Australia and New Zealand are half a world away, two ocean-bound nations clinging to the traditions and the uniqueness that define their people, despite the increasingly invasive influence of reality shows and Hollywood.
A glimpse at life there spotlights the changes under way Down Under.
Rob Kelly is a young, but up-and-coming, sheep farmer near Armidale, New South Wales, with an operation of 5,000 Merinos.
Technologically savvy, Kelly has gone to a method called techno-grazing, better known as intensive grazing, or high density grazing on small areas.
A cluster of ewe with young lambs scampers past as Kelly shows off his prize possession. It’s an ATV fitted with all the fencing materials, spools and wire needed to set up a fence in minutes, without requiring him to do more than push posts in as he speeds down the line.
Farming is a full-time job for Kelly. Already he’s looking for ways to increase the efficiency of his techno-grazing system, he said as he adjusted his sweat-stained bush hat. Anything to improve what he already has.
Martin Oppenheimer, whose curly hair is just starting to gray, owns Petali Merino Stud, an operation of more than 10,000 fine wool Merinos. A quiet manner belies his quest to keep up with the changing times.
Oppenheimer raises superfine wool, with 13-14 micron fiber produced by his horned Merinos. But times have changed. The demand for superfine wool has decreased. So, Oppenheimer adjusted.
He developed a Poll Merino that still carries fine wool but has more muscling to appeal to the prime lamb market. A dual-purpose breed.
The Watsons live on the South Island of New Zealand, in the central Otago region. For Sale signs hang from their gateposts.
They’ve got approximately 5,000 acres of tussock land, high country and irrigated pastures with 6,000 crossbred sheep and some cattle.
Trish and Robin Watson run the farm stay, hosting visitors from all over the world. Their son, Michael, and his wife, Jacqui, run the farm operations.
They’re a well-traveled family. Michael and Jacqui, both young and athletic, have spent several years in Japan, have backpacked through places like Nepal. Trish and Robin have done safaris in Kenya and spent time in Scotland and other areas of Great Britain.
Seated around the kitchen table, drinking strapping cups of coffee, they debate the merits of the newest technologies in farming or the idiosyncrasies of tourists in New Zealand.
They’re proud of their farm, but they’re ready for a change. They’re considering a move across the Tasman Sea to Queensland, Australia. The drought is still clinging in that region; it’s a good time to buy up livestock.
It’s time to move on.
Deep in the mountain country of the northern South Island, a dairy farmer musters his herd for milking.
A Border collie flits from one retreating hock to another, prodding the animals forward. Soon the road is blocked by a mass of cattle, ambling across into the wide path leading to a milking shed set back off the road.
In two hours, all 600 will be milked, then back out to the pasture until the next mustering.
Just off the main highway in the central North Island, the proprietor and a local dairyman talk of the changes in their area.
More and more farmers are going to dairy, they said. Why not? the dairyman asked with some pride. New Zealand’s dairy industry is outproducing even Australia.
Why not, indeed.
Essentially two countries in their own universe, they are two countries with a lot to lose.
Already, one Aussie said, their accent has been diluted over the past decade, thanks to American programming.
Even in a nation where most of its population can only access three TV stations, New Zealand is starting to feel the pinch.
Kiwis need to lose weight, blared the top story of the evening news. Studies show that Kiwis are becoming obese. Walk more. Eat less.
Small towns are dying, the Aussies say. We need to preserve our way of life.
Vineyards and subdivisions, or “lifestyle blocks” are replacing pastures that used to hold sheep and cattle throughout New Zealand’s South Island.
In Parliament, the Kiwis say, rural residents aren’t getting enough of say as their numbers decrease and their representation thins out.
So it begins.
Cling to independence
But in the midst of the looming “what ifs,” the changing way of life, the Aussies and the Kiwis are proud of their agricultural roots; their independence from the world.
They’re proud of their accomplishments; they’re proud of the advances they’ve made. They can cope during the hard times.
They can laugh during the good times. At least, that’s how they see it.
And sometimes, that’s the best view.
About the author:
(Rebecca Miller is the county education and nonprofit reporter at The Sheridan Press in Sheridan, Wyo. Miller, who grew up on a commercial sheep farm in Lisbon, Ohio, recently spent time in Australia with the U.S. delegation of the Tri-Nations Lamb Group.)
Approx. 20 million
Around 95 million
Merinos are the sheep breed
of choice, with 84.5 percent
Merinos (as of 2003)
Based on 2001 data, Australia had 10th largest herd in world
(around 25 million head).
It is currently the world’s
largest exporter of beef.
Approx. 4 million
30 million sheep and 4 million cattle are processed and sold in more than 100 worldwide
95 percent of meat products
exported throughout the world