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Changing seasons and facing up to new challenges

By Anna Campbell

Arriving back in Dunedin after a couple of weeks away, I was shocked by the change of day length.

Biologically, we tend to think of temperature and moisture as being the major determinants of seasons, but day length, or ‘‘photoperiod'' plays a significant role in a plant or animal's activities or behaviours, particularly reproductive behaviour - no point in flowering or producing baby animals to be punished in a harsh frost.

Farmers are in tune with this, with an almost unconscious understanding of what is going on around them which is required for good biological decision making.

This year, the changing of the seasons also means a big impact on cash flows, particularly for dairy farmers.

The crunch for dairy farmers will be at its most severe from now to spring. South Island farmers stop milking their cows in May and Fonterra's retrospective payments simply won't be enough to cover costs.

Banks, of course, understand this seasonal cycle and overdrafts are expected to be maxed out during this time.

In saying that, and despite every dairy farmer knowing there are many others in the same boat as them, lying awake at night, wondering how you can shift money from one account to another, or delay one payment in order to honour a more pressing payment, is a horrible and lonely place to be.

The requirement to put on a brave face for family, community and staff can also be extraordinarily taxing.

Dairy farmers work hard at the best of times, but I am hearing more stories of farmers reducing staff numbers to reduce costs and/or fitting in off-farm work to bring in extra revenue, both of which will have a physical and mental tax on them and their families.

Taking a philosophical approach is the way of many - ‘‘it's what we need to do to get by''.

As yet, I haven't heard one dairy farmer or farming organisation ask for a Government handout - that seems to be the cry of media and opposition parties.

Farmers understand this is all part of being in business, just as retailers have crawled their way out of their overdrafts since 2008, farming businesses will now have to do the same.

It is interesting speaking to anyone who farmed during the '80s. They remember how tough it was and many had to sell up.

No matter what happens though, the seasons relentlessly march on and for those who have to sell up, it will hurt, but there are still good times ahead outside farming; making the decision to sell is perhaps the hardest thing to do.

For those who are able - and do tough it out - it may be a long road, but despite what some commentators are saying, I think long-term the world needs beautifully produced food and this situation might just be the catalyst our Government and exporting companies need to invest more in adding greater value to our products, to help buffer future commodity busts.

Biologically, changing seasons means hunkering down and surviving over winter and new life in spring.

In the very depths of winter, those farmers really struggling need to reach out to who they can for help.

Spring will come and with it an opportunity for a fresh start.