Dairy Farming In New Zealand

Dispatches from the Road, New Zealand, Solo Travel, Travel Philosophy — By on September 4, 2012 at 12:00 pm

by Thea Hutchinson

Special to The Lost Girls

I had heard for years from numerous people that “WWOOFing” in New Zealand was one of the best things they had done. For many reasons; the people commonly called “kiwis”, the landscape, and the laid-back attitude. For English speakers it is an easy culture adjustment, and the size of the country makes it very personable and manageable to travel around. I spent three weeks wwoofing on a dairy farm in Waikato the center of the North Island, New Zealand. New Zealand exports a huge quantity of dairy products, and I headed to the heart of it.

I lived with a family that owned five farms with over 1,000 cows between them. It was an education in many things, but mostly learning about where exactly all that milk, cheese, and butter that I love SO much originate from: COWS. Dairy farming is a seven day a week job, with long hours and heavy machinery, and lots of cow urine and fecal matter. I mean lots! Your clothes, your hair, your shoes smell like a cow shed. The cow shed is an enclosed structure that the cows are brought into twice a day for milking. It is also how the farmer sorts the cows and administer medicines.

When milking the cows, we would be at the cow shed at 5am to herd them in from the pasture or “paddock” and again in the afternoon at around 4pm. I did learn how to ride a motor bike, which is how they round the cows up. I had this idyllic notion that work dogs were used. This vision was slashed when the farmer I was staying with informed me that he’d had three dogs run over and now he just uses the motorbike.

The cows are led into a corral and packed in, usually ten per a row. The milking machines are then turned on, a whirling of air through tubes commences, and the suction cups are attached to the four teats. The milk travels through the numerous tubes and pipes, leading through a cooling machine and finally into a huge stainless steel cold storage tank, where a rudder stirs it continuously so that the cream doesn’t separate. The milk from both millings goes into these vats. The following morning a milk tanker that looks like a oil or gas tanker pulls up to each farm, hooks up a hose, and drains the milk. The tanker is headed to one of the dairy factories in the region for use in dairy products, baby formula, powdered milk and even plastics.

There are really only two big milk companies, Fronterra and Open Country. Neither is organic. I also learned at this point that my WWOOFing host did not produce organic milk, nor did they make an effort to follow organic guidelines. In fact their lifestyle was quite far from sustainable or organic. Although they did state that they were 50% organic on the WWOOFing website, I had assumed a certain amount of sustainable living. I was told by my hosts that for dairy farmers it is more expensive to produce milk that way and the market price is not as good. The family bought processed and packaged food. They did drink the milk from the farm and picked fruit off some citrus and fruit trees they grew but that was it. I had at least hoped that they had tried to make butter or yogurt, but that was not the case.  It was a reminder to me to be specific with hosts and inquire perhaps a bit more.  It was an eye opening view into how many people live, not just in New Zealand I am sure, but in the industrialized world.

My stay was enjoyable in parts, but I was confronted with several challenges in terms of the life style that my host family chose. It forced quite a bit of self reflection. I realized at several different times that we had very different beliefs in terms of diet, politics, values, and being “open minded”. It was a learning experience. I began to understand a glimpse into what commercial dairy farming is like, the amount of land it takes, the chemicals used, the processing that happens to the milk and much more. It was quite interesting to see how “stock” or cows are selected for the meat packing industry, after they are past their “milk producing prime”, which usually happens between 7-10 years.

I was shocked to learn that even whole milk in the grocery store is not the whole milk that comes out of a cow. Not exactly. Even if it is the organic variety sold in most grocery stores, it is pasteurized. Pasteurization or homogenized means it has been heated to kill any harmful bacteria and organisms. Pasturization began in the 1890s and has continued to the present day.

However, it was not the pasteurization that bothered me, but rather that the milk is also structurally changed. The cream and fat are separated. It is then added back in under high pressure making the product much harder for our bodies to breakdown. This is what creates “skim”, “2%”, or even “whole” products. Traditionally, the cream would rise to the top of products and when consumed, our bodies would pass the fats. Now because products are manipulated so drastically with heat and pressure the products of milk, ice cream or even cheese made commercially are “processed”, even if they are organic. In contrast, artisan and farmers market products are handmade, less processed and closer to “homemade”.

Raw milk is legal in most countries, and 28 states in the USA allow it’s sale. The debate of raw milk vs. pasturized milk is an on-going issue with lots of voices, however, I will say that having tried raw milk it is nothing like what you buy in the stores!

You can buy local and fresh milk from local dairies in many areas, or through co-op markets. It is usually more expensive, but in my opinion you are what you eat. Every choice has a consequence and life is too short not to make intentional decisions that are within our ability.

WWOOF New Zealand website

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