Agriculture Under Pressure

OPINION: There's no doubt about it, farming is under pressure.

I can hear the doubters muttering already: What do you mean pressure?

For starters, within 10 to 15 years synthetic milk will be a major issue, synthetic meat will be a major issue and insect food cooked and well prepared will be more common.

That is almost certain to spell pressure for our farmers producing natural meat, milk and other foods.

Look a little deeper and you will find the world's central banks will have much less wriggle room to move in another financial crisis simply because the ability to lower interest rates won't be available. That's because many countries still have interest rates below 1 per cent. We have now had 10 years of low interest rates and don't count on this continuing indefinitely.

Many capital costs have overrun - there is hardly any such thing today as a small capital cost or a small overrun. Low inflation has camouflaged farm working expenses and farm net profits for some years now so don't work on this continuing for too long.

The water tax for farming was passed over after the election, but it will resurface for certain. This won't worry the urban sector as the average water levy for a residential house probably won't get much more than about $200 per house per year.

Also due to resurface is the emissions issue. Don't be fooled by this 5 per cent start point in several years' time. Within 10 years this figure will creep up to 50 per cent.

Here's another happy projection - the Capital Gains Tax (CGT) debate will also crop up again - Australians have been dealing with this tax since 1985.

The primary residence, as is the case in Australia, will almost certainly be exempt from CGT but most other asset sales are likely to be caught to some degree. About 60 per cent of people in New Zealand own their own home and the other 40 per cent rent. Many urban people own little other than their home so they will not, in the main, be too worried about CGT. For the group though that have planned, saved, gone without, worked hard and taken business and investment risks, this will be a different story.

It is hard to see how insurance costs, for both personal, buildings and business, will not continue to increase steadily - United States business magnate Warren Buffet recently made quite a loss inside his insurance empire and that can only mean one thing for future premiums.

Will farmers need a licence to farm? They already need one in several areas. Many people judging them though will know little about farming, its low profits, low prices and business risks and huge work input.

The idea of farmers around the world increasing the world's food supply by about 50 per cent within the next 20 - 30 years by using less fertiliser, less water and less weed and pest control, is starting to look unlikely at least from an individual farmers' point of view. This often referred to phrase from all sorts of high places seems to completely ignore where this would leave the net profit for individual farmers.

For many New Zealand sheep and beef farmers, several things are becoming apparent - firstly, they need two incomes just like many of their urban counterparts and, secondly, for many the whole exercise from a fiscal viewpoint is more and more a hobby but an enjoyable one in some years.

The planting of one billion trees over the next 10 years is almost certainly a sound move, but there are some sticky points for the farming community. Farming is sound on assets but generally weak on income and cashflow, hence the bulk of the return in 25 years' time is not appealing. Also, one billion trees represents about one million hectares, which represents perhaps a reduction of four to five million sheep which sooner or later could mean several freezing works will run out of throughput. It costs about $30 million to close a large works and I wonder who will pay for this.

The combination of tourism and environmental issues is looking as though it will add sooner or later, if not already, to farm expenses. Rabbits and wilding pines are rearing their head and adding to farm costs - the urban sector would hardly relate to this.

The so-called rural/urban gap can only get wider over the next few years and probably stay wide. The farming business model as discussed through the media gives the writer the impression that the operation may be successful but the patient will die or at the very best be quite unwell.

It is early days, but so far Labour has added pressure to farming couples - if not on the ground then mentally.

As always, there are some good signs:

-  A low New Zealand exchange rate helps but there are also always annoying cost increases.

- Artificial intelligence is going to destroy jobs around the world but it may create more jobs than it destroys. It won't through answer the frustration, change and stress that it will bring about.

- Things do change sometimes for the good – butter is now apparently okay to eat.

- China will want Silver Fern Farms Limited to be profitable.

 - National superannuation (at about $34,000 gross now for a couple) is a marvellous and stable thing for a farming couple - for many it represents about 25-33 per cent of their net income - and the bank can't touch it.

- Capitalism as the structure for most of the world's economics is not perfect, but so far it is well ahead of anything to replace it. An increase in food prices will  encourage farmers to produce more and sell more food - government meddling won't achieve this, nor will it be sustainable.

- Do not forget that the average person today lives better than a very rich person 100 years ago – this is easily forgotten.

- Cash is now looked down upon as a currency by much of society. Managing your cashflow though for the foreseeable future is going to be a number one priority for many New Zealand farming couples. Nothing changes here except that history is simply coming around again. Balancing your cashflow in the short term is much more important than some magical return figure based on assets employed.

Pita Alexander is an accountancy and agribusiness director at Alexanders.