Eighteen months ago, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao had a vision: “I have a dream to provide every Chinese, especially children, [with] sufficient milk each day,” he said. And in New Zealand, where serving children copious daily quantities of milk, cheese and ice cream counts as a patriotic duty, the “Cow Cockies” quietly congratulated the Chinese on their good sense – and themselves on their good fortune.
Soaring prices for “white gold”, or milk, are returning dreamy profits to dairy farmers around the world but especially in New Zealand. The country is the biggest exporter of dairy products to China, where the appetite for them has trebled in the past decade.
Forget the sheep jokes. The bottom of the South Island was once famous for its lambs but now sheep farmers are surrounded by fields of cows. Analysts say that 80 farms here have converted to dairy units, which equates to an estimated loss of around 300,000 lambs from the region.
The North wants in on the dairy boom, too. “In our area, dairy conversion is the hot topic at dinner parties,” says Jane White, who farms with her husband Larry in the North Island’s Hawke’s Bay. The Whites were planning to mothball their cowshed before New Zealand’s multi-national dairy cooperative, Fonterra, announced a record-high payout for the 2006-2007 season. Suddenly the numbers stacked up again, so they appointed a new herd manager and are now milking 600 cows and rearing calves. All but 3 per cent of New Zealand’s dairy farmers belong to the giant coop which is forecasting a 27 per cent higher payout for 2007-2008, a year some say will be like never before.
Converting beef and sheep country into productive dairy pasture and ripping out plantation trees to create dairy units doesn’t come cheap. Amidst criticism, New Zealand’s biggest corporate farmer, Landcorp, is doing just that on the North Island’s volcanic plateau. Farmer Evan Chisnall has spent NZ$5.3m (€2.7m) converting his cropping and livestock farm into a dairying platform for 1,300 cows, gambling family money on the bonanza lasting longer than spring grass.
Increasingly, however, it’s only agri-business that can afford the investment. Large-scale dairying is seen as both saviour and sinner of the New Zealand economy, depending on your view, with its environmental footprint attracting plenty of scrutiny on grounds of water usage and fertiliser run-off. As for the real Cow Cockies, the ones in gumboots, well, in their world, tomorrow always begins at dawn, in the shed, among the muck, whatever the Chinese are drinking.
We need to talk about Kevin. Not that he’s done anything yet. He’s still the new boy on the block. But people are getting restless. Australians have never had it better, what with the minerals boom firing up the economy and there being more jobs than people to fill them. But many have it in for Prime Minister John Howard this time round.
In different times, Kevin Rudd might be considered the man least likely to be leading the rival Australian Labor Party in to the forthcoming Australian federal election, to be held by January 2008. But the Labor Party, gutted by years of self-destructive in-fighting, ran out of options and elected the man some regard as an uppity nerd from Queensland to its top job last December. “It was desperation and his obvious competence that, in the end, made him impossible to ignore. They did not choose him for humility or because he was everyone’s best mate,” says Mike Steketee, national affairs editor on The Australian.
Rudd is nobody’s man, in fact. He doesn’t draw on the trade unions for support, nor the party’s powerful factions. He’s intellectual, seriously religious and innately conservative. Yet despite his clean-cut image, his appeal was undented when it transpired that he visited a New York strip club while in the city seeing the UN in 2003. Ironically, one attribute that the polls show work in Rudd’s favour is that he is like a younger version of Howard, who has long made a virtue of being an average bloke. Australians, as Howard said, accept change most easily when they are comfortable and relaxed. He needs to talk about Kevin.