March 2, 2017 10:00 am JST
Tea Leaves

Growing up with New Zealand's 'white gold'

A former milk boy reflects on his nation's nectar

MICHAEL FIELD

For over 30 years, every child in New Zealand -- including these kids in the 1940s -- was given a free pint of milk. Many schools today still give free milk in smaller cartons. (Alexander Turnbull Library)

As a kid growing up in rural New Zealand, I would pour the house cow's morning offering into a separator and hand-crank it to spin out the cream from the milk. We children would sneak a cup, but not my farmer grandfather. Taking the ever-present cigarette out of his mouth, he would say: "Milk is for cows."

Today, milk is New Zealand's "white gold," and its history tells the story of colonization. After Europeans began settling the islands in the 1820s, vast forests were burned down to make way for sheep and dairy farms. New Zealand became the British Empire's farm.

The government used to pay farmers to keep sheep. By 1982, there were 70.3 million of them, or 22 per person. Now it's just six each, but that is still twice the ratio of Australia. Lamb and wool no longer command high prices, and beef prices, too, are down. In their place, 5 million dairy cows and their 21.3 billion liters of milk provide New Zealand with $11 billion a year.

Twice a month, New Zealanders wake up to news about the online "global dairy auction." For much of 2015 and the first half of 2016, it was gloomy, as prices hit a 20-year low. Now, things are looking up for a country that exports 95% of its dairy products.

The infant formula feed trade has attracted Chinese investment, to the xenophobic angst and plain forgetfulness of some. Few, perhaps, remember that New Zealand's dairy industry was started by Chew Chong of Guangzhou, who came to the country in 1867.

In the now dairy-rich Taranaki, he found rampant growth of a fungus that was a gourmet and medicinal food in China. He bought it from dairy farmers, saving many from financial ruin, before going on to start a creamery that exported butter to London. He died in 1920.

Milk has played a central role in the lives of many New Zealanders, mine included. I can chart my personal history in the price of milk. At high school, I had a job delivering homogenized standard cows' milk for 4 New Zealand cents a pint, now equivalent to 69 cents ($0.49) for 473ml.

A decade later, I was a reporter when New Zealand's then-Prime Minister Robert Muldoon decided to increase milk prices by 30%. The decision had such political and cultural significance that it could be made only by the prime minister himself.

A darker side

Milk boys are now largely gone, and the market is competitively run by big entities. The biggest is Fonterra, a cooperative of 10,500 farmers. Standard homogenized milk now sells for $2.10 a liter. There are also trim, lactose-free and calcium-added varieties. With tweaked genes, cows can produce a low-fat milk high in omega-3 oils. At $4.07, non-homogenized certified organic grass-fed milk is pricey, but there is nothing like it in your tea.

But milk also has a big dark side. Effluent from cows pollutes waterways and undermines the country's advertising, which proclaims it "100% Pure." Actor Bruce Hopkins, who figured in the film version of "The Lord of the Rings," shot in New Zealand, told a local newspaper that cows had turned waterways into "sewer pipes."

The law requires cattle to be fenced off, but their nitrogen-rich effluent still ends up in creeks and rivers. Environment Minister Nick Smith said in March 2016 that plans to set a national water standard for swimmable waterways had been dropped. "I do not think a legal requirement for every water body in New Zealand to be swimmable is practical," Smith said.

New Zealand has also carefully cultivated an image of healthy cows living off grass; but the country is the world's largest consumer of palm-kernel extract, used as a supplement to boost milk output. The kernels are a byproduct of palm oil production, which the environmental group Greenpeace has labeled "the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Indonesia." In 2015, New Zealand imported 2.4 million tons of the feed.

In case anyone in New Zealand ever forgets the vital role of milk, those news bulletins are still reporting the results of global dairy price auctions, broadcasting the latest prices into early morning cow sheds and suburban living rooms across the nation. In late February the tidings were not so good: Butter milk powder was off, casein milk protein fell, cheddar cheese retreated -- but lactose milk sugar was up. Happily, with a gross domestic product per capita of $37,800, just ahead of Japan, the country is still rich.

Michael Field is a New Zealand-based writer and a former milk boy.

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