Since the 1880s dairy farming has been the basis of Taranaki’s economy, and has made a major contribution to the region’s social structure.
Because of amalgamation and automation, the many small farms and factories of the 20th century have been replaced by much larger farms and a single massive milk-processing plant.
Over the years, several varieties of cow have made up the dairy herds of Taranaki. Generally the breed chosen has depended upon the type of factory the farmer supplied. Butter factories needed milk with a high fat content, which was best supplied by Jerseys. Cheese manufacture required a high volume and daily supply of milk – for which Friesians or Ayrshires were preferred.
A few Taranaki dairy cooperatives were set up in the mid-1880s, but they were soon replaced by privately owned factories. The cooperative system that formed the basis of the Taranaki dairy industry was founded in the 1890s.
Cooperatives were controlled by an elected board of farmer shareholders and run by a professional manager and staff, with factory hands hired from the surrounding district. Some of these early undertakings had as few as a dozen suppliers. The larger ones had outlying skimming stations or creameries which contributed to the main factories.
During the mid-1890s milking machines appeared on the market. The Australian Lawrence-Kennedy-Gillies (LKG) milker was popular in New Zealand, but at least nine different makes were developed in Taranaki. Locally invented brands included Gane, Ridd, AWR, Simplex, Plymex, Uneda Cremo, Ezy, and – of course – Egmont.
By 1901 Taranaki had 95 butter and 31 cheese factories. After a slump in butter prices in 1905, many butter factories converted to cheese-making, which became very important in Taranaki.
In the 1960s the dairy industry began to consolidate. New regulations imposed by overseas markets saw many smaller factories amalgamate, often seriously affecting the viability of local communities.
One of the antecedents of New Zealand’s huge dairy company Fonterra is the T. L. Joll Co-operative. In South Taranaki during the 1880s Thomas Joll founded a chain of private factories, which became a cooperative after his death in 1908. In 1963 the company amalgamated with the Kaūpokonui Co-operative to form Kiwi Co-operative Dairies – which in turn merged with the Inglewood-based Moa-nui Co-operative in 1992.
The concern continued to expand and took over companies in South Canterbury, Manawatū, Wairarapa, Hawke’s Bay, Otago and Northland in the late 1990s. In 2001 the Waikato-based New Zealand Dairy Group and Kiwi merged to form Fonterra, one of the world’s largest dairy companies, with about 11,000 farmer-suppliers.
In the 2010s up to 14 million litres of milk was processed at Fonterra’s huge Whareroa factory near Hāwera each day. A fleet of tankers collected milk around the clock from thousands of farms in the Taranaki area.
In Taranaki in 2013, 2,370 people were employed in dairy cattle farming, 1,990 in meat and meat product manufacturing, and 1,730 in dairy product manufacturing.
Save the cows?
A study published in 2009 estimated that it would take at least three months and cost about $2 million to evacuate the region’s 590,000 dairy cows if Mt Taranaki erupted. The author of the study pointed out that evacuation would not be very effective because many animals would be dying of starvation and dehydration by the time they were removed from the scene.
After the massive bush burns of the 19th century, cocksfoot grass played a major part in establishing new pastures – it was drought-tolerant, and grew robustly in Taranaki’s free-draining soils. A local trade in cocksfoot seed was established by Eltham businessman Charles Wilkinson, and during the 1880s and 1890s Taranaki became New Zealand’s most important source of the seed after Banks Peninsula.
Taranaki Māori also became major players in the industry. In the 2010s cocksfoot played only a small part in modern pastures, but still thrived on roadsides and in ungrazed places.
Collecting wood ear fungus (Auricularia cornea), also known as Jew’s ear or Taranaki wool, was a booming industry in the late 19th century. The edible fungus grows on dead trees, and was common on felled logs around the new pastures of the region. The trade was begun by Chinese merchant Chew Chong, who recognised the fungus as a sought-after food in his homeland.
The cash he paid for fungus helped many farmers, struggling financially, to survive while their dairy farms became established.