Sheep farming area now a dairy melting pot

MIKE CREAN
Last updated 12:26 27/01/2014
Where Inniskillen was one farm with one mail box, there are now three farms with 10 mail boxes
MIKE CREAN/Fairfax NZ

LITTLE BOXES: Where Inniskillen was one farm with one mail box, there are now three farms with 10 mail boxes

Amuri farmers Elizabeth and Dick Davison are enjoying the social revolution in their district.
MIKE CREAN/Fairfax NZ
CHANGING VIEW: Amuri farmers Elizabeth and Dick Davison are enjoying the social revolution in their district.

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The old mail box has the name Inniskillen stencilled on the front. Beside it are nine small, modern mail boxes. To Dick Davison, they illustrate the greatest social change in the history of North Canterbury's Amuri Basin.

It is the change from an aristocracy of established sheep farming families to a multi-cultural society of dairy farmers, managers, labourers and sharemilkers. The change is greater even than the transformation caused by breaking up the large estates a century ago, Davison says.

He and wife Liz bought his family's farm, Blakiston, across the road from Inniskillen, in 1976. Recently they sold most of it, retaining an elevated block where they have built their dream house.

Gazing across the basin, Davison reflects on how it has changed in his lifetime. He grew up on the lumpy downs at the foot of the Lowry Peaks in the 1950s. This had been part of the St Leonard Station. His great- grandfather had managed the station from the 1860s and bought part of it when it was broken up for closer settlement.

Davison remembers Inniskillen as a single farm owned and operated by one family, running only sheep. Now about 2000 cows are milked on three farms, supporting 10 families, with ownership in equity partnerships.

Names on the mail boxes add to the story: Khan, Rodriguez, Blomfield, Jalon, Perez, Aguilar, Cook, Poblete. They represent the cultural and ethnic melting pot that is Amuri today.

Amuri's physical conversion from dustbowl to salad dish, its economic conversion from wool and meat to milk and milk, is well known. But Davison says little attention has been paid to the social conversion that is changing the face of the 1500-strong community in and around Culverden.

He acknowledges the environmental challenges posed by the march of dairy herds across the land. The greenies raise real concerns, he says. He is not keen on cows and sold most of Blakiston partly because he preferred not to be involved in dairying's inexorable advance.

Yet he welcomes the biggest impact - social change. The vibrancy and colour that newcomers from around the globe are bringing excites him. Not all "old-timers" share his optimism. They have a right to their opinion, he says.

Davison's insights on Amuri are drawn from roots going back 150 years. His views are informed by a valuation and farm management degree and a masters degree in professional studies, work for State Advances and Rural Bank, a beef cattle venture in the Solomon Islands with Volunteer Service Abroad. He is a Hurunui District councillor and a leader in local health administration. He and Liz enhanced their land with the planting of many trees.

He admits Amuri was a conservative and class-stratified society where "people knew their place". The size of people's land holdings, their religion and their length of time in the district meant more than intelligence, diligence and integrity.

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"We were not as welcoming as we thought we were. It was a cliquey community. It was a closed society."

This is changing and he is glad.

Irrigation was the catalyst for change, Davison says. He pulls out 1970s government reports on irrigation proposals. They make rosy claims of "substantial economic benefits" and dismiss environmental and social effects as easily manageable. A Cabinet paper states a full environmental report should not be required. Social consequences are barely considered. Flawed thinking, says Davison, "probably written by an engineer".

Local farmers wanted irrigation for feed crops. They never considered dairying, Davison says. Transporting milk 250km to Clandeboye, near Timaru, seemed an outlandish notion. But North Island cow cockies rushed south to buy farms. Milk began to flow. Businessmen took notice and launched a corporate land-grab. Costs rocketed, putting ownership out of most people's reach ($12 million outlay for an average farm), so families and investors formed equity partnerships.

Dairying is hard, repetitive work, over long hours, every day. Who would do it? In came a stream of Filipinos, Chileans, South Africans and others. A charming Sikh lives near the Davisons. "From the Punjab to Culverden for God's sake," he chuckles.

The newcomers are adapting to life in Amuri. They form support networks. They contribute to the community and enrich it with their cultural symbols. Davison hopes many will stay and inter-marry.

He is concerned at over-capitalisation of land and reliance on the China export market. As positive signs he sees Balmoral Forest being cleared for farming. He predicts Culverden township's population, static at 420-450 for most of his life, to grow as trades and service providers realise the advantages of country life over the costs of commuting from Christchurch, Rangiora and Amberley.

Davison has a commanding view over the Amuri Basin. His vision is for a vibrant hub in a thriving Canterbury.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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