Westland Milk's decision to sell to Chinese company Yili may get the nod of farmer shareholders but politicians aren’t happy.
Reporter Peter Burke joined Westland Milk Products (WMP) driver Justin Wells recently on one of his daily collection runs on the West Coast.
The collection area for WMP is large and long, stretching at least 500km from the farms in the north at Karamea to as far south as Hari Hari in South Westland, and the inland areas up river valleys along the way. Then there are the farms in Canterbury: in total 429 shareholding farmers with average herd size of 400 cows.
The region has a long proud history of dairy farming and in a few months will celebrate 150 years of dairying on the Coast.
Wells is an old hand -- driving trucks for 40 years, the last 28 of these driving tankers for Westland. A Coaster by birth, he has always driven trucks, saying even when he was young he used to watch the Westland milk tankers and a few rides in the cab were enough to motivate him to eventually seek a career as a tanker driver.
It’s the ultimate job with lots of variety, he says.
“What a great office I have up here in the cab of this truck. It’s fantastic. I love the West Coast scenery and the occasional trips to Canterbury. It’s a great job,” Wells says.
The trip I join him for is to collect milk from four farms in the Grey Valley around the township of Ahaura about 70km from the Hokitika factory base. This is Wells’ second trip for the day. He is on day shift which means he starts any time between 4am and 6am and does one collection run and comes back to Hokitika and has a break before setting off again about lunchtime. The transport rules require all drivers to have a break after driving for five and a half hours.
“The afternoon or night shift there has only one start time, 4.15pm, and we go until we finish. Some runs work out shorter or longer than the 5.5 hours so you may have to have break on the side of the road. Obviously in the peak of the season it’s busier. This morning I have been up around Springs junction (near the Lewis Pass) and back to Hokitika, and this afternoon we are off up the Grey Valley and back,” he says.
Our drive initially takes us north up the coast road to Greymouth. It’s a stunning day and the deep blue sea contrasts sharply with the green hills, nearly always shrouded in mist. The farmland on the Coast is unique: the farmers have contoured and cultivated the land – they call it humping and hollowing and flipping -- to manage the high rainfall. Although it is generally assumed the Coast is wet, it gets its share of droughts.
We turn off SH6 at Greymouth and follow the Grey River valley up SH7 to the four farms we are going to collect milk from today.
A few kms from Greymouth the valley opens up to reveal beautiful dairy country. But what surprises a visitor to this region is the presence of pivot irrigators in the Grey Valley. There are also K-line pod irrigators designed to deal with the hot dry summers.
“At the moment it is looking good up here around the Ahaura Plains, but after Christmas that could all change because it can get very dry up here,” Wells says. “It wasn’t always dairy farms here. Years ago it was mainly sheep and beef but a few years ago there were changes and a lot of farms converted to dairy.”
The scenery is beautiful on today’s run. Wells and other drivers are well placed to gauge how the season is going, in terms of the milk they are collecting and the look of the land. He reckons the season has got off to a good start with a mild winter and not a lot of rain.
The road is pretty good, although one wooden bridge was narrow and one can only watch and admire how Wells handles the 23m long, nine axle tanker capable of carrying 30,000L. This is “his truck”; in fact he shares it with three other shift partners and he has been driving it for four years.
“On this truck there are three drivers and two shift partners which suits our roster of three day shifts, three night shifts and three days off. The truck goes seven days a week 24/7 but of course there is regular maintenance on it. Driving the one truck means you get used to your own unit which is necessary with the nine axle units because you need to get used to handling them.”
In an average year the truck will drive about 240,000km and Justin Wells about 80,000km.
The day I am with Wells the weather couldn’t be better and along the road there is evidence of the history of the region. For instance we pass the site of the Brunner Mine disaster of 1896 in which 65 miners died in an explosion in the mine. Because I am the son of a West Coast mother I feel a sense of nostalgia as we drive up the valley to the farms. But the weather is not always like this, says Wells.
“Over the years I have been through horrific flooding and lightning storms on the night shift -- flash after flash after flash. In South Westland where there are gorges you can get bad storms and winds coming down the valley bringing down trees.
“I remember one morning I was coming back from Hari Hari at 5am and on the highway was a big rimu tree across the road. Luckily with the help of a motorist going to milk cows we managed to break some branches and just get past. But that’s driving on the West Coast.”
As we call at each of the four farms the routine is the same – first negotiate the tanker track and loop, take the milk sample and then hitch up the pipe from the vat to the tanker. Everything is carefully recorded.
When the tanker calls, the farmers are usually out on the farm doing other work but Wells says he sometimes gets to meet the farmers and have a yarn.
Over the years he’s seen and heard a lot on his rounds, but one incident stands out.
“Once down in South Westland I went into a dairy farm and they weren’t quite expecting me that evening. They had a few cows left to milk and I went into the cow shed to talk to the farmer and I found the cows were being lullabied to Hindi music so that was really good. That’s the first time I had ever heard that and the cows seemed to like it.”
On this tanker run Wells collects 27,000L from the four farms. It’s not a full load but it’s getting close. He’s not a dairy farmer himself but has a lifestyle block where he runs a few steers.
His interest in trucks doesn’t stop when he heads home, in fact the love affair continues. Over the years he’s amassed a large collection of miniature die-cast trucks and has built a special room to house them.
Wells and his fellow drivers at Westland Milk Products play a major role in the dairy industry on the Coast. The industry has known tough economic times and challenging circumstances but has survived and continues to be a mainstay of the region’s economy.