Expansion of dairy farming ignores coastal potential.
In 1899 a pool of 300 cows was enough to open an export cheese factory, now it’s hardly enough to operate a family farm.
Down at Waikawa on the South Coast there is a museum with a display on the dairy industry that once existed in the area. Indeed it was dairy farming that followed the first clearing of the land.
The Otara factory sent its first cheese to Great Britain in 1882, the same year as the first shipment of frozen meat from Dunedin. Then, it ran on 500 gallons of milk per day although that was only a fraction of its capacity. It survived through the years - with ups and downs- until the early 1950s and the wool boom. The old building that still stands on the bank of the Tokanui Stream dates from 1919. In those days of big families and manual milking it was a sociable and busy life - one can imagine the race to be first at the factory with the horse and dray each morning.
Waikawa Valley, Tokanui and Haldane factories opened in the 1890s. When one looks at the fresh paint and proud lettering ‘DAIRY FACTORY’ on the buildings in the old photographs, with the founding farmers lined up in the foreground, one is tempted to reflect on the hopes, energies, ambitions and struggles of times past and how that aspect at least is little changed in the farming world.
So what is the status of dairying in the area now? There are only three dairy farms, all at Otara. There is however a good deal of black and white to be seen especially in winter, as graziers look after other people’s cows on the grassy dunes of the coast where it is dry underfoot all year round.
One can understand, with the emphasis today being on intensive per hectare production, that the Central Southland plain with its deep fertility and flat ground is the target of the dairy land rush.
However it is somewhat of a puzzle that as the plains get more swallowed up and prices rise, that the coastal belt hasn’t been part of the dairy expansion picture, so far. The carrying capacity of the land is easily competitive with the rest of Southland outside the plains, and the extraordinary drought this season has shown its reliability compared with the northern part of the province.
As well, it is just about frost-free and although the winter rains can be bitter, behind a decent shelter belt almost anything can be grown. The proximity of the sandy soils round the coast are a bonus for wintering, and the entire area is only between 35 and 75 km from the Edendale factory.
It’s also been clear of TB for many years and may even consider enhancing its TB-free status by declaring itself a ‘protected area’.
So why has the entire area been so neglected in the Southland dairy expansion? Is it just that people have forgotten its history, or is it that even today, one truly needs a pioneering spirit in order to be happy living on the southernmost coast?