17 March 2016
In recent days, I have been thinking of Pete Seeger’s plaintive line, “When will they ever learn?” from his classic anti-war song, “Where have all the flowers gone?” Not in the context of war and peace I hasten to add, but with regard to the future of the dairy industry.
There has been a consistent strand in our economic history, as a part of our quest for security since the 1960s, of putting almost all our economic eggs in one basket and pursuing the industry of the day to the point of virtual extinction, because of the short term gains it has been perceived to offer. First, there was the Chatham Islands crayfish boom where many dollars were risked and fishermen’s lives lost as the crayfish stocks were plundered because of the attraction of export markets to the delicacy of New Zealand crayfish tails.
After the crayfish boom was exhausted, and some fortunes made and others lost, we moved on to deer, with the same boom to bust enthusiasm. High-fenced deer fences quickly dotted the rural landscape, as we discovered and exploited the potential of cervana and deer velvet. When that boom petered out, goats became the new industry to be in, followed over the years by alpacas and llamas, kiwifruit, orange roughy and now, the dairy industry. The common thread has been the commodity base and the opportunity for quick dollars, so long as the world craves the particular product on offer. And when world tastes change, we always seem to get caught high and dry.
The dairy boom has been the most dramatic of all, building on the solid international reputation for quality production and innovation of the old Dairy Board, now carried on by Fonterra. And, in its wake, there has been an astonishing rate of dairy conversions across the land, in pursuit of the “white gold.” Orchards, sheep farms, and pastoral lands have all been converted at a rapid rate, with, as we are now realising, the attendant despoliation and damage to our waterways. In a country as pristine as ours, it is intolerable that we have become so obeisant to the dairy industry that we talk of a wading water standard as a goal, when we used to pride ourselves on having freshwaters which you could not only swim in, but also drink from as well.
While the dairy sector was booming we seemed to turn a blind eye to the degradation of our waterways because the returns to dairy farmers, and by extension the economy as a whole, were so good (and dare I say it the greed so palpable).
But now the day or reckoning seems nigh. International dairy prices have fallen, and each fortnightly auction price brings little solace to increasingly anxious and debt-burdened farmers. Some may be forced off their land altogether with all the attendant personal and other consequences. Although the Government and the banks are talking staunchly at present, some form of relief seems inevitable, probably through Work and Income and possibly Inland Revenue. As each day passes, Pete Seeger’s haunting warning will assume more and more relevance. The question will then be, this time, are we prepared to heed it?