Do dairy farmers actually farm?

MARTIN VAN BEYNEN
Last updated 06:26 28/12/2013
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Martin van Beynen

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Martin van Beynen

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OPINION: Like thousands of Kiwis we have decamped to the hinterland to spend the Christmas period away from the safety and comfort of our home, which we left this week in beautiful sunshine.

I don't mention this to diminish Raincliff, the equally beautiful spot inland from Temuka where the clan on my wife's side has gathered for its biannual celebration of family life and collective cooking.

In the area in which we find ourselves, lived a man called Percy Hawkins Johnson, who was born in Billericay, England in 1868 and died in Christchurch in 1955. He loved the open spaces and put large tracts of land in public hands before he died.

Judging from the old stands of towering exotic trees around the place, he was also a keen arborist. His last public message, according to a plaque outside Pioneer Park which he donated to the Crown, was:

"For God's Sake, Save the trees, you'll never regret it."

He was a man after my own heart, but many people venturing into the Canterbury countryside this holiday period will wonder if many farmers paid any heed to cries such as Percy Johnson's.

Despite isolated areas of woodland and bush in the foothills farmland around us, a drive along the back roads reveals vast swathes of rolling hills growing only grass and the odd block of dark, ugly pine. Any flatland has been taken over by irrigators and dairy cows.

You don't need to go far out of Christchurch these days to see the revolution that has overrun flatland farming on the Canterbury plains. Even a trip to the West Coast shows land beside the Bealey River on the way to a dairying future. It features new paths and milking sheds and uprooted and burning trees that were once shelter belts.

The land around Temuka seems similarly afflicted. Everywhere farmers, probably in the name of efficiency, seem to be getting rid of shelter belts or stands of inconvenient trees.

There is nothing new about the industrialisation of farming, particularly dairying, and the effect it is having and will have on the land. But a jaunt into the country brings it home and each time it seems to be worse.

You don't need to be a scientist to have foreseen the problems caused by plonking thousands of dairy cows on land that previously struggled to feed a few sheep.

The grass to feed the cows is produced almost like a manufactured product, by the application of mined water and chemical fertilisers. The machine- like cattlebeasts need copious quantities of water and deposit equally generous amounts of waste back onto the land. The dairy sheds then feed more effluent into the system. Of course the result is contaminated waterways, unhealthy-looking farmland and a vulnerable monoculture.

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Huge factories like the ones we now see in Darfield and Dunsandel are built to process the milk. If you want to see for the dark satanic mills of the present look no further.

The landscape is only one of many victims. While dairying is fundamental to the national economy - and you don't want to diminish all the hard work, risk and business nous of those involved - you do have to wonder how dairying on a vast scale has affected rural communities.

It appears most dairy farmers don't actually farm any more. They run big businesses from a central homestead and employ mainly migrant labour housed in cheap, lonely, quickly constructed houses. They struggle to hold on to staff so the communities have a transient feel about them.

Even financially, dairying looks like a big risk. New Zealand agriculture has a history of investment in the latest fad money-maker, with often dire consequences. Much dairy land must bear a large debt burden which forces farmers to cut corners when the dairy price is not too hot. When the butterfat price becomes one of the main determinants of the economy, alarm bells should be ringing. And we haven't even started on the animal welfare issues.

These are concerns but not my main one at the moment. I am looking at the changing farming landscape and wondering how we let this happen.

I admit I have a romantic view of farming. It's based on relaxed, robust families running well- tended farms producing a diversity of goodies. They make a point of not stressing the land and its waterways by trying hard not to squeeze too much out of their resources and feel a duty to ensure a healthy, aesthetically pleasant countryside.

And this brings us back to the shelter belts that seem to have been hacked down, bulldozed over and burnt everywhere. They did not, in general, consist of beautiful trees but as a feature of the landscape they made a huge contribution.

Percy Hawkins probably wasn't thinking about shelter belts in his plea about trees, but as industrial dairying takes over we should be mourning this humblest of landscapes.

- The Press

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