(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 31.)
My mother was raised on a Taranaki dairy farm. I grew up next to a dairy farm myself. Our neighbours produced milk for the local hospital board (remember them?) and were good family friends. I would sometimes help out in their milking shed, though the word “help” is used very loosely in this context.
I disclose these facts in a probably futile attempt to head off accusations that I’m a one-eyed, intransigent opponent of dairying.
Truth is, I’m rather fond of cows. We had a succession of jersey house cows when I was a boy and I grew quite attached to them.
None of this, however, dissuades me from the view that there has been no more lamentable change to the New Zealand landscape in my lifetime than the rampant expansion of dairy farming.
The Clyde Dam, Lake Manapouri, the aborted Project Aqua on the Waitaki River, the Waihi gold mine, the toxic chemicals site at Mapua, the proliferation of wind farms – all these other celebrated environmental causes of the past few decades pale by comparison.
Quite apart from anything else, most of the above are (or were) confined to one location. Dairying, by contrast, has spread its unsightly blight from end of the country to the other.
Let me elaborate on this. Dairy farming strikes me as a perfectly appropriate activity where geography is conducive to it. That means Northland, the Waikato, Taranaki, the West Coast and pockets of other regions, including Hawke’s Bay, the Manawatu, Nelson and the Wairarapa, where there’s abundant rainfall and the fertile soil supports lush pasture growth.
In other words, all the regions where dairying has traditionally been carried out.
What has happened in the past couple of decades, however, is that dairying, driven by high prices, has spread into areas where it was not traditionally practised, and which are demonstrably ill-suited to it: areas of relatively low rainfall where intensive dairying can be sustained only by sucking vast quantities of irrigation water out of rivers and aquifers and by applying vast amounts of fertiliser to poor, often stony, soils.
Of course those nutrients find their way back into waterways, along with polluted run-off created by bovine urine and excrement.
The environmental damage is compounded by the size of these modern, industrial-scale farms, which dwarf the traditional cow cocky’s modest holding. The average herd size has more than doubled in the past 20 years, to 351. In Canterbury, where the environmental pressure created by dairying is felt most acutely, the average herd is more than twice that number.
What’s more, production per cow has increased as farming has become more intensive – up from 239 kg of milk solids in 1992-93 to 330 kg in 2006-2007.
I first realised the scale of this transformation on a trip around the South Island in 2005. In North Canterbury and parts of Otago, vast tracts of land – previously devoted to sheep and beef – had been converted to dairying.
Ugly irrigation machines, hundreds of metres long, marched across the land like creatures from a science-fiction movie. Tree plantations had been felled so as not to block their path.
Friends just back from the South Island tell me big dairy herds are now grazing around Twizel, in the beautiful Mackenzie Country. Closer to home I have seen dairy industry entrepreneurs buying up and converting every farm they could get their hands on in parts of the Wairarapa and Central Hawke’s Bay where, 20 years ago, dairy cows were unknown. Meanwhile the rivers run ever lower and dirtier.
And it’s not just sheep and beef country that’s being converted. I recently heard a Canterbury farming spokesman talking about the amount of prime grain and seed land being lost to dairying. Ten or 11 conversions are currently planned in mid-Canterbury alone, on some of New Zealand’s best cropping soil.
Let me bore you with some more figures. In 1990-91, dairying accounted for 1.35 million hectares of New Zealand farmland. By 2012-13, that area will have increased to 2.13 million ha. Roughly 800,000ha of prime sheep and beef land has been converted to cows.
But the statistics tell only part of the story. What’s more significant is the type of land converted, and the consequential degradation of the environment.
There’s no getting around the fact that dairying, compared with most other forms of farming traditionally carried out in New Zealand, is unsightly and dirty – especially where it clearly doesn’t belong. Dairy farms can look quite pretty in parts of the Waikato but no one can pretend that dairying aesthetically enhances the Mackenzie Country or the valleys of North Canterbury.
The problem is, all this change has taken place largely without public debate. Much of it has gone unnoticed, at least until recently, because most of the population lives in cities. Out of sight, out of mind.
Besides, it has been a gradual process. The government didn’t suddenly announce that 800,000 ha of farmland was going to be converted from sheep and beef cattle to dairy cows. If it had, alarm bells might have started ringing in the same way as they do when a new hydro dam or opencast mine is proposed.
It’s probably also true that dairying, because of its economic importance, has enjoyed a large measure of political protection. Only tourism matches it as an earner of the overseas revenue that the economy depends on. That makes the dairy industry very powerful politically – probably more powerful than the meat and wool sector was in its heyday, half a century ago.
With a sluggish economy struggling out of recession, there’s an especially strong temptation for politicians to look the other way when official reports portray a greedy dairy industry preoccupied with increasing production without proper regard for the environment. Only last month, a report issued by the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry showed that dairy farmers' compliance with the much-vaunted "Clean Streams Accord" was actually slipping backwards.
Only now are we having something approaching a proper national debate over land use. Controversies over toxic runoff, the Crafar farms fiasco, the odious proposal to put “factory farms” in the Mackenzie Basin and the squabble over the management of Canterbury’s precious water have finally alerted New Zealanders to the scale of dairying’s march across the landscape and the detrimental consequences for the environment (to say nothing of our image as “100 percent pure”, which is looking decidedly dodgy). It’s just a shame the debate is taking place about 10 years too late.