Monday, January 18, 2010

The squire next time

The article by Catherine Harris quoted in my last blog
also touches on the trend towards the aggregation of
farms, which are becoming bigger and bigger: the
average dairy farm, apparently, now carries twice the
number of cows it used to. In that regard, there is a
remarkable statement by former Landcorp director Lex
Henry, who is quoted as saying that he believes New
Zealand is simply returning to its roots as ‘one big
corporate farm’ before its big estates were broken up for
returning soldiers. ‘All we're doing,’ says Henry, ‘is
repeating history.’

Hallo? You mean the good old days when farming was
dominated by giant sheep-stations and cattle runs
owned by a wealthy squirearchy, the very system that
the Liberal government broke up as long ago as the
1890s so that ordinary New Zealanders might get to own
a piece of the country and farm it in a more modest way?
Well, yes, he does. That’s clearly what he wants. Henry
speaks with the same voice as those frustrated by the
co-operative structure of Fonterra that they regard as an
antiquated obstacle to the greater glory of global capital.

Let’s not kid ourselves that farming as we have known it
in New Zealand over the past 100 years has been some
rural romance—the clink of the milk-cans, the click of the
shears—unsoiled by grubby commercialism. No, the land
has been industrialized, near as dammit, and agriculture
made over into something resembling an assembly line.
But I’d take that model any day over Henry’s one, which
would amount to factory farming on a nationwide scale.

‘In our time,’ wrote E F Schumacher 35 years ago,

the main danger to the soil, and therewith not only
to agriculture but to civilization as a whole, stems
from the townsman’s determination to apply to
agriculture the principles of industry.


Schumacher, in Small Is Beautiful, makes a passionate
and, to me, convincing case for a nobler concept of
agriculture that keeps humankind ‘in real touch with
living nature.’ Go the way of industrialization and
depersonalization of agriculture, he says, ‘and the wider
human habitat, far from being humanized and ennobled
by man’s agricultural activities, becomes standardized to
dreariness or even degraded to ugliness.’

This is the fundamental reason, besides many other more
local and immediate ones, why the proposal for intensive
dairying operations in the Mackenzie Basin
(16 new farms,
18,000 cows housed part of the year in cubicles) should be
fiercely resisted. We still have some semblance of genuine
contact with the land and nature here; factory farming on
the scale proposed would make a mockery of ‘beautiful
New Zealand’ and ‘clean and green’ and ‘100% pure’ and
all the other mantras we love to chant.

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