Fifty years of Canterbury farming revolution

The ideas for this article were triggered by a recent reunion of former Ministry of Agriculture Canterbury farm advisers. There were about 45 of us who got together to tell tales of former years. Our collective experiences that day went back to 1946 when Austin Ebert joined what was then the Department of Agriculture, followed by Les Bennetts in 1947, and then Lyndsay Galloway and Dave Reynolds a few years later.

I was one of the later recruits, joining as a fresh-faced and very ‘wet behind the ears’ 22-year old at the end of 1969, having just completed a four-year agricultural science degree at Lincoln University. Compared to many, my farm adviser career was short.  I only lasted two years, one year either side of two years back at Lincoln for a Master of Agricultural Science degree, before heading off to South America for mountain-climbing and other adventures. But those two years as a farm adviser were enough to create many memories, and also to learn many lessons, both from colleagues and some very experienced farmers. 

For those who stayed the course, life as a Ministry of Agriculture farm adviser came to a sudden halt in 1987, when Finance Minister Roger Douglas, amongst many actions, brought down the guillotine on free advisory services.  From there, everyone spread to the four winds, with some taking up roles as private consultants, others going farming themselves, or working elsewhere in the commercial sector.

Looking back some fifty years, and influenced by some of the stories told, my overall thought was of the massive changes to Canterbury farming that have occurred. Initially, I framed those changes in my mind as ‘evolution’, but I now think of it as ongoing ‘revolution’. I can see more revolutions to come.

I came to Canterbury in the mid-1960s as a student after a short stint milking cows in Taranaki.  Within days, Canterbury felt like home, and despite many years overseas, it has always been home. Intriguingly, many of the former farm advisers expressed similar thoughts about Canterbury.

Back in those days, Canterbury farming was largely about ‘fat lamb’ production on dryland soils. It was about producing lamb carcasses of 12 to 13 kg, and getting as many lambs as possible slaughtered well before Christmas. The market requirements were for a lamb that had to produce a bone-in leg that would fit in the oven owned by a British housewife.  Producing these light-weight lambs was biologically inefficient, in that most of the feed went into maintaining the ewe. However, this production system suited the summer-dry Canterbury climate and the predominant stony soils.  With wool still a valuable product, the overall system worked well.

On heavier soils, such as in the Ellesmere district, farmers grew crops, and a few also milked cows, either for town-supply or butter production. I worked on one such farm as a student, where cream was left in big cans at the gate to be collected for the Tai Tapu butter factory, and with the skim milk fed to pigs. The cow and pig effluent went into the drain, where it was out of sight and out of mind. However, it did on occasions came back into mind when water skiing on Lake Ellesmere. There was an incentive to not fall off the skis, and if that did occur, to keep one’s mouth firmly shut.

On these heavier soils, the dominant constraint was drainage.  As a ‘rule of thumb’, investment in drainage would give a 20% return on capital. Thereafter, investment in irrigation, mainly labour-intensive hand-shift and drawing from shallow wells, would give a 10% return.

There were also fertile loess soils on the southern banks of the alpine rivers, formed by silt blown down from the mountains in the prevailing northwesters. These were classic cropping soils for autumn-sown wheat, spring-sown barley, ryegrass seed and white-clover seed, combined with some sheep. 

The crops farms were typically modest in size, and each would have its own harvester. This was considered necessary in those days when, with the lack of artificial dryers, getting the moisture in the grain down to the requisite level was a challenging matter. Every available harvest hour had to be used, with moisture checks many time per day.  Yields were about half of those achieved currently.

When I look back to those days, it is clear that the overall Canterbury systems were non-sustainable. However, we did not see it that way at the time. 

One very big problem in those days was soil erosion driven by wind. Most of the soils had low organic matter, and cultivation was a high-risk affair.   I recall travelling across the plains and struggling for visibility. And as one former adviser reminded us at the reunion, driving across the plains on a strong norwest day, in those days before air-conditioning, meant a car that had both an internal and external layer of silt.

There were other problems in those days, with grass grub and porina caterpillar being major issues. DDT was a key weapon, and for a long time there were no other solutions.

There have been many transforming factors in Canterbury agriculture, but way out front has been irrigation. Starting in the 1940s, and initially in restricted areas between the Rangitata and the Rakaia rivers, flood-irrigation methods were developed using water diverted north from the Rangitata River. From there, it has been an ongoing series of developments, first with submersible pumps and then pivot irrigators arguably being the key transforming technologies.  Direct drilling without soil cultivation has also been transformational.

The initial Canterbury irrigations systems were not particularly profitable. It took a while for market developments to catch up with the opportunities provided by summer water and the ability to produce heavier lambs. More recently, it has been irrigation that has spurred the development of dairying as a major land use.

The life of a farm adviser has also changed. As one consultant allegedly reported to his boss when asked as to his most important professional achievement, it was to successfully deliver three human babies. Of course, we were all experienced at such tasks with sheep. They were times when the Government adviser was there to work alongside the farmer and his family, and with loyalties to the farmers standing in front of any loyalty to the Ministry.

In general, the advisers were males, but not totally so. Farmers are often considered conservative, but farmers are also people who tend to treat each human situation on its merit. In fact, the female advisers were just as well respected as the males. One view expressed at the reunion was that the Ministry hierarchy had more difficulty in knowing how to deal with women advisers than did the farmers.

One female adviser said that it was a standard question at job interviews to ask female applicants how they would respond if a farmer ‘made a pass’ at them while out in the back paddock. With hindsight, she thought the smart answer would have been to say that it would depend on the size of the farm and the mortgage. Another female adviser told her colleagues that she expected to be treated as a colleague up to 5pm and thereafter as a woman.

Looking back, both the farming systems and the social systems of those days do seem somewhat quaint.  The true farming leaders were people who recognised that change is always with us, and who embraced that change.

 I like to point out to students of today that when people look back in another 30 years or so they will see our current supposedly high-technology systems as also being quaint. The true leaders will once again have been those who could see the big picture, who could fight against false information, but also not defend the indefensible, and who could recognise that what we are doing now cannot be the way of the future.

I happen to think that irrigation, dairying and various crops will still be fundamental components to agriculture on the Canterbury Plains of the future, but things will look very different from today.  I hope to see and participate in at least the first part of that journey.

About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
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4 Responses to Fifty years of Canterbury farming revolution

  1. Honora Renwick says:

    Enjoyed your reminiscing. Let’s hope things will be very different from today!

  2. Pingback: Rural round-up | Homepaddock

  3. Ian Bywater says:

    I also enjoyed reading John McCrones article “Dairy heads indoors”, Press Mainlander, April 29. I fully condone the move towards free-stall barn wintering. I wish you well on your round the world trip with the Calder-Stewart team. I’m certain you have organised your contacts for farm visits but I would be happy to put you in touch with a family-owned engineering company in Germany that specialises in waste recovery and energy production that supports the capital investment in buildings.

    • Keith Woodford says:

      Thank you.
      It is unlikely I will get there this trup (unless it is very close to Holland), but I would like the contact. It is all part of educating myself on these matters, and there is always more to learn!

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