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Small Farmers

Zela Charlton - 08/07/2011


I am a Small Farmer. That is, I am of average height but I can be classified as a Small Farmer since I only have a small piece of land that is classified as a farm.

The problems that arise on a small block are very similar to those encountered by even the Giant Farmers and everyone knows that for rural people there is a need to get together to discuss things and to exchange information and get advice. That used to be one of the main reasons for Market Day. It was certainly an occasion for marketing cattle or buying new machinery, but it was also a chance to meet others who would know what the problems were and what answers there might be.

An answer to the isolation, sometimes felt by us Small Farmers, is met in the Whangarei District by our Whangarei Association of Small Farmers. There are a great many ‘Lifestyle Blocks' around the outlying areas, some with as many as twenty or thirty acres (sorry, I still like acres better than hectares. Maybe because they seem larger?) while some have only two or three acres. Most owners try to look after their ‘patch' to the best of their ability and it is very helpful, as well as pleasant, to have a chance to get together for a chat and discussion and to compare notes.

Our group meets every month and we meet at one or other of Member's places. This can sometimes, for some of us, mean a fairly long drive as our membership is widely scattered, but it is a very good way of exploring the hinterland. Many of us have found our bit of Paradise tucked away well off the main highways so use of GPS's or Google Earth can be helpful. Despite careful instructions and judicious use of local maps I personally have often done more exploring than I had been meant to, and when the Association's portable roadside banner is seen on the verge, it has been very welcome. It is very interesting to take note in this area of the large number of well-built and maintained modern houses, each with their own small acreage, interspersed between the huge paddocks of the dairy farms that have spread out across the landscape or the dense bush reserves that still line many roads.

When we meet as a group, we unpack our chairs, rugs, food and drink and any goods for the Trading Table and assemble somewhere that the owner deems to be suitable for the meeting. Our focus is usually on whatever is the main activity of the particular patch we are visiting. These interests are many and varied. There are some who grow olives, others keep animals such as alpacas, or it can be mainly growing ornamental garden plants, organic herbs or being introduced to the early stages of a perma-cultural block. Also many of the farms we visit have second interests that we can share and enjoy, such as the great collection of sea-shells we saw recently.

Latterly the group came to my Kiwifruit orchard, just after picking, so they could squelch through the mud where the tractors and trailers had been, while discussing the merits of my idiosyncratic method of training male vines across rather than along the rows. Up here in Northland we have not yet been visited by the terrible bacterial invasion of PSA, but I nevertheless asked my visitors to keep to the headlands. The official advice from the Kiwifruit industry leaders is that there should be as little traffic as possible, foot or otherwise, in orchards to try to avoid the inadvertent spread of the disease. The bacteria do not damage the fruit, or have any bad effects on humans but just kill the vines… and that is a disaster. Many vines are over thirty years old and in full production, so widespread orchard vine deaths would hit our export market quite dramatically. Even rural visitors are often surprised at how much of an industry the Kiwifruit growing sector is and how many workers are involved. I only have a small orchard of just over a canopy hectare, but this year we managed to produce 14,000 export trays – that is around 500,000 pieces of fruit! Of course, the expenses of producing this intensively cared for crop are very high so the profit is not only unreliable, but not very large. But this is the story for so many rural activities. Townies should take note – and be pleased that so many people continue to struggle to produce our significant Primary exports.

Our Small Farmers Association in Whangarei is a great way to meet others with similar interests and outlook on life.