Saturday, April 13, 2024

The story of a province that punched above its weight

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Alan Emerson helps welcome a book chronicling five decades of Federated Farmers in Mid Canterbury.
Mid Canterbury is both unique and a microcosm of the broader rural community, says Alan Emerson.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

I was in Ashburton last week to speak at the launch of Kevin Geddes’s book 50 Years On. It is always good to get out of the home patch and mix with farmers from another area and Ashburton certainly turned it on.

The evening started with a presentation from our new Agricultural Trade Envoy, Hamish Marr. I hadn’t met him before but he was impressive talking about his background and the trade challenges of the future. He’ll do a good job in that role.

Geddes’s book is about Mid Canterbury Federated Farmers between the years 1945 and 2000. The title doesn’t suggest an interesting read but it certainly is. 

There are many books written about agriculture and its various crisis and opportunities over that period but none to my knowledge does so from a grassroots farmer’s perspective.

You can drive from the northwest of Mid Canterbury to the southeast in less than an hour, so the thoughts and opinions of those 15 branches provided an intimate and personal view of the rural happenings over that 55-year period.

For most of the first half of the previous century farming was dominated by the old Farmers Union. In 1945, I read, “the farmer’s voice was fractured and the once-powerful Farmers Union had lost the support of farmers and the government”.

I can’t see that happening today.

Federated Farmers was formed as the voice of all farmers and Ashburton County was one of the first in the South Island to get behind the new organisation.

In 1945 we were recovering from World War II and recession. Prices paid for produce over the war years had been kept low so as to support Britain. It was the beginning of a new era.

One of the first decisions made was to send two delegates to the Dominion Conference of Federated Farmers in Wellington. That involved travelling to Christchurch by train and taking the overnight ferry to Wellington. After two days of the conference it was the reverse journey home.

Another was to welcome returned service personnel to the organization with a year’s free subscription. A retired squadron leader was the organisations’ first secretary.

Geddes takes the reader from the days when farming was regarded as the backbone of New Zealand – and farmers’ sons were considered an exciting catch by many – to the current era of farming being considered the whipping boy by both national and local politicians.

It details the challenges of grass grub, the banning of DDT and Dieldrin and the fight over Canada geese. The scourge that was nassella tussock is also well documented.

Mid Canterbury is both unique and a microcosm of the broader rural community.

Unique in the way it set up branches across the province to reflect the concerns of those small communities. Unique in starting a trading co-operative, a rural support trust, purchasing its own building, promoting irrigation and supporting amalgamation to achieve a quality secondary school.

A microcosm in its reaction to the option of wool acquisition, its opposition to good farmland being used for residential dwellings, piloting hydatids control and its pioneering of the income equalisation scheme.

Mid Canterbury Federated Farmers was even more than that. As a team player it worked with the national office to get rid of restrictions on the carting of livestock, farmers being able to kill stock on their own account, fertiliser quality and prices for produce.

Mid Canterbury Federated Farmers also produced its share of national farming leaders. People like Hilgendorf, Grigg, Robertson, Mackenzie, Glass, Acland and Geddes himself all went on to national honours.

Mid Canterbury Feds had just 1000 members over 15 branches but they consulted at length, collated those views and forwarded them to Wellington. Take a Parliamentary Select Committee debating a rural issue: Feds could say that Mid Canterbury had consulted with 1000 members over 15 branches and the effects on the ground will be this. It makes it extremely difficult if not impossible for a Wellington-based, city-centric bureaucrat to argue against.

I commend this book to you. It is a well-written, factual, fascinating record of a province of farmers who punched well above their weight.

As I said, it was a great evening. I thoroughly enjoyed mixing with the many locals who attended and appreciated the opinions they offered.

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