Milking our farmland for all it’s worth

Originally published at nzherald.co.nz

The Sunday television special “The Price of Milk” has been salt to the wounded pride of many dairy farmers. It was meant to be a chance for dairy farmers to tell their side of the story, but it was not the glossy Fonterra version.

The show went in boots and all behind the scenes on two dairy farms. On the farm of Gavin Flint (Flinty), viewers saw seemingly skinny cows birthing in muddy areas, a cow being hip-clamped after going down, and a stillborn calf being pulled from its mother.

As the dead calf dropped with a thud to the concrete floor, Flinty reacted with philosophical practicality. It is a shame, but these things happen, he said. Flinty went on to say it was a good thing the cow lived because now she will begin to produce milk – and then people can pour that over their Weet-bix and make coffees.

Although I am an anti-dairy campaigner, I will concede Flinty has a point of sorts. Dairy farmers have to be practical. They have a job to do. Why blame farmers when we sit in a cafe sipping the cream of their labours in the form of a flat white? It makes no sense.

Frankly that is why I drink soy lattes and pour almond milk on my cereal in the mornings. No one wants a dead calf and sick cow on their conscience.

So it was good to see the show bringing the realities of dairy farming into our living rooms and demonstrating the true price of milk. With that kind of education, “townies” can now make an informed choice as to whether they wish to participate in an industry that kills two million excess calves every year.

Perhaps that is why dairy farmers were not happy with the image of dairy farming the programme  portrayed. They took it out on the Sunday producers on their Facebook page. In a familiar rant one commentator wrote, “Sunday … I’m beginning to think that you’re the Isis of NZ …” Another contributor said Sunday should select its farmers more carefully.

But to cherry-pick farmers just to demonstrate “best practice” and portray a sterilised version of dairy farming is not proper journalism. I think Sunday did an excellent job of representing the hardships of the average dairy farmer and dairy cow. Sure, it was not the bile-producing Fonterra ads of farmers getting up at sunrise to lush green paddocks and a rush of mutual love between cow and farmer. It was not meant to be. Good journalism is about telling the real story.

Farmwatch agrees, writing on its Facebook page: “The Sunday crew have just experienced what we typically experience – filming and showing the truth, resulting in outrage and name-calling from an angry industry in wilful denial.”

The real story of the dairy industry is not pretty. Harvesting milk from the udders of 400kg-plus herbivorous animals is mucky stuff. It involves dead calves and downed cows and exhausted farmers trying to do their best.

It has also meant increasing nitrate input and in the words of dairy farmer Jasmine (who also featured on the show), “forcing the land to produce much more than it is naturally capable of”.

It’s short-term gain and long-term damage. Put simply – the industry model of dairy farming is not sustainable.

An increase in the intensity of cows per hectare in New Zealand over the past 50 years has meant run-off from the dairy industry into our harbours and waterways is causing waterway damage. On this topic Flinty nailed it: “Perhaps we shouldn’t be running cows on it”. Never a truer word.

Flinty is dead right on so may levels. Urban dwellers who continue to suckle from the teat of New Zealand’s dairy industry while decrying its environmental and animal welfare impact need to look at themselves first. There is simply no point scapegoating farmers. It’s the industry itself that needs examining.

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