A toast to Gore, a New Zealand showcase

23:18, Apr 06 2014
Southland Times photo
Hokonui Moonshine Museum director Jim Geddes and the once illegal brew Hokonui moonshine whiskey.

Most friends recall Sergeant Dan and Creamota, fewer have tasted real Hokonui, the illicit whisky brewed for decades in the bush outside the town by wily Celtic farmers.

Today Gore is a must see example of what happens to a sleepy rural servicing hub that suddenly finds itself a centre of booming dairy industry, enjoying high commodity prices and the prosperity that brings.

I've known dozens of towns like Gore in a half century plus of reporting. I covered numerous A&P Shows, centennial parades and related events in the south for the Dunedin Evening Star in the 1960s.

It was sobering to revisit Otago and Southland last week and find these places are having their 150th celebrations.

Many of the same old wagons, gigs and Model T Fords will reappear, though I assume a younger generation of locals will be wearing the period costumes.

Before Britain joined the EU these towns were prosperous thanks to strong wool, lamb and other commodity prices.


There was a job for everyone at the local freezing works, knitting and woollen mills, or in the many engineering or other support industries.

Grimmer economic times over the ensuing decades saw many of these industries close as commodity prices grew more volatile and farm incomes shrank.

Those who could went elsewhere for work.

It would be wonderful if places like Gore, with its well stocked and brightly painted shops, cafes and bars, could become the blueprint for a revival of the nation's rural prosperity.

Locals have obvious pride, evident in the town's John Money art gallery and the historical museum which devotes much space to the area's naughty past as the centre of the country's illicit whisky making in the Hokonui hills.

For decades, the police hounded the McRae family, Gerald Enright and other whisky makers.

Some were jailed, or heavily fined. Constable Feeley went to extraordinary lengths to catch a Croatian called Nobilo: and only succeeded when his shop burned down.

The magistrate was unexpectedly lenient - not everyone was a wowser in those days - and Nobilio went "back up north." Maybe he started a winery?

Many residents supported the moonshine makers, especially after the district went dry a century ago, a plight that lasted 60 years.

There used to be the odd bottle of Hokonui at the family home in Dunedin with its skull and crossbones label.

I never knew where they came from, though the penny dropped when I visited the museum: a fellow called Enright used to visit us occasionally.

Times change - the museum even offers visitors a glass of real Hokonui as part of the $5 entry fee.

You can buy a bottle, brewed to an original recipe there, either aged or raw spirit. (Disappointingly, it is brewed in Timaru).

One wonders what old time police and customs people who wasted so much time and resources pursuing those evil doers would make of this.

Once every Kiwi child, required to eat porridge for breakfast, knew that Sergeant Dan was strong because of the stuff that came from Gore's Creamota mill.

The trademark building still dominates the town, though noisily grinding out stock feed.

I spent a delightful few hours there last Wednesday.

A sign of its prosperity is that the fine 1960s former post office has been taken over by Craigs the share brokers, and local MP Bill English has an unusually smart electorate office.

The pastures looked magnificently green under clear, blue skies. Stock were in top condition enjoying balmy temperatures in the mid-twenties.

Gore is at the heart of the booming Southland dairy industry.

The small old dairy factory at nearby Edendale is greatly expanded, employing 550 people and handling a quarter of all milk handled by Fonterra: 300,000 tonnes. It can handle 15 million litres a day or 650 tanker loads.

Traditional Southlanders stick to sheep and other livestock farming. Frustration was evident from a long line of camper vans stuck behind a flock of 2000 sheep meandering down part of the region's tourist trail.

A quarter of Fonterra's production represents a lot of money, and a fair slice of the national income.

There was no apparent despondency in the town at news of the sharp fall in international dairy prices at Wednesday's auction; or that some economists are forecasting that next season they could fall below $7 a kg from this season's forecast record payout of $8.65.

However much will depend on the exchange rate - which is impossible to forecast - and whether another drought will restrict supply.

The price fall wasn't unexpected. ASB economists had predicted that prices would continue to come under pressure once the increased production hit the market from most parts of the country due to good climatic conditions. Farmers have been responding to the optimistic price forecasts from Fonterra by cranking up production.

This is forecast to rise 11 per cent this season: Fonterra had been expecting a 7.5 per cent rise.

The uncertainty is raising questions over whether units in the Fonterra Shareholders Fund, which give access to Fonterra's dividend flow, remain a sound investment.

Some analysts are wary - though there have always been sceptics.

A contrary view is that the outlook for the units is improving as milk output costs retreat to more sustainable levels, relieving pressure on the company's manufacturing consumer businesses.


The Southland Times