Bridging the gap between urban and rural is what Ag Proud NZ is about. Karen Trebilcock explains.

When the Mataura River floodwaters receded in early February, 20ha of Jon and Birgit Pemberton’s 139ha dairy farm at Brydone was covered in gravel and silt.

They knew their Southland farm had flooded in 1999 and in the late 1970s and early 1980s but this was the first flood they had experienced since they bought the property in 2014.

“I was watching it on the regional council website. You can watch the river flows in the headwaters so I knew I had so many hours,” Jon says.

He sent the herd down to eat the river flats but it was raining so hard all they did was stand with their backs into the rain. Then he got them off before access was lost and the land flooded. Forty-eight hours later the uneaten grass was covered in debris.

Since then he’s had diggers in to shift 2000t of silt and more than 10,000t of gravel before regrassing. That set him back close to $50,000, he reckons. Then there was the extra supplement that had to be fed in the dairy – the stocking rate for the 390 cows was close to four per hectare on the milking platform.

But at the end of February the cows were still pumping out 2kg of milk solids each.

They do well over their body weight in production, he says.

“Last year it was 120% of live weight. And because of all of the rain we’ve been making more balage on our 100ha of leased runoff, so it’s not all bad.”

The day after the flooding Jon and his wife Birgit had the bank manager there looking at the damage left behind.

“He just said ‘it is what it is and get on with it’, which we have.”

Getting on with it is what Jon does. He and three mates – Jason Checketts, John Douglas and Jason Herrick – formed Ag Proud NZ last year after photos of dairy stock wintered in the south were taken by anti-dairy activists and sent around the world.

After a barbecue in Mossburn, near where the photos were taken, another followed in Invercargill and now more than 10 barbecues have been held throughout the country including one in Auckland.

But the barbecues are not just about free food and farmers getting together – Ag Proud NZ is there to talk to people.

“We like to be where there is plenty of foot traffic so people can come up to us and ask us about farming.”

Jon tells the story of how, in Hamilton, a young man approached him at a barbecue and complained that farmers were spraying poisons on the land.

“So I explained to him that by using herbicides, which break down quickly, we could direct drill new grasses or crops without ploughing because ploughing releases carbon into the air and he went away a lot happier and understanding a bit more about what we do and why we do it.”

And along with the barbecues and stands at the Southern Field Days and several A&P shows, Ag Proud now has a Facebook page, a website, an administrator Sue Miller to help out, has run seminars and done YouTube “tractor talks” – all of it tied up in a charitable trust.

This has needed funding, and DairyNZ, Beef + Lamb NZ, and a number of agricultural suppliers have stumped up with support or cash including a recent grant of $10,000 from Ravensdown.

As well, Alliance, Silver Fern Farms, AFFCO, and ANZCO Foods have supplied the meat for the barbecues.

Jon said it has been a steep learning curve and, with no training in public speaking, he admits to a few nervous moments before barbecues.

“We want the local communities to organise their own barbecues but they all want one of us to be there too so it has meant a lot of flights, a lot of travelling.”

Although the barbecues and stands at A&P shows have now stopped due to Covid-19, Ag Proud NZ has still been busy supporting new charity “Meat the Need” and sharing on its Facebook page the posts of other ventures trying to help.

Jon made national headlines at the start of April asking farmers to take it easy on their city cousins after farming was deemed an essential service and allowed to continue when other businesses were shut down by the government.

But trying to bridge the divide between urban and rural is what Jon does best.

He understands why many farmers are uncomfortable explaining what they do on farm but says it is important for people to stand up for what is right.

“We all have to be ambassadors for the rural sector. Every one of us. We all need to be proud of what we do every day.”

He doesn’t think the relationship between city and country is broken.

“It’s just stretched. We’re looking at about three generations now since people were on farms or had family members or friends on farms, and with immigration that is another group of people who have no idea about farming in New Zealand.

“It allows governments to use farmers as scapegoats in political campaigns – to blame things on farmers – and people accept it because they don’t know any different.”

Jon, who grew up in Canterbury, is the fourth generation of his family who have been farmers. His Austrian wife Birgit loves the outdoor life as do their three children, all under 10.

“We are proud of what we do and, as farmers, we have to communicate that so people understand.”

He said most people not connected to farming don’t have time to challenge what extremists say.

“They just accept it. They’re too busy to stop and think ‘Is that right’?

“And on social media everyone has an opinion. We have got to get in there and tell our side and not be afraid to do it.

“We’re all in this together.”

He said Ag Proud NZ was not just about dairy.

“We talk about all types of farming – dairy, sheep, organic, everything. We are proud of what we do and we’re not hiding it.”

So far Ag Proud is taking up about 20 hours of his week and he doesn’t think the workload will lessen this year, especially with the general election coming up.

The trust does not support one political party over another but Jon wants to make sure all of them realise that farmers “will no longer lie down and take it”.

“If we see less farmer bashing by politicians this year then that is a win.”

He urges all farmers to put submissions in on policies, whether they are at local or national government level, to make sure the agricultural sector is heard.

“With the templates that DairyNZ and Beef+Lamb put out it is really easy to put a submission in now. Just tell your story. That’s all you have to do. It’s not hard and it doesn’t take a lot of time.

“Make sure you do it.”

He said being active and proud of what was done on farms was part of good mental health.

“It’s not about whining. We all have bad days and you drop your lip a bit about what is happening, whether it’s the weather or what someone has said about farmers.

“It’s about getting out there and talking and realising everyone is in the same boat, that it’s just not you who is going through a tough time.”

He encourages farmers to allow visitors onto their farms, to make the effort to let city kids pat sheep, feed a calf or watch the cows being milked.

“We’re not protesting. We’re having conversations with people so they understand.”

For more information find Ag Proud NZ on Facebook or at