Island Life by David Slack

Otherwise Fine

This Saturday, probably as the rain falls and the wind blows, we'll be standing on a beach somewhere near Pakiri watching an exchange of wedding vows.

The happy couple have been living in England for the last couple of years. They thought it would be good to come back home and get married on a golden beach in the middle of summer with the sun shining and a breeze gently blowing. Yeah, as the saying goes, right.

It's for grown-ups only, though, so Mary-Margaret will be staying with Gran and Pa while we're braving the elements, or, if things go kindly, standing in sunlit dunes. Still, our little girl will be having her own fun. The circus rolled into Devonport this week, and yesterday afternoon I went around to Narrowneck to get tickets for child, grandparents and cousin. Turned out I was a bit early. The trucks and animals were all set up, but there was no tent and no ticket office. Still, where there are caged lions, there's generally a human being not far away and sure enough, I found the OSH-compliant owner in just a moment or two.

She was very nice; explained that they'd got in late the previous night, hadn't yet been able to lift the tent because of the winds; that they wouldn't be having a show until Saturday; and that they wouldn't be selling tickets in advance because the weather was too unpredictable. They don't like letting people down.

Fair enough, I said, and commiserated with her about lousy weather in the middle of summer. We got to talking about their life on the road. She said it had been a bit of a performance getting in the night before and trying to set things up the next morning in the big wind. She was looking forward to a few glasses of wine that evening.

"The only time we really have off is when we go to a café for dinner," she said.

I looked around at the trailers full of animals and said "You're farmers, really, aren't you? The only difference is that your farm is on wheels."

Yes, she agreed, that was a fairly accurate way of looking at it. "Mind you, she said, " there are some farmers having a lot more trouble with the weather than we are."

She meant the flooding in the lower North Island of course, and she said that it made her worries look like small ones.

If you've ever clicked the "about David Slack" link over there on the right, you'll have gathered that farming goes a long way back in my family. What I didn't mention in that short summary was that our farm was in Kiwitea - about ten miles north of Feilding. They've had a bit of rain lately.

Dad told us we'd be mugs to be farmers. He was very good at what he did, but he could see that it was getting harder every year to run a viable business. We took his advice. My brother became a lawyer, my sister an art teacher, and if you've been keeping up with these posts, you know my story. As soon as we'd all left home, Dad sold the farm. Within three years, farming was being turned upside down by Rogernomics, and the days of the small family farm were looking numbered.

You have to be big to be in the game now, and you have to be able to cope with some big swings in your fortunes. And boy, that's some swing those farmers have been taking down there. Whatever kind of business you're in, there are knocks and unpleasant surprises. You can be embezzled, hacked, undercut, burned to the ground, to name just a few, but what some of those people have had to deal with is on a different scale altogether.

I'm guessing the big holdings will be able to take it. With enough working capital and insurance, you're in a position to clear away the wreckage, re-build, re-fence, re-pasture and get underway again, sooner or later.

But what if you're not one of those guys? What if you're heavily mortgaged, under-insured, and can't sit out the months before you're generating any income? There'll be compensation going around, but not necessarily enough to pull every case back from the brink. And even if it did, and even with all the stoicism in the world, will it be worth plugging on?

Evidently some people have been asking that question in the last few days. Have a look at this report in the Dominion Post quoting a Federated Farmers vice-president who says the floods have been the last straw for some small farmers. He mentions farmers who've been watching the Fonterra payout dropping, who've been out milking cows at dawn each day for more than 30 years. Only a few would have been flooded, he says, but seeing other farmers affected would have crystallised what they had been considering for some time. He says they're facing the reality that small holdings are "pretty much in a sunset position."

When I was a kid, you'd often hear this exchange between farmers: "What would you do if you won the Golden Kiwi ?" - for those of you born after 1980, that's what we had before Lotto got its balls. The answer would be: "I'd just keep farming untill I'd used it all up."

For them, farming wasn't just a job; it was a way of life. I think that's what struck me about the woman at the circus. Some people just like working with animals and taking the weather and whatever else happens in a day in their stride. No matter how tough it gets, they'll generally just say: "Yeah, well, you've just got to be philosophical about it." Stoic.

I can remember Dad talking that way, and it impressed me that he didn't let anything perturb him. I see the same thing in the mates of my own age who are still farming; but they go at it differently. They've been through that economic upheaval, and they know they have to be all business. One of them got kidded a long time afterwards for mentioning once that he was having a tough day because one of his labour units had busted his leg. Don't read too much into that. He's a fair employer and he's doing well. But he drives a desk now as much as he drives a tractor, and it doesn't take nearly as many people to run the operation.

Getting to where he is from a standing start today would be hard, though. Outside of sharemilking or inheriting the land, I don't see how you'd go about getting into a farm of a viable size unless you'd accumulated a LOT of capital some other way first. If you do go in with debt to the eyeballs, it might turn out fine. But if something comes falling out of the sky like the rain of the last couple of weeks, you're in terrible trouble.

That might help explain a story in today's Herald about a shortage of young farm workers. It seems the problem's not so much with keeping them down on the farm; it's getting them down there to start with. Maybe we're running short of the stoic type. I wouldn't panic just yet about running out of steaks, but you might be justified in getting nervous if they all decide to become speechwriters.