The Resilient Farmer – “Shift Happens!”

Friday, 27 September, 2019

The UFU is featuring excerpts from ‘The Resilient Farmer’ Doug Avery’s book in the run up to his events here in October. His book is entertaining, heart-breaking, and inspiring and no doubt the events will be too.

Excerpt from Doug Avery’s book ‘The Resilient Farmer’ from the chapter: Excitement Galore

Nineteen seventy-three. There can hardly have been a more momentous year in the history of farming in this country. First there was the oil shock – the price of oil skyrocketed, hugely increasing the cost of transport and dragging the price of imports upwards as a result. And then Britain, which has been by far our major market, joined the European Common Market, effectively ending its old export agreement with us. It’s hard to overstate the impact that had on New Zealanders. At the same time, the United States, a major market for our beef, made changes to its import formula that made life tougher for New Zealand farmers.

Successive New Zealand governments stepped in to help bolster the farming industry, and the subsidies began to fly. First Labour’s Norman Kirk introduced subsidies for fertiliser, and waived interest on loans to farmers. Then in 1975, National’s Robert Muldoon really started to crank it up. Subsidies were increased – crazy schemes that paid a dollar for every sheep on your farm on 1 July were introduced. So we lambed early and counted every one. In addition, supplementary minimum prices were put in place to anchor farmers returns for meat and wool.

This led to significant growth in livestock numbers, with the number of sheep nationwide reaching seventy million in the early 1980s. We produced huge amounts of meat for which there was no market, and real prices fell. By the late 1970s the country had a stockpile of sheep meat. By the early 1980s, government support for agriculture was equivalent to thirty per cent of the total output from farming.

Farmers were paid through cheap land development loans to clear marginal land of scrub to grow grass, meaning large tracts of land were developed that should never have been touched. The subsidies were capitalised into land prices and unaffordable wages and costs.

All those subsidies protected farmers from the realities of the world. History would show this was the craziest time in local farming history. Every signal we got was born from the wrong reasoning. Kirk and Muldoon: together they took New Zealand’s agriculture to its knees.

We would sit and watch the Budget on TV to see how much money we were going to make. The finance minister was our golden feeder. Dad was a wise man; he told me: ‘Make sure we spend the money on production, as this won’t last.’ A lot of farmers went and bought a new car and that contributed to the underlying problem, because while the fellow at the car sales yard made a buck, it didn’t underpin our export wealth. At Bonavaree and Glen Erin, we kept focused on increasing our own performance.

One of the lasting ramifications of the period has been that, socially, a massive change occurred in how farmers were viewed. Subsidies returned the tax payer very little, and public opinion became severe; the general public hated the amount of money that had been spent on subsidisation, which produced absolutely nothing for the well-being of this nation. We went from being called the ‘backbone’ of the country to the ‘wishbone’. People gloated when subsidies were ripped away virtually overnight by the Labour government in 1984, and many farmers went to the wall. The public profile of agriculture has never recovered from this time and many Kiwis still look at us as bludgers.

Lessons learned through this time served me well for the rest of my farming life.

Continued next week in UFU Watch

Dates for the tour: 7th October, Glenavon Hotel, Cookstown; 8th October, Mourne Country Hotel, Newry; 9th October, Killyhevlin Hotel, Enniskillen; and 10th October, Tullyglass Hotel, Ballymena. All events start with a light supper at 7pm.

Tickets for the tour are £10 per person, which includes a light supper. For more information and to book your ticket visit www.resilientfarmertour.co.uk