Churning over 150 years of dairy farming in the South Island’s West Coast, it is fair to say that cold early mornings, cows, milk and feeding out are all part of the Coast’s indomitable spirit.
A land blessed with rugged beauty in which-ever direction you look; while other industries have diminished over the years, dairy remains a powerful contributor to the region’s economy and well-being.
It could be strongly argued that the Coast was designed by Mother Nature herself to be the perfect dairy farming country, particularly when DAIRY INDUSTRY » Westland Milk Products fused with the Coasters passion for land and agriculture.
High rainfall and a relatively temperate climate produce the great grass dairy cows just love grazing on—and great grass produces great milk. One hundred and fifty years ago there was no irrigation or need for it.
With 3 metres of rainfall at coast level and up to 12 metres in the hill country, to this day a large proportion of coastal farms still do not have irrigation.The earliest account of dairy farming on the Coast rolls back to 1868.
With an ever-increasing number of pioneering dairy farms springing to life, throughout the late 1800 and early 1900’s numerous co-operative dairy/butter factories appeared up and down the Coast—the first of which was the Hokitika Dairy Company.
The next major development occurred in 1936 when Westland Milk Products was established, along with the co-operative itself eventually taking over all the remaining smaller co-operatives right along the coast.
Many of the smaller cooperatives remained in operation right up to the 1970’s and there are many anecdotes that add colour to life back in the day.
Eighty-eight year old Charlie Glass has fond memories of sneaking a kiss from his late wife Joan behind the dairy factory between shifts, and finding the odd cat in the cream barrel.Charlie and Joan, both worked in the factory at Hari Hari during the Second World War.
There was a labour shortage, and Charlie joined the workforce at 15, making butter. “Butter was made differently in those days.
It was all in a churner, and then we had to pull it all out by hand,” says Charlie. “You know, back then it was nothing to find a friendly cat drowned in the cream,” he sayse.
“The lids of the cream would be left off, the old cat would come in, and the next day you’d go to stir it and there’d be a cat – don’t worry, we’d only throw out the cat, and not waste the cream.”
Old-timer Jack Mitchell’s Cronadun farm is like walking back in time. It uses the same ‘walk-through shed’ method that his father James used on the farm back in the early 1920s.
The Mitchell farm is one of the oldest established dairy operations on the Coast and the tried and true technique continues to work well for 80-year-old Jack, who runs the operation with his son John.
Jack’s father was focused solely on cream production in the early years, with the cream collected each day for the butter factory in Reefton.
The Cronadun Butter Factory was directly across the road from the Mitchell farm. It was in existence prior to 1906 and operated up until 1918, when it was bought by the Golden Coast Dairy Company and closed down.
Jack has worked on the farm his entire life developing the land with his brother Jimmy after taking over the farm operation when their father died in 1964.
“We still use the walk-through shed for milking and it works well for us and the cows. The cows come in from the paddocks, come into the yard and walk straight up and stand in line. We milk 14 at a time.”
They get used to it and are as quiet as mice—they know you and we know them all. “We don’t even have to put the chain around them.”
Hamish Yates, General Manager for Marketing and Innovation at Westland Milk agrees that dairy farming is a massive part of the coast’s lifeblood and particularly because so many of the region’s farm are inter generational.
“We strongly call out the fact that Westland Milk competes on the global scale around our point of differentiation—location and heritage,” Hamish says.
Long and narrow – dairy farming in the Coast stretches 440km from Karamea through to glacier country in South Westland.
With 390 farms the depth and breadth of the Coast supplying Westland Milk Products and a further 31 suppliers from Canterbury, Westland is a true co-operative that is 100% owned by its shareholders.
Hamish says that if the farmer owns shares in the business they must supply milk to Westland.
Just doing some rough mental arithmetic you get a sense for how important dairy farming is for the region, with almost 400 farms on the coast, taking into account family employment, share milkers and staff.
Westland Milk Products alone is the biggest private sector employer on the Coast with a team of 428, and another 100 in its Rolleston plant.
Then you add into that the economical side effects around what that does from a cash flow perspective.
“Dairy would be one of the major employers in the Coast.” “For the West Coast region we’re 11.5% of the economy, contribute 10% to employment, and account for 56% of the regional exports,” says Hamish.
Taking great pride and a passion for the Coast’s farming history, Westland Milk Products continues to evolve, improve and push the boundaries to be the best little dairy company in the world.
Westland Milk Products subscribes to and agrees to be audited by Swiss based EcoVadis, which has globally recognised standards for corporate social responsibility and environmental standards.
“We have a silver medal status from them and we’re continually striving to improve on that,” says Hamish.
“Not only because it’s the right thing to do for our animals, the environment, the waterways and our people but at the very end of it we’re here to make more money for our farmers by making our products more attractive to the consumer.”
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