame of reference is based on European settlement of New Zealand, and how our pioneering forebears transformed this country’s ecosystems forever by felling native forests and introducing new plant and animal species – for better and for worse. Thank goodness they didn’t have chainsaws or I’m certain that no native forest would have been left standing.
Society back then was based around rural communities, country towns, rural centres and a handful of places that dared to be cities. These were generally highly engaged communities where people and families knew everybody else and took care of those who needed support. New arrivals to these communities were welcomed at a shared event, usually in the local hall, and departing folk were farewelled. “Ladies, a plate please.”
These same forebears not only planted pastures to feed sheep and cattle, but also hedges and amenity tree plantings that have grown to become a major contributor to our visual environment. They also took great pride in their house sections, as a means of growing vegetables and fruit, but also as an extension of their indoor living areas, with highly-tended gardens and lawns. Such endeavour wasn’t restricted to folk who lived in towns, but also to country dwellers.
In the case of most farming families, the people who owned the farms also ran the farms and lived on them. Without the restrictions of quarter acre town sections, some developed park-like environments around their homes. Their legacy endures, to a point.
Rural communities have changed dramatically in recent times. Farms that may have been in families for two to three generations or longer are becoming the exception rather than a norm as dairying expansion and corporate ownership of productive land gains momentum. Visually this can be seen already, in the form of rural residences where cows can graze right up to the back door, and the only “planting” near the house is a Hills Hoist clothes line or a satellite dish. In some cases what was once a farm’s homestead is now occupied by a sharemilker or manager with no interest whatsoever in giving it the love and attention it received when the people who lived there really cared about living there.
Country schools can also testify to a changing face of rural New Zealand. There are some schools that once educated several generations of kids from the same families but where now a majority of their students have English as a second language.
A casualty of these changes is rural community citizenship. Members of these communities are now short-termers on a share-milking or farm management career path, or workers who commute each day from a nearby town. While they will make sure that grass grows and cows are adequately fed and milked, they’re putting little else back into the communities they work in.
This is a farming world that my parents and grandparents would struggle to understand.
Businesses which need to connect with rural New Zealand should understand that something really different is going on out there and big changes are afoot. Changes that won’t undo themselves. If the farm products and services advertising that gets linked to Super 15 rugby matches is any indicator, I’m not sure that some do.