Dairy Farming

Dairy farming in New Zealand began with farmers keeping a few cows on their bush blocks. Those early farmers cleared bush by cutting down what trees they could use for timber and burning the rest, then sowing grass seed to create pasture. Shorthorns, which are relatively rare in New Zealand today, were the main breed in the early days. They provided both milk and meat, and the bullocks were useful draught animals.

Most of this milk was made into butter (and to a lesser extent cheese) on the farm. When Amy works in her dairy in Sentence of Marriage, she’s making enough for her household and more besides. Any that was surplus to the family’s needs would be traded at the general store for goods the family could not produce for themselves. This was typical of what farm women did until the 1880s. It was an important contribution to the household income.

But the store could only take a limited amount, especially in a small town surrounded by many farms. A major change came with the introduction of refrigerated transport in the early 1880s, making it possible to export butter. This larger market led to the development of dairy factories, and farmers now had an outlet for greatly increased production. It was worth building proper cowsheds and building up herd numbers. And women like Amy now only had to make enough butter for their own households.

The early factories were owned by individuals or small groups of investors. There would generally only be one factory serving an area, and to a large extent the owners could set the price paid for the milk. These limitations encouraged the development of the co-operative movement, where farmers jointly owned the factory that processed their milk.

By 1900, co-operatives outnumbered privately-owned dairy factories, and by 1920 almost all the factories were co-operatives. Supplier-owned factories had become the default.

From this end of history, looking back at more than a century of success, the move to co-operatives seems obvious. But at the time it took a willingness to look beyond things as they were, and see if they could be made better. It took the courage to try something new. Frank stands for the farmers who had the imagination and courage to take that risk.

With improvements in transport, co-operatives merged into larger and larger groups, until today one large firm dominates the industry. Fonterra, almost inevitably prefixed by “the dairy giant” when referred to in the media, is New Zealand’s largest company. It’s a descendant of those early co-operatives, and is still owned by the farmers who supply its milk. I think Frank would have been proud.