Island Life by David Slack


Green Acres

Hey you, Public Address reader! Are you aged between twenty and forty? Do you have a student loan statement sitting inside an unopened envelope? Are you paying a crippling rent for your modest dwelling? Are you drinking all your coffee at Ponsonby cafes and sucking down eight dollar Heinekens at Viaduct bars? Are you wasting your meagre salary on YSL sunglasses and stereo equipment? And are you known to gripe about the impossibility of buying your own home? Boy, have you been taking a scolding in the Herald readers feedback pages for the last day or two.

The Property Investors Federation vice-president Andrew King had this to say on the front page about people who were making $70,000 and thought they couldn't afford a house.

It might not be the house that you want to live in long-term, but you could buy a $350,000 house in Te Atatu, Glenfield, Panmure or Pukekohe.
People should spend less money on coffee and brand new cars and overseas trips.
It's up to them to save more. This is a culture of 'I want it now, I want everything and I deserve it'.

That's what we call a gutsy opening bid, down here at the auction rooms.

What has followed in the online debate has been spirited, but largely, mercifully, free of invective. Mr King is enthusiastically endorsed by others sharing their own stories of frugality, adversity and patience blossoming into the reward of mortgage-free, not to mention gains-tax-free contentment.

In retort, dozens of readers itemise their income and demonstrate themselves to be spending precious little on anything but rent, groceries and child care.

So much anecdotal evidence, so little coffee. Someone is clearly drinking it. What to make of it all? I'd like to hear more stories and see some more numbers before I could be persuaded that the so-styled 'dream of home ownership' is vanishing for a growing number of young New Zealanders.

But I don't need to read any more to conclude that we have our investment priorities completely screwed up. Buying each others' houses has been a poor substitute for real economic enterprise.

But to whom should one turn if not one's real estate agent? Well, why not try Mr Rod Drury, or some of his smart mates doing exciting things in Silicon Welly? You could ask the clever people in the white coats, like say the A2 people, or Peter Gluckman. You might ask Craig Norgate about 21st century farming, that is to say: buying up the dairy farms of Latin America.

I personally favour the internet as a means of making a living, but I'm not blind to other possibilities.

One would be this: why don't we become Australia's farm?

This drought business is growing grim indeed. Here's a picture of me and Mary-Margaret at a friend's farm in New South Wales last week. As you can see, they're parched.

This is how you can skew things with anecdotal evidence. They live in a pocket of country in the Manning River valley, which is about three hours north of Sydney. Much of the country less than an hour's drive away from there is nothing like it. They're just lucky.

Oddly enough, there isn't a great deal of farming going on in the area. It was dairy farming country, but after Britain joined the common market, most of the small holdings with their few cans of cream gave it away. Our friends have been there for two decades now, living in the big European barn they built on their hundred acres. They've let ninety per cent of the land go back to bush. On the other ten acres, they fatten cattle. All around the area, city types have been drifting back to the country, not to become farmers, but to enjoy the life. It's a bit bohemian, a bit feral, but mostly authentic Australian bush.

They have a volunteer fire brigade at Killibach Creek and every Friday they have a couple of beers. Ian says, there's no-one there at one minute to five, and two minutes later, there are a couple of dozen of them. This summer just gone, they got pulled in to help fight a fire in the Taree state forest. Ian says when the smoke got so thick that the sun was just a pale disk in the sky, he got a bit of a jolt.

In Australia, the fires will keep coming, but the rain can stay away far longer than a farmer can cope.

Fully seventy per cent of all the water goes into agriculture.

John Howard is talking about turning off irrigation in Victoria next week in order to keep enough coming for the citizens who (mostly) don't drink it from a trough.

When you've got lemons, make lemonade. Hey mate! Over here! We've got enough water for our farms. How about this: we do all the farming for you and supply whatever you need. You can give up the farms, let them go back to bush, and solve the water problem.

We'll keep you in steaks and milk, and all we ask in return is that we ride the coat-tails of your astonishing resources boom. Money for everyone! Enough to put us all in flash houses.

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