McLauchlan musters a fine farming history

Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
In A Short History of Farming, Gordon McLauchlan takes us through the roller-coaster ride of life on the land, writes Jim Sullivan.

Gordon McLauchlan
Bateman Books

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 historian’s long-view telescope reminds us that the farmers of the 1980s were not the first to walk off their land in despair and they may not be the last. But the gloom of the bad days seems always to be dispelled by the next great thing. Refrigeration, world wars, shearing and milking machinery, kiwifruit, deer farming, vine planting and other innovations all seemed to pop up just in time. The outstanding entrepreneurship of pre-Waitangi Maori will be new to many, while the wool barons who ruled before the rabbits, scab and world prices intervened have their story succinctly told.

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.

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