Celebrating centuries of farming

  • David Carter

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, Mayor Hayes for your introduction.

I would like to say a special thank you tonight to the Century Farm and Station Awards' organising committee for inviting me to Lawrence.

One of the fascinating aspects of my job is getting around all parts of New Zealand and meeting farmers.

Over the past two weeks I have been to Balclutha, visiting Telford, and Auckland talking to foresters.

I have been to Dunedin, visiting Invermay, and Taupo looking at forestry.

I have been in the Wairarapa, talking irrigation, and I have been in Gisborne and the Hawke's Bay talking to drought-affected farmers.

I have approved drought recovery measures for the Gisborne, Wairoa and Hawke's Bay regions. There are further decisions to be made next week with regard to other areas.

It's devastating to see the losses these communities are facing, but they are facing it with determination.

As I meet with farmers and industry representatives in my capacity as Minister, there are clear characteristics that come through - resilience, adaptability, innovation and passion.

Resilience to withstand whatever gets thrown at them. The ability to adapt to changing situations. Innovative thinking and a gritty determination to make the best of the circumstances. They also have an absolute passion for farming and a love of the land.

Farmers have a very common characteristic. They have a love of what they do, and refuse to let anything get the better of them.

As a first generation farmer, it's a pleasure to spend the evening with families who have farmed their land for 100 and even 150 years. I truly appreciate what an achievement this is.

The families we are celebrating with tonight have farmed through two world wars, the Great Depression, Britain's entry into the European Economic Community, the oil shocks of the 1970s, and the elimination of government subsidies in the 1980s.

On top of all that, we are now farming through the current global recession. The story of resilience continues.

Despite the rise and fall of prosperity and the constantly changing market demands, one thing is clear - the primary sector has always been vital to New Zealand's economic future and our sense of national identity.

No other developed nation is as dependent on primary production as New Zealand.

And in no other sector do we have businesses with such credible international scale.

New Zealand is the world's largest dairy and sheep meat exporter and a major player in the world trade of horticultural products.

Even with the current economic situation, people still need to eat - it is a good time to be in the business of food production.

New Zealand is a food bowl. Our natural advantage is we have plenty of water. We just need to harness this potential. At present we are limited in our ability to do this due to the lack of water storage infrastructure. It is an area I am determined to address.

Although the parts of the world we export to and consumer preferences may shift, I foresee no let up in demand for quality meat, dairy and horticultural products.

So this is where things sit today - but what did families face a century ago when they first began faming the land?

I am lucky enough to farm on Banks Peninsula. Banks Peninsula has a rich history of pastoral farming as this area was farmed before the first four ships sailed into Lyttelton Harbour.

It didn't take long for the forests on the Peninsula to be logged and replaced with livestock.

The cocksfoot seed industry is an integral part of the area's history. Early in the 20th century, a seventh of the Peninsula's land area was being harvested, thanks to a thousand casual labourers doing the harvesting - obviously without any machinery.

The wealth that this industry brought to the major landowners is still visible in the homesteads and gardens throughout the Peninsula landscape today.

A hundred and fifty odd years ago, it was wool that was in high demand. Many families made their living and family fortunes from the wool cheque.

Then came, what was real innovation for the time, William Davidson with his frozen meat exports. The face of New Zealand farming changed forever.

By the turn of the century we were starting to see significant benefits from the frozen meat trade. Butter and cheese also started to gain a reputation in export markets.

Today, we are seeing dairy coming off its recent highs and lamb again on the rise. Venison is stable but crossbred wool returns are far below their historic average.

So what exactly does it take to still be here, all these years later?

Of the many uncertainties in farming there is one thing we can be 100 percent certain about - and that's change. And where there is change, there is the need to adapt.

New Zealand is no longer the lowest cost producer of agricultural and horticultural products. We can continue however to lay claim to the innovative spirit and the willingness to adopt new tools and technologies that have changed the way we farm.

A few of these major breakthroughs spring to mind:

  • Ron Sharp's herringbone shed and Merv Hicks' rotary platform - both major breakthroughs for the dairy industry.
  • The discovery of the role of Vitamin B12 in combating cobalt deficiencies in pastures.
  • Gladys Reid and the use of zinc to combat facial eczema.
    Selenium to deal with ill-thrift in sheep and cattle.
  • And the electric fence, perhaps the most revolutionary advance in fencing since steel wire. While not actually a New Zealand invention, local farmers and innovators were leaders in its development.

Not only do these examples highlight how innovative thinkers have brought about a step-change in the way we farm, they also illustrate the flexibility in thinking needed by our current crop of farmers.

We don't need to look much further than the Lawrence community itself for proof of resilience, adaptability and innovation.

The environment was harsh in the gold mining days and continues to present challenges to farmers today.

But as they say: "Necessity is the mother of invention."

To cope with financial realities the area has seized the opportunity to use its heritage for tourism - our other big export earner.

It seems all the factors needed to maintain a farm for a century or more are right here in this region - which is why it makes perfect sense for Lawrence to be the home of the Century Farm and Station Awards.

Of course, these awards would not have been realised were it not for the determination of a key group of Lawrence locals who thought New Zealand's farming heritage was worth preserving.

The success and resilience we are celebrating tonight reflects the ability of New Zealand's rural sector to face and respond to change.

The challenge, now, is for farmers to maximise the value of their land in a sustainable way, thereby ensuring that these farms remain for another hundred years.

So where does central government fit in ensuring more and more farms are able to join this growing list of Century Farms?

I have talked a lot about adaptability. But to make sure farmers move in the right direction, we need good information and science.

For 20 years, we as a nation haven't spent enough on research and development. And many of the productivity increases we have achieved on-farm are as a result of research done 30 years ago.

In closing, I would like to acknowledge the work of the New Zealand Century Farm and Station Awards in preserving this piece of heritage that is vital to our country.

We can all learn from our heritage, and that is what awards such as this do - they highlight some of New Zealand's true custodians and hold them up so we can all learn from them.

I would like to again acknowledge the success of the families here tonight in achieving 100 years or 150 years on the land. Thank you.