Monday, 25 April 2011

Someone once told me the average age of a sheep farmer in New Zealand is 55 years

Someone once told me the average age of a sheep farmer in New Zealand is 55 years.

That puts your average cocky bang in the middle of the baby boomer age strata (i.e those born between 1946 and 1964). It also puts your average cocky smack in the middle, age-wise, of those cycling the Central Otago Rail Trail.

I’ve just finished the Rail Trail with two Southland sheep farmers and our respective wives. With an average age of 51, our group almost felt like babies amongst the baby boomers on the trail. You’re never too old for adventure.

The Rail Trail is a quintessential Kiwi experience I would recommend to anyone regardless (almost) of their age and fitness. Trains were not built for steep inclines and neither are aging ‘boomers’, so the hardest part of the adventure is actually hardening your backside for four days in the saddle.

The journey spans just over 150 kilometres from Clyde to Middlemarch, passing through Alexandra, Omakau, the Ida Valley, Ranfurly and Hyde along the way. You can start at either end, it doesn’t really matter because Clyde and Middlemarch are at roughly the same altitude, so effectively when you decide which way to go you’re taking a punt on the wind direction.

The beauty of the Rail Trail, other than the stunning scenery, is the fact that you’re biking along a railway track built more than a century ago, essentially by pick and shovel. That our forebears were able to forge a railway line through such rugged country in such a challenging climate, was an engineering masterpiece.

The origins of the Central Otago line date back to 1879 when the first sod was turned at Wingatui, just outside Dunedin, but the railway took 42 years to make the 236 kilometre journey to its final destination of Cromwell.

The Clyde to Cromwell section was flooded by the Clyde High Dam in the ‘Think Big’ 1980s, while the Dunedin to Middlemarch leg stills exists as the Taieri Gorge tourist train. The bits in the middle make up the Central Otago Rail Trail.

Although it’s hard to see anywhere in the country competing with Central Otago for scenery or climate, the Rail Trail is a blueprint for other regions that want to regenerate the rural hinterland. Little pubs in far-flung places such as Chatto Creek, Ophir, Oturehua, Wedderburn and Waipiata were dying a slow and painful death with the advent of Rogernomics, rural depopulation and drink-driving laws. The Rail Trail has breathed new life into the businesses and they are now a cultural oasis along the dry and dusty track.

Every little nook and cranny along the Trail has its own unique history. My favourite tale related to the tragic Hyde Rail Disaster of June 1943. Twenty one lives were lost when the train driver, under the influence of alcohol, took a corner at twice the speed he should have. One young husband among the injured refused to believe his wife, who had been laid out with the deceased, was in fact dead. He lay beside her to keep her warm and in doing so saved her life as she was only unconscious, although badly injured. She was also found to be pregnant. She later had a baby and the couple was able to buy a farm in North Otago with the help of compensation money received from the Railways. A happy ending to a sad tale.

Farmers, this is a trip you need to put on your Bucket List. Most of you, by the very nature of your occupation, work too hard and too long. Most of you also spend a lifetime accumulating wealth you never spend.

By the time you reach that average age of 55 you have, in Central Otago Rail Trail parlance, reached the highest point of Wedderburn and are on your way downhill. Before you reach your final destination, you need to get off life’s bike and take time to smell the Central Otago wild flowers along the way.

I promise you the Rail Trail will not disappoint. ENDS.

Footnote: Jamie Mackay is the host of the Farming Show which airs on Radio Sport and Newstalk ZB. In a past life a Southland sheep farmer, these days he comments on farming, politics and sport for a living from the relative safety and comfort of his radio studio in Dunedin.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Calm seas for farming

# Big Farming Story of the Week: Calm seas for farming.

Other than an annoyingly high dollar, it’s pretty much plain sailing for many farmers who are enjoying record returns and a reasonably kind season. Only Marlborough and North Canterbury remain relatively dry. In the past year wool has more than doubled in price, lamb and beef returns have increased by more than a third and dairy products are up 20%. Farmers should make hay while the sun shines!

# Big Political Story of the Week: “Self-serving unionists and a gaggle of gays!”

Maverick West Coast Labour MP Damien O’Connor came up with best one-liner since Steve Hansen’s “flush the dunny and move on”. This one might even join the immortals such as Ed Hillary’s “We knocked the bastard off”, Peter Jones’ “I’m absolutely buggered”, Justice Peter Mahon’s “Orchestrated litany of lies” and Mark Todd’s “That’s a curly one”.

The PC Brigade in the Labour Party was not amused but I almost detected an amused smirk from the under-siege leader Phil Goff. I’ve never met Goff but I’ve interviewed him enough times to think the Clevedon hobby farmer wouldn’t be a bad bloke to share a beer with. In the Labour Party terms he’s probably a centrist/right member and I wouldn’t mind betting a good part of him agrees with O’Connor’s message, if not his delivery. Never say never, but Labour looks terminal in election year. Oh for a Helen Clark, Michael Cullen or Steve Maharey to right the listing Labour list.

# Big Sporting Story of the Week: The Masters. Ah the magnificent Masters.

I’m only a weekend warrior when it comes to golf. I have neither the patience, temperament or ability to master sport’s most technically demanding game. That didn’t stop me savouring every moment of the 75th Masters at Augusta. And it didn’t stop me feeling for young Rory McIlroy when he had a meltdown triple-bogey most hapless hackers would be proud to call their own.

An honourable mention goes to Sonny Bill Williams. Like many I’ve had to eat humble pie and admit I was wrong in thinking $BW wouldn’t make the transition to the top All Blacks XV. In boxing parlance, he is the real deal. Legendary Lions’ star Barry John introduced New Zealand to round-the-corner goal kicking in 1971. Now, $BW has added his own indelible calling card to the game of rugby - the offload.

# Brickbat: Campbell Live’s crusade against milk prices and Fonterra.

The tabloid current affairs show has a sniff of Fonterra blood in the milk vat and is circling for the kill. Yes milk is expensive. Yes it’s a staple. And yes John Campbell is right to go in to bat for the families for whom milk is now a luxury item. But he’s tilting at the wrong windmill. The price of milk is not a result of price gouging by Fonterra or its 11,000 shareholder farmers. It’s a reflection of the price of dairy products on the world market. Fonterra has already shown itself to be a responsible corporate citizen by freezing the price of milk, any further subsidy can only come from one source – the government.

What’s next in Campbell’s crusade? Fruit, vegetables, beef, lamb? Bought a porterhouse steak or a leg of lamb lately? Watch your back sheep and beef farmers. You’re next!

# Bouquet: Central Otago.

By the time you read this or, conversely, light the fire with it, I will have all but finished cycling the Central Otago Rail Trail, 150 glorious kilometres from Clyde to Middlemarch through the nation’s most beautifully barren landscape. This country is heaven on our back doorstep. We must, at all costs, conserve and preserve it.

# Bugger: No July 22 All Blacks test at the new Dunedin Stadium.

OK Fiji was never going to be much chop but that didn’t matter because the All Blacks would have been christening the new stadium. Otago v Manawatu in the ITM Cup just doesn’t hold the same appeal. Bring on Elton John on November 26!

Footnote: Jamie Mackay is the host of the Farming Show which airs on Radio Sport and Newstalk ZB. In a past life a Southland sheep farmer, these days he comments on farming, politics and sport for a living from the relative safety and comfort of his radio studio in Dunedin.

Monday, 11 April 2011

The Fonterra Global Dairy Trade Event

# Big Farming Story of the Week: The Fonterra Global Dairy Trade Event.

After the 8.2% drop in the March 15 auction, last week’s result was anxiously awaited. In the wash up, a drop of 2.4% was viewed as a good result. The law of gravity was always going to come in to play and the combined 10.6% drop of the last two auctions only just negates the 9.8% rise of the February 15 and March 1 auctions. Besides, if international prices went any higher, we’d have every man and his dog around the globe having a crack at dairying. We’ve been there, done that, with boom and bust. A stable payout beginning with a 7 will do quite nicely thanks!

# Big Political Story of the Week: The Economy.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, along comes the Canterbury earthquake and the billion dollar-plus bailout of the dodgy finance company industry (see brickbat below). There’s not a single soul in the country who begrudges paying for the havoc wreaked by the Canterbury quakes because there, but for the grace of God, go all of us. What does stick in the craw, however, is the prospect of us, the taxpayers, shelling out for the greed, stupidity and commercial imprudence of others.

# Big Sporting Story of the Week: The All Blacks Midfield.

The debate over Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith versus Sonny Bill Williams and Robbie Fruean is shaping to rival some of the great All Black rugby rivalries over the years. You can add this one to the likes of Fergie McCormick v Mick Williment, Chris Laidlaw v Sid Going, Allan Hewson v Robbie Deans, Buck Shelford v Zinzan Brooke and Grant Fox v Frano Botica,

And an honourable mention to Otago bowler, Neil Wagner, for his five wickets-in-an-over effort against Wellington. Technically it’s a double hat trick and a five-for in one over!

# Brickbat: South Canterbury Finance.

As a prelude to my comments, I want to acknowledge Allan Hubbard is still seen as a financial demigod by many, especially in his home province, and that there can be no denying he has lent a helping hand to many business people when others didn’t want to know, especially farmers.

That said, what has gone on at South Canterbury Finance is inexcusable. Heads have to roll. A billion dollar bill is nothing short of criminal.

And, an abhorrent mention to Clayton Weatherston, for appealing his murder conviction. Our legal system is an ass for allowing such an injustice.

# Bouquet: Jim Hopkins.

For 21 years of service to the Young Farmers Contest. Being an MC can be a thankless task, especially in an open arena where you’re battling large crowds who don’t always want to listen. But Hopkins has always done the job with great humour, aplomb and sage use of the Queen’s language. He’s been an admirable advocate for rural New Zealand. We wish him all the best for his tilt at higher political honours!

# Bugger: The New Zealand Dollar.

I know! I know! We’re a commodity currency and when world primary commodity prices are high, our dollar goes up in sympathy. I also recognize a high dollar is not all bad. Imports are cheaper and it is, after all, a reflection of our net worth on the global economic market.

However, there can be no denying New Zealand farmers would benefit greatly from a dollar that is closer to US70 cents than 80. I’m not old enough to remember the wool boom of the 1950s or the milk and honey of the Holyoake years. What I do know though, is that in the thirty-odd years I’ve been directly involved with agriculture, I can’t recall a time when all the farming planets were in such alignment. We’ve got high international commodity prices, a burgeoning Asian economy on our doorstep, a lack of supply on world markets for what we produce and the absence of a major summer drought anywhere in the country to stymie production.

All we need now is a self-proclaimed messiah with a magic wand to make the dollar drop. Where’s Winston Peters when you need him?

Footnote: Jamie Mackay is the host of the Farming Show which airs on Radio Sport and Newstalk ZB. In a past life a Southland sheep farmer, these days he comments on farming, politics and sport for a living from the relative safety and comfort of his radio studio in Dunedin.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Have dairy prices peaked?

# Big Farming Story of the Week: Have dairy prices peaked?

This week’s Global Dairy Trade Event will make interesting viewing. The March 15 event, straight off the back of the Japan earthquake resulted in an 8.2% drop in the price of the basket of dairy products Fonterra measures. World money markets have settled down somewhat and the fundamentals for agricultural commodities remain buoyant. Dairy farmers will be hoping this translates, on Tuesday night, to a stabilized world dairy market.

# Big Political Story of the Week: A redhead caught red-handed then red-carded?

Everyone who knows Darren Hughes likes him. Unfortunately for Dazza, politics is a brutal game where innocence, until proven guilty, is not a given. Innocent or otherwise, Hughes made a foolhardy decision, a choice that will cost him the career he’s dedicated his life to.

The Labour Party, almost devoid of affable personalities on the front bench, cannot afford to lose the likes of Hughes. Although David Cunliffe covets Phil Goff’s job, the only likely candidate to challenge John Key in the charisma stakes is Shane Jones. And he’s still got his hands full doing porn penance!

# Big Sporting Story of the Week: The Cricket World Cup.

Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. Yet again the Black Caps faltered at the semi-final hurdle. But let’s not be too tough on them. They’re picked from about 100 first class cricketers. The likes of India chooses from hundreds of thousands.

For me there’s only one real sports story this week and that’s the Masters from the Mecca of golf, Augusta National. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are still the sentimental and bookies’ favourites but Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy have got to be worth a shout.

# Brickbat: Bureaucrats and Bullying.

We’ve recently witnessed some dreadful footage of bullying in schools. This is not a new phenomenon. It’s been going on since Tom Brown’s school days. We’re just more aware of it these days with the plethora of electronic and social media. Forget a limp-wristed response to this age-old problem. Bullies generally only understand one language. So to hear some faceless bureaucrat from a government social agency suggesting we also needed to take into account the feelings of the bullies, is a perfect example of why Bill English culling some jobs in Wellington is not necessarily a bad thing.

Oh and an honourable mention for our national carrier Air New Zealand for price gouging off the back of the Rugby World Cup. Try getting from Invercargill to Auckland and back again for less than $1000 around the RWC quarters, semis or finals time.

# Bouquet: Richie and the Royal Wedding!

If we ever needed proof our All Blacks captain was all class, then it was reinforced by his decision to red-card the royal wedding. McCaw could have been in London on April 29 for Will and Kate’s nuptials, rubbing shoulders with royalty, world leaders, pop stars and sporting heroes. Instead he has chosen, in RWC year, to be with his Crusaders mates in Perth for a game they could win with their B team.

# Bugger: The Japan Earthquake.

Why did it have to happen to such a nice race of people? There’s a wonderful e-mail doing the rounds about what the rest of the world could learn from the dignified and calm Japanese response to tragedy. Here’s an excerpt:

“When the power went off in a store, people put things back on the shelves and left quietly! There were disciplined queues for water and groceries. People bought only what they needed for the present, so everybody could get something. Restaurants cut prices. An unguarded ATM was left alone. There was no looting in shops. No honking and no overtaking on the roads. Fifty workers selflessly stayed back to pump sea water into the reactors to prevent nuclear meltdown.”

While the Kiwi response to the Canterbury earthquake has been heartwarming, it speaks volumes of the Japanese that we can still learn a lot from them.

Footnote: Jamie Mackay is the host of the Farming Show which airs on Radio Sport and Newstalk ZB. In a past life a Southland sheep farmer, these days he comments on farming, politics and sport for a living from the relative safety and comfort of his radio studio in Dunedin.