Kiwi Post July 2011

We arrived at a dairy farm the other day to find out just how much of a shambles dairy farming currently is in New Zealand. Of course, we all know things are changing fast, but none of us ever guessed it could slump so low.

There were three of us, on farm at 4AM, to pregnancy scan and record an 800 cow herd. We pulled most of the gear out of the car, got set up, and went back to the car to find we had managed to somehow lock it with our car keys and –most distressing of all- all our phones inside.

No problem, we had most of our gear and could carry on scanning while someone broke into it and unlocked it. Plenty of half-employed drongos on a dairy farm to do this in five minutes. So we started up scanning.

But modern dairy farms have changed. And, when it comes to a bit of breaking and entry, not for the better. Nobody employs drongos anymore. These days on Kiwi dairy farms the vast majority of staff are likely to be from overseas and have a tertiary degree. So, if they’re not from Europe with a science degree, they’re from the Phillipines with a veterinary degree, or Asia with an agricultural degree.

So, a little over 3 hours later when we came to wash up we found that nobody had broken into our car because nobody had any idea how to. Worst still, even if they could, it would be simply unthinkable for them to carry out such a wanton act of crime. On the farm that day, including us, were 8 people from 7 nationalities with at least 9 degrees amongst us, and not a single Kiwi.
The point is, it’s all very well employing the brightest and best available from around the world, the surging young things with BComs and AgSci degrees, but where will we get the real brains from in the future? Where are the people who can replace a missing finger with a bit of wire and break into cars with a screwdriver?

When the vast Crafar farming network collapsed last year, the industry went into overdrive scrabbling for a buyer. Nobody wanted a fire sale of a large number of poorly resourced farms, which would reveal the extent of the banks’ exposure to the emporer’s clothes of dairy farm values. The Chinese stepped in.

Then, with typically remarkable short sightedness, came the braying from every corner about how a critical and intrinsic ‘Kiwi’ resource such as dairy farms musn’t be run by people from overseas. Leaving aside the marginally thorny issue that all of us currently living in New Zealand have come from overseas in the fairly recent (by most other nations’) past; and the sheer racism inherent in the ignorant calls from people who wouldn’t know a dairy cow if it shat on them; who do they think is currently running Kiwi dairy farms?

It’s certainly not Kiwis. Most of those of prime, young, workable age are overseas doing not much except enjoying themselves. Or else they’re home in New Zealand in the pub or driving around Gore or Ekatahuna. So most of the hard work done on modern dairy farms is done by people who speak English as a second language if at all; who recently moved to NZ from one of many other countries; and who often have a wife and family still in their home country. The important thing is, by and large they do a fantastic job. As with every process of immigration, those arriving bring new skills, enthusiasm and energy, all linked to a desire to get on and work hard. There is no doubt that the influx of overseas workers in the dairy industry in the South Island in particular has raised the levels of stock handling skills, as well as increasing the tertiary training of this layer of the industry. And, most importantly, without these overseas workers we probably couldn’t sustain the current dairy industry.

This is all very well at the coalface, but what about all the Kiwi owners and managers who’ll be lost once the Chinese take over? Again, the reality is that many of the owners, managers and shareholders are no longer Kiwis. Many have chosen to settle here from Europe and North America, and are doing a very good job, but they certainly aren’t third generation Kiwis. And where they are ‘Kiwis’, they’re often in a syndicate or group and have little direct influence on day to day operations.

So, as you can see, dairy farming is in shambles. Having highly trained but criminally naiive overseas workers is all very well, but means when the dopey vet cocks up there’s nobody to either fix it or cover it up. And you know, the industry is doing remarkably well for all of that. Perhaps we should be looking for the Chinese to take over us vets.

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