Dairy outstrips most in returns on land
Before Christmas I wrote a piece on the local dairy industry and how it’s changing our countryside. I took a bit of flak including a conversation with ‘Dave’ a 60-something local farmer. Mr Graham Sydney, the artist and protector of iconic Central Otago landscape also had a pop at dairy a couple of weeks later. I felt in good company. But it’s difficult to get a whole story across in 300 words. I don’t think there’s any doubt the dairy industry is having a detrimental effect on our landscape, rivers, our lakes and air quality. Really, I don’t think that can be argued – sorry farmer Dave. But can farmers wholly be held to blame? Perhaps it’s the system, not the farmer. Fundamentally they have to make their farms work. They have to make a living. As farming families grow and more demand is made on their land, the land needs to become more efficient with a better return. Looking at the figures there is little option than to convert to dairy. Well there is, but you’d be mad not to take it. Land use has changed over the years quite simply as livestock economy has changed. New Zealand has gone from 70 million sheep in 1985 to 32 million in 2013. All livestock numbers have dropped significantly except deer. In contrast dairy cattle has gone from 3 million to 6.5 million because that’s what the market dictates. Based on a commodity price index of 100 in 1988 forestry has remained more or less constant whereas dairy is at 250. Dairy far outstrips return over other land uses. Plus the increase in dairy commodity price feeds the need to create massive irrigation schemes. It’s just following the money trail. So with all this evidence what’s a local farmer supposed to do? Ignore it? Grow turnips? Impossible. Could farmers be provided with a subsidy to NOT convert to dairy, the cost of which would be less than the cost of fixing in the years to come? But how can that work? And where is the money coming from? I don’t know. It seems to me we are stuck with dairy until such time as globally, dairy is not so valuable or New Zealand makes a shift to a more lucrative export – and it’s not wool . . . that’s dust. The dichotomy is that of creating the economic gain against the longer term cost to fix the resultant mess. This is a strategy decision that must be orchestrated and planned with a 20 even 30 year foresight, not the constraints of a 3 year political ticket. The Otago Regional Council cannot be trusted to keep our waterways safe. ◗ In between enjoying all the outdoors fun Wanaka offers, Eddie Spearing works in the creative web industry.