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A SHORT HISTORY OF FARMING IN NEW ZEALAND
If you start with Maori growing kumara in the late 13th century and end with the declining sheep numbers of the past few years you have a farming history that surely cannot be told in a matter of 260 pages.
But Gordon McLauchlan, who died in January, had spent a lifetime writing, much of it in agricultural journalism, and was the man to do it. He takes us crop by crop (with statistics galore), animal by animal (being strong on the rise and fall of various breeds of sheep and cattle), through the roller-coaster ride of farming.
The early history is enlivened by anecdotes culled from the author’s own wide reading and vast library while later times benefit from his years as a farming journalist, walking the walk and talking the talk with the men and woman who live on the land.
Personal recollections add to the mix as McLauchlan dips into his Otago childhood for a memory of seeing a Central Otago hillside move as the rabbits sought more to nibble on. There’s even some good poetry to illustrate the story. It all helps as, wisely, there are no pictures in the book.
Plenty of illustrations of New Zealanders on the farm can be easily found elsewhere and a short history is no place to attempt everything. Even the bibliography, often the strong point of a “short history” is but one page long and there are no notes. Thus, dozens of topics are given a brief summary and the author, alive to the role of politicians and not shy about supporting the Greens, presents the facts within a wide context. He unwraps farming heroes, many from the research backrooms and he gives villains (usually politicians or greedy abusers of the environment) due criticism.
The book can be a starting point for students or compulsory reading for townies, and for farmers it will provide confirmation that their job is still crucial to our economy. That farming has both despaired and thrived, but survived, is maybe simply due to the world’s need to keep eating, but in the rapid changes of recent times McLauchlan suggests “it will need an alert and flexible industry to cope” and his examples of present day diversifications suggest we are on the right track, even though it remains a bumpy one.
Jim Sullivan is a Patearoa writer.