The sudden drop in the milk price earlier this year has exposed our economic vulnerability after focussing the majority of our agricultural investment into a single commodity market. When profits reached astronomical proportions it distorted how farmers engaged with the environment. Land that was once deemed unsuitable for dairy farming became attractive when the inputs to make such land productive could be easily managed within strong profit margins.
Our original point of difference compared to most dairy producers was our less intensive, pasture-based dairy farms. At the peak of the boom, however, we saw dairy farms intensified. They began popping up anywhere where water could be pumped and fertilizer applied, even in the arid McKenzie Country.
Many years ago Southland produced a Topoclimate Survey that allowed soil types and microclimates to be matched with the most appropriate land use. This information was largely ignored during the dairy boom and we are retrospectively attempting to manage the environmental consequences to our aquifers, rivers and estuaries.
The intensification of stock numbers also necessitated the importation of supplementary feed and fertilizer. Around 2 million tonnes of palm kernel extract (PKE) was imported last year and we annually use around 1 million tonnes of phosphate from the Western Sahara (a politically controversial source). Overuse of phosphate has also had the unintended consequence of dangerously raising cadmium levels in soils.
By allowing the attraction of instant profits to blind us from the unsustainable nature of the industry we have followed a course of development that has reached an abrupt dead end. This approach has also stopped us from investing in exciting possibilities in food production and exports that would give our economy a more stable base and a sustainable future.
I have learned much from my involvement with our local farmers market in Invercargill. The stallholders that are most successful are those who grow produce that is best suited to the local climate and need fewer inputs to produce. Those who add value by creating artisan products that are high quality and unique are also successful. It has taken a while to educate people that while supermarkets may provide consistency and uniformity our market delivers on freshness, flavour, seasonal variety and the quirkiness of cottage industry.
When travelling in Europe I became aware of how different regions are celebrated for the food they produce and the seasonal nature of food production has been recognised in lifestyles and culture. This is beginning to happen in New Zealand and I think this should be encouraged. The Southland climate is not so good for growing kiwifruit or grapes but it has been identified as one of the best in the world for oats and we grow wonderful swedes, gooseberries, currents and apples.
The Open Orchards Project, led by the South Coast Environment Centre, has identified over eighty different varieties of apples that were growing in the many old farm orchards in the Southland region. The project has grafted them all and new orchards are being established with old, uniquely named varieties: Dipton Redburst, Peasgood Non Such, Merton Russet, Keyswick Codlin, Cornish Aromatic….
New Zealand is already becoming established as a country that produces high quality wines, consistently good coffee and a growing reputation for fine food. Kiwi chef Matt Lambert has gained a Michelin Star in his New York restaurant by cooking New Zealand cuisine and Peter Gordon’s Sugar Club restaurant is a London institution. It seems logical that we can build on an existing reputation for producing quality food.
Southland’s Edendale Dairy Factory was first established in 1888 and began exporting cheddar cheese and butter to world markets soon after. It is now processes 650 tanker loads of milk a day and its coal-powered driers churn out 300,000 tonnes of dried milk each year. One spray drier at the factory is the second biggest in the world and can produce 28 tonnes of milk powder every hour. Most of this dried milk is exported overseas where other companies add value and slap their own brand on the resulting product. We may be great at producing commodity quantity but we have limited brand presence in the countries we export to and we are operating at the bottom of the value chain.
We often host wwoofers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) from Europe and they are generally surprised that for a country with such a large dairy industry, the quality and variety of cheeses we produce are very limited. Our farmers’ market once had a farmer stallholder that produced A2 milk and award winning Dutch style cheeses. They were eventually forced out of business because of an industry that creates huge barriers for small, innovative enterprises. The Dairy Industry Restructuring Act (DIRA) was supposed to limit Fonterra’s monopoly of the industry but real competition has been slow to develop.
Imagine the potential of a well-established New Zealand food brand that was based around a natural, clean and green, GE free environment. Our quality wines, artisan cheeses, craft beers (New Zealand hops are internationally recognised), fruit and pasture-raised meat would attract premium prices.
New Zealand’s potential as a tourist destination would be greatly enhanced if we could offer more than just beautiful scenery. Tours of different regions based on their unique food and beverage cultures would be attractive to more mature, affluent tourists and could add another dimension to our many new bicycle trails.
New Zealand has a proud history of innovation and self-sufficiency and by capitalising on our mild climate and abundant farmland we can build a resilient economy based on healthy and diverse food production. By celebrating and encouraging regional diversity and cottage industries our agricultural sector will become more sustainable and diverse. The opportunities are great and the possibilities are endless.