Dom George is the on-air producer for The Country.

Dom 'Furious' George: Why have farmers gone from hero to zero?

John Clarke as Fred Dagg in 1987, back when farmers were looked on fondly says Dom George. Photo / File
John Clarke as Fred Dagg in 1987, back when farmers were looked on fondly says Dom George. Photo / File

As a trained journalist, my chosen profession often pops up near the top of any annual 'most untrustworthy professions' lists.

Along with MP's and lawyers, journos are considered to be the vilest example of scum and villainy to ever populate the earth. Contrast this with firefighters, doctors and nurses - professions that are generally to be found at the other end of similar polls.

This week has been fascinating for me, as I find myself in the agricultural media these days and the media is certainly copping it from farmers. Which begs the question, where do farmers sit in the realm of public perception?

A few decades ago, and indeed for most of our short history, I would have said they sit near the top; maybe not at the same level as ambo's or coppers, but nearer to them than your average civil servant or local body politician. But what about now?

The latest edition of TVNZ's Sunday programme, 'The Price of Milk', certainly raised the ire of farmers around the country, with many venting their frustrations online and over the fence. Cameron Bennett's expose on the dairy industry focused on two dairy farming operations on the Hauraki Plains in the Waikato. He says himself what he saw was "a rural community that feels like they've almost gone from hero to zero in the public and media estimation".

Despite the rights and wrongs of the piece itself - indeed an official complaint has been made to TVNZ over issues of balance - the sentiment expressed by the farmers is probably accurate. Hero to zero.

I find it deeply ironic that this week we have seen the death of John Clarke, whose alter-ego Fred Dagg, helped propel Kiwi farmers to 'lovable rogue' status for New Zealanders.

With songs about gumboots and skits performed around the theme of rural New Zealand, Dagg and his merry band of 'Trev's' conjured up an image most urban New Zealanders were proud of. It drew on the mythology of our rural ancestry; stories like Wairarapa cocky Brian Lochore leaving a note to his wife on the kitchen table telling her he was off to play for the All Blacks against the visiting Lions at Athletic Park in 1971 after answering an SOS; images of Pine Tree Meads carrying tanalised fence posts on our primitive TV screens, even Barry Crump with Scotty the townie in the Toyota ads, and the Speight's commercials with the old Southern Man on horseback parting with worldly words of manly advice to his young love-smitten acquaintance that the rural life is even more desirable than the perfect woman.

Even if John Clarke's satirical take on rural New Zealand males was delivered with his tongue firmly in his cheek, we either didn't know or didn't care and generally saw our country cousins as "Good Bastards". Sure, they were maybe a little rough around the edges, but genuine hard-workers and a key part of our nation's legacy.

But as I stopped at a red light this week, contemplating this very topic, I noticed a bumper sticker on the car in front of me that sums up the sentiments of a great deal of urban New Zealand - Fonterra: Stop Sh#t^ing in our Rivers. Just how this country traversed the grounds of opinion from hero to zero in a relatively short space of time would require many more column inches and probably a great deal of historical research, but the point is that's exactly where we are.

As a texter to The Country explained this week, the fallout from the Sunday story only gained traction among farming circles, not even causing so much as a ripple in the mainstream media, for the simple fact that it reinforced the stereotype we've become accustomed to; I'll refer you back to the slogan I described earlier.

It's possible a news cycle that didn't include a certain sportsman putting a bit of tape on a footy jersey may have given the issue a little more mainstream cut-through, but I suspect the prevailing sentiment would still have been "job done".

The question now for agriculture is how to regain the ground that's been lost? The simple answer is to try and find positive stories to drive through mainstream media, to not only mitigate the negative ones, but also attempt to change the narrative. That is a strategy that requires patience and persistence, but I don't think it's wise to try and return to the "Good Buggers" scenario - that's yesterday's story.

Perhaps a good starting point could be a re-working of one of our most popular Facebook posts in recent times. In a short video, former US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack explains, "every one of us that's not a farmer is not a farmer because we have farmers. We delegate the responsibility of feeding our families to a relatively small percentage..."

Seems like a plausible and trustworthy starting point to me.

- The Country

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Dom George is the on-air producer for The Country.

Dom is Jamie Mackay's reluctant sidekick and long-suffering verbal punching bag. When he's not being abused at work he's being abused at home by his wife and kids. His cheery disposition is further enhanced by the fact that he has to get up at 4 am every day to host The Country Early Edition on Radio Sport. (5-6 am Tue-Sat). Tune in...if you dare.

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