Columnist eats humble pie with dairy whip
MARTIN van BEYNEN upset a lot of dairy farmers with a Christmas column lamenting the changing rural landscape and generally criticising the whole industry. For this story, he goes into the countryside to take his medicine.
I hadn't expected this.
They were waiting for me, sitting around the long table like King Arthur's knights. And I was late.
Around the table were kingpin Ron Ferriman, his wife Adrienne, his son Hayden and Danish fiancee Line, Craig Smith and wife Tina, Chris Hanrahan and Carmen Ryan, Brookside farmer Angela Ward, sort of representing Fonterra and David Leach.
The meeting was, I thought, supposed to be a cup of tea, perhaps with a fresh scone, a tour of the farm and a good natured chinwag with Ferriman. But I wasn't about to get off so lightly.
Ferriman had assembled the gathering to set me straight about a column I had written over Christmas about dairying in Canterbury.
The column registered a bit of shock and awe at the continuing transformation of the Canterbury countryside and the loss of traditional shelter belts and trees.
It also suggested, in passing, that dairy farmers were not really farmers, that migrant labour did the hard work, that they couldn't keep their staff, that staff housing was cheap and bleak, that pollution should have been predicted and that the new rural communities were transient and disjointed.
Ferriman, by populating the room with the families connected to the Ferriman dairy empire (about 3000 cows and about 890ha of mostly freehold land near Dunsandel and Hinds), was, I think, trying to emphasis how deep the offence went.
The meeting was held in the house occupied by Craig and Tina Smith and their two girls. It is a large, low, brick house surrounded by a big, well cut lawn, and looks out onto paddocks kept green and lush by water from the farm's bore-sourced irrigators.
Craig Smith manages one of the Ferriman farms. Neighbours Chris and Carmen manage the other, which they also part own. Leach manages the dry stock farm in Dromore and Hayden runs the family's 700 cow farm in Hinds with two staff, one from Nigeria.
Ferriman, now retired and living in Rolleston, still keeps an eye on things and is justifiably proud of his achievements, after starting as a shearer with $300 in the bank.
Dairying has given him a very good living, a comfortable retirement and provided a way of giving his two daughters a reasonably equal share of the family assets while keeping his son in farming and ready to take over. Conversion to dairying allows farmers to bring their families onto the farms and expand their businesses, says Ferriman, who reels off a list of local families who have done the same thing.
"A lot of other forms of agriculture can't do it," he says. "That's why they convert."
He likes how dairying has turned the brown land into green pasture but, what he really wants to get across, is how proud he is of his staff and their families and his part in giving them opportunities and rewards for hard work.
What made him and other farmers most "indignant" (about the column), he says, was the implication they sat around in their mansions while the workers occupied cheap little hovels.
Later he shows me the housing on the farms. All the workers have their own accommodation - no sharing - and although nothing flash, it looks tidy and comfortable and the equal of anything in the city at that level.
He is also proud to be part of an industry which, he says, has developed so many good, young people and which contributes a huge amount to the New Zealand economy - dairy exports amount to about $14b a year and account for about 30 per cent of the country's merchandise exports.
In fact, everyone sitting around the table is pretty chuffed with their industry, their part in it and how important it is for the country.
They are, however, and this should have a bright green highlighter over it, heartily sick of being being branded irresponsible or worse by people like me. (I think this is why I'm not getting a cup of tea, let alone a scone.)
"It doesn't matter what we do, we get kicked," says Hanrahan,summing up the general feeling.
But in some quarters, the words dairying and dirty have become synonymous; nitrate leaching becoming one of the most vexed issues in farming and environmental circles in recent years.
The Ferriman crew says the answer is still confused and they can't be expected to get it right from day one. Technology is still developing and will improve. Riparian planting and fencing is keeping animals out of the creeks and streams. Ferriman later shows me the $200,000 dairy shed effluent system on one of the farms which filters out all the solids and allows the diluted effluent water to be sprayed on the land at optimum times.
The Ferriman farms are in the red nutrient allocation zone under the Canterbury Land and Water Management Plan.
Red zone land under the plan has no more capacity to absorb more nitrogen. Any increase will be prohibited and current levels will be permitted to January 2017. If leaching is above a certain limit, the farm must apply for a resource consent. Environment Canterbury doesn't expect instant results but says the first step is critical because it signals a shift in thinking and management style.
North Canterbury Fish and Game adviser Scott Pearson says farmers can fence their streams, plant trees and treat their dairy shed effluent but, in the end, the problem is the sheer volume of cow urine and manure being deposited on less than ideal dairy land.
"While some are going in the right direction, it's still a numbers game," he says.
On the subjects of trees, water and tax, the group say trees are still plentiful and farmers are planting low growing natives under the pivots. In terms of shelter, the animals are hardy and get more feed when it's cold.
They point out centre pivots use water much more efficiently than other forms of irrigation and new irrigation schemes will reduce reliance on aquifers. Ferriman, for instance, is a big investor in the Central Plains Water scheme.
On tax . . . hah. Ferriman says the operation each year pays enough tax to buy a Merivale mansion (IRD figures show the average dairy operation pays less tax than a pensioner). Are they typical? They say they are "run-of-the-mill" dairy farmers.
The last word: Hayden, who I suspect would like to reach across the table and throttle me with his big weatherbeaten hands, asks why dairy farmers would neglect water quality, the environment, their staff and their animals.
"We rely on all those things to be productive and to be profitable. There's too much us and them. People forget we are also sailors, fishermen, water skiers, we also drink the groundwater. We are farmers but New Zealanders as well."
A few days later, further down State Highway One, I am guaranteed a friendlier reception from Bevan and Rosie Hurst, who farm in Ikewai, near Waimate.
Bevan rang me about the column to say he agreed, mostly, but he wanted to fill in some gaps. Hurst is not a dairy farmer but helped his son Mark convert 200ha of the family farm into dairy, the last in the area to do so.
Hurst, who took over the farm from his father Bill, is known to locals as a dairy skeptic but wants me to understand why farmers have been keen to convert and that good farmers, like his son Mark, have no argument with meeting environmental standards and keeping the streams, rivers and lakes healthy.
You approach the Hurst (senior) homestead down a long drive lined with oaks, cherry trees and silver birches. The Hurst tree planting ethos goes back to Bevan's grandfather and father who were keen on trees for beauty and to protect the land from the sometimes brutal nor'west winds. The conversion, which meant many of the carefully planted shelter belts had to be knocked down, was heartbreaking for Bevan. The couple have worked their 400ha block, and additions, for the last 45 years. It has benefited from a border-dyke irrigation scheme and has hosted sheep, cattle and deer.
That was until two years ago when Mark, who has an ag- commerce degree, decided he wanted to come back to the family holding and farm.
For reasons to do with succession planning and other complications, the farm was split into two, with Mark converting 200ha into a dairy farm which now milks about 800 cows. Another son, not interested in dairying, farms or leases the rest.
Rosie and Bevan have watched their area, which runs along the Waitaki, turn into a dairy farming mecca.
"It all happened so quickly," says Bevan, over a generous lunch. "I used to tell the dairy farmer over the road I would turn his dairy shed into a skating rink."
The cheeky anti-dairy stalwart has been made to eat his words and, with the benefit of hindsight, can see why the change happened.
"Farmers were getting old and a lot weren't making much money, in fact going downhill. Mothers were saying don't go farming. When irrigation started, 90 per cent of the land (irrigated) changed hands. They were paid good money and sold to dairy farmers often from the North Island. Water was cheap. It was Mark's suggestion to go dairying. Nobody wanted to do it; it was inevitable."
The couple have seen the culture of farming change. They were farmers, Mark is a rural entrepreneur.
"We had a nice life," says Rosie. "It was more gentlemanly farming. It was a more relaxed lifestyle. Now it's how much money can we get out of this amount of grass."
They talk about a tight knit community where everybody knew each other. With dairy has come big money and more people, some like the hardworking Nepalese and others that bring police cars down their road.
The conversion was a big step for Mark who realised he was taking on so much debt he risked losing the family farm if things went awry.
But things are going well. The farm was well planned and laid out and is a model of efficiency. Staff housing is first class. The day-to- day running of the farm is done by sharemilkers Troy and Donna Yaxley who employ two Filipino workers, Nino Alovera and Ronan Angcos.
Dairy shed effluent is processed by stripping it of solids and injecting it into the irrigation water (at 5 per cent) and spraying it over the entire property.
Mark is no firebrand but says bad farmers have tended to get the publicity.
"There's a lot of bad feeling out there. We have seen both sides of it but there are not all bad stories. All this water accord, I think is a good thing. A lot has been achieved.
We want to keep our marketing advantage and 90 per cent of dairy farmers are the same."
He shows me his $120,000 effluent system.
"We have 40 days storage of effluent in that pond, and that way we can control when the effluent is applied. We also monitor soil moisture, and are careful not to over-water, therefore not washing nutrients through the soil profile into the groundwater. There are also new technologies available like slow releasing fertilisers that we are looking to take advantage of in the future."
Bevan is torn about the farming that has transformed his area into big expanses of green grass, pivots and dairy sheds.
He thinks the dairy price is vulnerable, worries about the indebtedness of the farmers, and I suspect feels just a little uncomfortable, in his heart of hearts, about taking calves from their mothers as soon as they are born.
Just down the road from the Hurst farm is the Waikakahi stream, now running clear under a blue sky. In the last 10 years the water has been restored to some sort of health with planting, fencing and bridges.
The stream is often used as a shining example of sustainable dairying but Fish and Game's central South Island manager Jay Graybill says:
"There has been some improvement, most notably sediment and suspended sediment but nitrate continues to trend downward (worsen) and there is a slight improvement in faecal contamination."
Dairy farming will bring many new practices into the valley in which Bevan and Rosie have spent their farming lives.
Mark's challenge now is the same as those who have gone before him: to sustain and improve the condition of the land he farms so the next generation of Hursts can follow in his footsteps.