Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Farmer in New Zealand

5 — The Farmer and the World

page 121

The Farmer and the World

New Zealand is a high country. Two-thirds of it ranges between 650 and 3,500 feet in height and another eighth exceeds this latter height. But a big proportion of this elevated ground can be used by the sheepfarmer, while the lower land has a marked capacity for dairying. The height of the land, however, makes valleys and plains narrow and communications expensive in relation to the small and scattered settlements they serve. The climate is not unlike that of Britain, but with shorter and less severe winters, so that the grass in most districts grows throughout the year, merely slowed down by the ground frosts of winter. The annual rainfall is high, and it is remarkably constant from year to year. Although it may show great variation month by month from the average, there is a very even distribution throughout the year, with the winter increase associated with the Mediterranean type of climate marked only in the North Island. Only a very few areas, Central Otago, Hawke's Bay, and Canterbury, ever suffer page 122from drought in the late summer, and these districts are comparatively lightly affected. Summer and winter temperatures are closer to each other than in most countries, the summer temperatures being particularly low for the latitude. But New Zealand averages more than 2,000 hours annually of bright sunshine. Together with the regularity of strong winds, this abundance of sunshine to some extent counterbalances the high rainfall, rapidly drying the land after showers. Of all the characteristics of the climate the winds alone really harass the farmer, though the lateness and occasional malevolence of spring weather may perhaps be added on the debit side. As early as 1845 Dr Martin had remarked on the colonists' attitude to the prevalence of wind: 'In speaking of the climate of New Zealand so favourably, I should not however conceal from you, that certain persons, generally speaking not long resident in the Colony, complain somewhat . . . of the frequency of smart gales of wind.' A longer residence has not cured the third generation of native-born New Zealanders of querulousness about these smart gales.

New Zealand is specially suited to pastoral industries. These have reached a stage of great productive capacity in a comparatively short time, so that the farmer has been compelled to practise the 'empiricism' noted by Siegfried in the late eighteen-nineties. New Zealand farming should be considered as beginning page 123in 1882 rather than in 1840, though the first forty years of practical farming supplied the earlier settlers with invaluable experience in adapting their habits to those of the climate. But it would be more correct to speak of the climates, for New Zealand's thousand miles of latitude and its rugged relief create a multitude of local climatic variation, and it grows produce varying from the thick fine wool of the wind-harried, mountain-walking merino to the oranges and lemons of the north. Like the climate, the soils of New Zealand show considerable variety. The farmer has, however, made a thorough study of their eccentricities in the course of a hundred years of farming. He has not generally asked of them the high fertility of ancient arable lands, the Nile delta or the Ukraine. He has been content if they could grow grass for him that would maintain his ever-increasing flocks and herds, and in this the soils of New Zealand have not disappointed him. The more detailed knowledge being made available by a thorough and scientific soil survey has in part been anticipated by experience.

It is no disparagement of the New Zealand farmer, the man who wrestles with the good and bad qualities of the New Zealand soil and climate, to say that he is primarily a business man. His farming is industrial farming. To carry on his profession he borrows money, a larger amount than is needed, proportionately to output, in almost any other business. He is page 124nearly always a specialist in one type of farming. He is highly efficient in the production of a marketable commodity, and he demands the maximum of output from his land. His borrowing and the interest to pay on this commands his utmost efforts, just as the production of the country as a whole is stepped up to pay interest on its overseas debts. This businesslike attitude to the land makes him eager to adopt whatever science can do for him to increase production, but it is an attitude that has in it certain dangers, both material and spiritual.

The material dangers are most clearly indicated by the grave losses from erosion. New Zealand has never suffered for the destruction of its forests to provide pastures on the same scale as the colossal erosion of the 'dust bowl' in the United States, which has devastated millions of acres. One reason is that the New Zealand farmer has made much more moderate demands on his land. He has burned off bush in order to sow grass, not to set the soil violently in motion by ploughing up land already grassed. But though it is on a small scale, the erosion of much New Zealand hill country is a thing actually taking place. Apart from the slow erosion of hillsides—

'Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said'—

the destruction of the original forest or fern covering, holding together the headwaters of rivers, will sometimes take a dramatic toll on the land, as it did in page break
Cleared Land In The King Country

Cleared Land In The King Country

Erosion At Tutira, Hawke'S Bay

Erosion At Tutira, Hawke'S Bay

page 1251938, when the fertile Esk valley in the Hawke's Bay-was abruptly flooded and left with a covering of silt. But the whole problem of erosion is intimately linked to the soil itself. Erosion is a natural process only accelerated or misdirected by human agency. The silting river plains may be of no value to this generation, but in a hundred years' time they will be fertile land. In the present, however, we are pardonably more concerned with the loss of good grassy slopes turned into mud or shingle, and it is not a very vivid consolation to us that the mudbanks accumulating at the mouth of some swift, steep-falling river may be a valuable property to our great-grandchildren. Erosion need not even be dramatic to be serious. In North Auckland 'pin-point' erosion, the minute attrition of the topsoil accelerated by wind and rain beating on steep man-created pastures has presented a problem that can be solved only by finding a grass mixture to give a better holding sward. The loss of fertility, whether it is spectacular or invisible, is a serious matter for the farmer bound to a definite level of production.

It was inevitable that in the process of 'land taming' the two parties—man and the soil—should each suffer to some extent. Just as some of the social consequences of the pioneering effort have not been happy (isolation for men, women, and children has led to physical and mental hardship of many kinds), so the battle for the soil has left its wounds on the land's surface.

page 126

Not all of New Zealand's usable land is covered with a protective green carpet of grass or with crop. Land has been virtually lost to blackberry, gorse, ragwort, and other noxious weeds, has been allowed to go back to fern and second growth, and to become swampy through lack of draining.

There have not been wanting critics to point out the dangers of soil depletion through the businesslike farming practised by the New Zealand farmer, and indeed by practically all farmers everywhere in the world. Lord Northbourne, in his vigorous tract for the times, Look to the Land, puts this point of view in what is perhaps its extreme form. He shows that loss of fertility throughout the world is vastly more common than erosion. He lays great stress on the value of humus and assails the excessive use of chemical fertilisers. 'Farming cannot be treated as a mixture of chemistry and cost accountancy.' In violent reaction against industrial farming based on saleability rather than on the long-term welfare of the land, he accuses the exporters from colonial countries of squandering the fertility of their own soils to satisfy the demands of the overseas bond-holder. It is certainly possible that New Zealand's productivity has been over-stimulated by such methods as topdressing with mineral fertilisers, but there is as yet no sign that this has caused soil exhaustion. Lord Northbourne unconsciously expresses the resentment of an English farmer undersold by colonial produce on his own market.

page 127

His advocacy of more intensive use of the land, aided by a better understanding of its nature, implying the return to the soil of many 'natural' manures now wasted, may be of great service to British agriculture. But so long as New Zealand is a major exporter of farm products, our farmers must gang their own gait.

Lord Northbourne is, however, perhaps more acute as a critic of the spiritual dangers that lie in making too much of a business of farming. Many of the New Zealand Company settlers, possibly because they were mostly townsmen in retreat before the industrial revolution, had a definite feeling that it was good to get back to the land, to make a livelihood by what is even to-day the most natural way of life open to man. Since then the farmer in this country has become more preoccupied with the prices of his products and the costs of producing them. But he is not wholly a business man, any more than a doctor, who lives by disease, surreptitiously propagates it. New Zealand is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Few parts of it are out of sight of the sea or of the mountains. Many farmers are as vividly aware of the beauty of their surroundings as they are of the growth of feed on the portion of the landscape they happen to own. Many farmers have gone into farming with their eyes open, realising that its satisfaction as a way of life, which demands the highest exercise of their mental and physical powers, is greater than its eligibility as a profitable profession.

page 128

Others have at least considered these intangible factors in making their choice of a calling. Much dairy-farming, however, is unlikely to satisfy the mental needs of its participants over a long term, and it is at least a warning for the future, if a criticism of the present is unnecessary, to state the case against industrial farming as the farming idealists feel it.

Though Lord Northbourne is not alone in his detestation of the excessive industrialisation of farming, he perhaps takes a broader philosophic view than any other writer. He links up the decay of farming in Britain ('farming has become more and more a dying science and less and less a living art') with the declining health of the population, and points out, inter alia, that the British bill for public health expenditure alone reaches £275,000,000 a year, exceeding the total value of home agricultural production. He believes, in fact, that the produce of industrial farming has a lesser food value than 'natural' produce. For him 'The chief characteristic of real farming is that it is a way of life rather than a business.' The American economist-philosopher, Ralph Borsodi, has also attacked the cornmercialisation of farming, which, incidentally, he views as part of the process by which the state, in the democracies as well as in the totalitarian countries, is daily encroaching on the means of livelihood of the individual. He believes that the high degree of specialisation practised in modern farming is not even efficient—that it plunders fertility and still page 129more plunders life. The use of mechanical aids by the farmer may mean a high standard of living, but this may not be living at all. He himself established a small farm and ran it with his family as a leisure-time occupation. He advocates the small self-sufficient farm as a way of life, and as a defence against the increasing insecurity in the world. There may have been some social loss in the specialisation and division of labour that characterise industry in the modern world, including the farming industry, but few would believe with Borsodi that these methods have been proved uneconomic except when applied to heavy industry. (He is, however, able to prove that roller-milling of white flour is more costly than milling locally, or at home with an electrically operated plant.) All the weight of evidence leans the other way, and however much we sympathise with Borsodi's desire that men should lead more natural lives—which, good fellow, he would accomplish only by persuasion and never by governmental coercion—there can be no putting of the clock back to-day, any more than there could be for William Morris, who deplored the passing of the old crafts under the impact of industrialism. William Morris made the best of things, by persuading industry at least to abandon ugliness. Similarly we will have to make the best of the new industrialisation of farming, which has reached New Zealand only as an economic fact and not yet as a social fact, and, if the profession of farming has become as unsatisfying page 130as Borsodi and Lord Northbourne allege, we must solace ourselves for it in leisure-time compensations, like the rest of mankind.

New Zealand is happier than the rest of the world in that its favourite unit is still the family farm, and it is extremely doubtful if this country could with profit reach a much greater stage of industrialisation of farming than is in being to-day. There is evidence* that the increasing industrialisation of an essentially individual industry has affected farmers in overseas countries. Heavy subsidies have had to be paid in Germany, Italy and France, and to a lesser extent in England, during the last ten years, to support the smaller European mixed farmer who has been gradually squeezed out by the increasing use of large-scale production methods. Even in England the farm population has declined twenty-five per cent in a decade, without a fall in production, representing unemployment produced by advancing technique. In Russia the collective farms with central machine stations have enabled a great reduction in the number of farm workers: collectivisation was, in fact, carried out there to release workers for industry. Fortunately the machine can only replace the farmer in the production of bulk crops on an extensive basis, wheat in particular; and New Zealand's specialties, sheep and dairy farming, are most unlikely to gain in economy page 131from increases in the size of the unit. The family farm is the most common type of farm holding in New Zealand, and in fact we might well tender ourselves to the world as a laboratory experiment in the most natural type of farming unit. For in New Zealand the measure of industrialisation brought into farming has so far been, not the ruin, but the making of our farmers. The most important element in this industrialisation—the freezing works and the dairy factory —deal with the farmer's product only after he has taken it off the farm, and thus primarily affect distribution rather than the actual processes of production. From the community the New Zealand farmer receives a measure of subsidy: fertilisers are sold to him cheaply; his mortgage debts have been adjusted; he is exempted from Sales Tax and Customs duty on goods he needs to carry on production; he is guaranteed a price for his dairy produce, wheat, barley, fruit, tobacco, honey and, now under war conditions, for his meat. Neither this assistance, nor the maintenance of the Department of Agriculture, nor the development of roads and railways directly benefiting the farmer, can be considered as a subsidy in the same sense as the payments made to the sugar beet industry in Great Britain, for instance, when set against the wealth the farmer is creating for New Zealand.

Though the industrialisation of farming may jeopardise the economic status of the individual farmer in many parts of the world, simultaneously page 132the farmer is entering into a new partnership with manufacturing industry. Henry Ford—appropriately enough—has been a pioneer in the industrial use of farm produce. From soya bean oil the enamels and varnish needed in his cars have been manufactured, and from soya meal—the part of the bean remaining after the extraction of the oil—have been made plastics, represented in such parts of the car as steering wheels, horns, switches and buttons. Ford looks forward to a time when industry will draw its raw material, no longer from exhaustible forests and mines, but 'largely from the annual produce of the fields.' (The soya bean is a crop that might well be tried more extensively in New Zealand. Its food value is almost unique in its galaxy of vitamins, high proportion of protein and mininium water content. With its great oiliness it is among the best stock fattening feeds in the world, has been manufactured into human foods, ranging from diabetic foods and macaroni to a 'butter', and enriches the soil with nitrogen into the bargain.) Compressed casein has been used for more than a quarter of a century for such purposes as the handles of knives, while as long ago as 1907 the American negro chemist George Washington Carver extracted the makings of soap, ink, cosmetics, axle grease, dyes, and insulating board as well as food products from the peanut and performed similar prodigies with the sweet potato. Large quantities of corn are now turned into ethyl page 133alcohol for 'blending' with benzine to produce an improved motor spirit. It is only in the last decade, however, that the new science of 'chemurgy' has been given the status of a name and a movement in the United States, and this new alliance between the chemist, the manufacturer, and the primary producer is vigorously, if uncritically, celebrated by Christy Borth in his Pioneers of Plenty, which astounds the reader with the range and complexity of the utilisation of farm products in modern industry. While the main output of New Zealand farms at present would not lend itself to any great expansion in the production of materials useful in 'chemurgy'—after all, the freezing works already processes a very wide range of byproducts — there will in the fullness of time undoubtedly be new opportunities for New Zealand farmers, thanks to the magicianly activities of the modern chemist.

In large-scale industry it is still customary to guard a new scientific discovery with a vigilant, if unbecoming, jealousy. There are even instances where discoveries of the greatest value to humanity are suppressed lest a vested interest totter. In farming, however, every interest supports the pooling of knowledge and the quickest employment in practice of a new device, a new crop, or a new method of production. In New Zealand the Department of Agriculture performs an indispensable service in making knowledge available to the farmer, quite page 134apart from its functions in carrying on research and supervising production in the interests of a marketable product, free from blemish or disease. The Live-stock Division of the Department is primarily concerned with animal health and husbandry, inspecting all meat killed in the freezing works of the Dominion. Its experiments at the Wallaceville Veterinary Laboratory are of great value in combating diseases of stock which have always to be treated empirically to begin with in any new country with its own conditions. The Dairy Division, besides advising in the production of butter and cheese, grades this produce. The Fields Division, whose aim is the improvement of farm practices, also carries out valuable seed-testing work and seed certification, maintaining a seed-testing station at Palmerston North; it experiments with land utilisation and takes the lead in working out the methods of raising new crops in the manner most appropriate to New Zealand conditions. The Horticultural Division is concerned with fruitgrowing and also beekeeping. Its work includes the inspection of all fruit sold. The head office of the Department, including the important Chemistry Section, co-ordinates the work of its branches, which may be summed up in the one word 'propaganda' in the best sense of that contaminated word. Through the Journal of Agriculture, its instructors, veterinary surgeons, scientists, and experts, the Department is engaged in ceaseless propaganda to help the farmer page 135to adopt the best technique and to get the most out of his land. The Department's work is human and realistic. With its intimate contact with every type of farming throughout the country, as well as its leadership in innovation, it possesses the confidence of the farmer, which could alone make its work fruitful, and which is the emblem of its success.

Although the major educational function of the Department of Agriculture is concerned with the farmer who is already at work on his holding, it also undertakes the education of the young man wishing to make farming his profession. More elementary instruction is given at Flock House Station, Bulls, while the Ruakura Farm Training College, Hamilton, trains farmers' sons up to a higher standard. There are other important educational institutions. Lincoln College and Massey College have the status of independent university colleges, affiliated to the University of New Zealand, and are subsidised by the state. They provide advanced courses both in practical farming and in the scientific background of farming. The Department of Agriculture and the two agricultural colleges all make a special feature of short courses suited to the needs and the leisure opportunities of the working farmer. Agricultural subjects are taught at some technical schools. The Young Farmers' Clubs movement is another important means of educating the young farmer, in this instance of self-educating him. The entry of new recruits into farming page 136is a problem that has more and more concerned the state in recent years. In the past most farmers were the sons of farmers, and this is still how a majority of men become farmers. But even the home-taught farmer is more and more supplementing his knowledge with a course at an institution. In 1937 the government initiated a scheme for paying a subsidy to farmers willing to train inexperienced youths, amounting to rather more than a third of the wages payable to them. This subsidy has since been increased. Even though it is easier to teach a theoretical knowledge of farming than a practical knowledge, it may be said that nothing is left undone to educate the farmer for the tasks that he has before him.

The technical education of the farmer is well organised and effective. His broader cultural interests have, however, until recently been left to look after themselves. It is one of the claims made for rural life by idealists like Borsodi that the farming life is so engrossing and delightful in itself that the farmer has no wish to draw a line between his leisure and his work. His work is his pleasure, and his soul requires no other exercise. This is hardly a realistic approach to the conditions of modern farming, which is an integral part of our economy and society. There can be little doubt that rural life is not considered as attractive as town life by a great many farmers and their families. There is a growing reluctance to enter the profession among its natural recruits, the children page 137born and brought up on farms. The excessive employment of children to milk cows before and after their hours in school was complained of vehemently by school inspectors as early as 1905 and is still complained of by teachers, though parents are more alive to-day to their responsibilities to their children. It is both natural and graceful that a man's children should help him in his work, and most children enjoy the tasks of farming when they are not sickened of them by overwork. But the financial pressure that makes the labour of the farmer's children his only hope of getting on in the world is hardly likely to benefit the children. In any case when there are an increasing number of occupations open to young men and women at high wages, the largely unpaid help given on the home farm can have no compelling attraction, and children who prefer to strike out for themselves cannot be accused of filial ingratitude. Nevertheless, this is not in itself a reason why the children of farmers should increasingly seek other openings, especially employment in towns. For they could instead seek paid employment on other men's farms, as indeed many do. There still remains the need to make the farming life more attractive, to give it the social amenities of the town. Of course, there is a good deal of misplaced nostalgia in the farmer, and more particularly the farmer's wife, yearning for the fuller social opportunities of the town. (They already have on the farm in many parts of New Zealand, page 138especially in closely settled dairying districts, most of the conveniences, like electric light and power, associated with urban living. On the other hand the use of these conveniences is undoubtedly being retarded by lack of money in individual homes, and the material standard of living on farms in everything but food could still be greatly improved.) The farmer tends to exaggerate the pleasures of town life, seeing it too often through the amiable haze of his visits to buy or sell, when he goes to the pictures and amuses himself with a sense of holiday release which the jaded townsman could certainly not imitate. Yet there remains a solid basis of justification for this attitude, even though the farmer's 'town-hungriness' is increased by inexperience of the dullness and narrowness of most town living. His social instincts are left only partially appeased.

It is desirable that all the organisations concerned with the farmer, from the Department of Agriculture itself to the local Young Farmers' Club, should give much greater consideration to the best use of the farmer's leisure. With the development of the government's Correspondence School to cater for children too remote to attend a local school there is less and less disparity between the educational opportunities of the country child and the town child. But there is still a considerable disparity in fruitful social opportunity. Through such agencies as the Women's Institutes, the Women's Division of the page 139Farmers' Union, the Workers' Educational Association, and the government's Country Library Service, new leisure-time occupations and functions are being placed at the disposal of the country dweller. The experiment of a Community Centre attached to the Feilding Agricultural High School, has proved how rich a field waits on the encouragement of fashion and a well-organised movement. The motor car, when peace-time supplies of petrol are available, provides new opportunities for meetings of every sort in the country and points the way to a closer-knit community, more aware of itself and of the life around it, and able to find inside its own social unit a satisfaction possibly greater and more genuine than any association of human beings in a town. Man is naturally gregarious, and it will be the increasing concern of those who value the farming life to give the farmer's gregariousness better scope than it is afforded to-day by his usual associations, factory meetings, A. and P. shows and sale days, valuable as these are as a means of meeting his fellow beings. It is probable that the greatest advance will be made by combining all existing organisations into a comprehensive whole, with dependent groups to serve particular interests such as play-acting, reading, crafts, and discussing things. The community centre on winch this ideal organisation should ideally be based would become the heart of rural self-contentment, and a new rhythm in rural life would page 140begin, assuring the farmer even more than a livelihood from his holding—a living tradition of country society.

Russell Lord, writing of the tribulations of the American farmer in his book, The Agrarian Revival, describes a measure of frustration never approached in this country. 'Our country people want more money out of farming and more joy out of life. It used to be thought that if they could get the money the joy would follow. "Give us the money and we'll lead the life!" a Virginia farm wife cried to an assembly of the American Country Life Association.' The New Zealand farmer has possibly been too inclined to think of his own welfare in terms of money and not enough in terms of joy. But often the way of life has swept him into its vortex when he bargained for farming merely as a business. It would be a mistake to think that the New Zealand farmer is in any measure disheartened by the considerable problems, market and social, that confront him. He still has in over-flowing measure the vigour and enthusiasm of the whaler, Johnny Jones, establishing a farm on the whild shore at Waikouaiti in 1840, the courage and enterprise of the Deans brothers, colonising the Canterbury Plains in 1843, the tenacity of the far-wandering Nova Scotians, settling at last at remote Waipu in 1853, the foresight of Thomas Brydone selecting during 1881 the flock that was to provide the first cargo of refrigerated mutton. Unlike the average English farmer, who is an overseer, rather page 141than a worker in person, the New Zealand farmer nearly always works with his own hands as strenuously as anybody in his employment. He is intelligent and adaptable. If he were not, he would not survive. Usually he is extremely articulate. It has been truly said that the country is the real New Zealand, and certainly the strong, independent, patient, and self-reliant spirit of the farmer colours the whole of our society. Even the town-dwelling New Zealander shares vicariously, if only because he happened to be born on a farm, in most of the difficulties and triumphs of the farmer.

In the past the farmer has been the leader in New Zealand society. To-day his leadership is more hesitant. World markets have moved against him, and his costs are rising. He is prone to seek a political solution for problems fundamentally economic. In this he has shown the realism that might have been expected of him, for throughout the modern world economic problems are everywhere shaping the policies of states, both internal and external. Yet the real welfare of the farmer is in his own hands. Su Shih, the Chinese sage, declared in the eleventh century, 'The persistence of nations in history depends upon the quality of their national life and not upon their economic status.' Up to the present the farmer has been an efficient custodian of the quality of our national life.

* See Peter F. Drucker, 'The Industrial Revolution Hits the Farmer', Harper's Magazine, November 1939.