Glen Herud of Happy Cow Milk at his mobile milking station in happier times. Photo: Nancy Zhou

The Happy Cow Diaries, part 3: ‘Most dairy farmers think our policy is a gimmick’

Against considerable odds, Glen Herud’s mission to create an ethical dairy company continues. With the help of supporters he has pivoted and is resurrecting Happy Cow Milk, and in this excerpt from his latest newsletter he describes how he’s solving the problem of bringing processing to the farm.

Today’s newsletter has ended up as a bit of a rant. I don’t want to be negative or provocative, but there is some serious bullshit coming out of the dairy industry of late.

Ngāi Tahu’s long-held plans to set up a 14,000-cow dairy operation on the stony, free-draining banks of the Waimakariri River were announced in this story.

The next day I read that consent has been approved to set up a 15,000-cow dairy farm in the Mackenzie Basin.

So, we have a mega-wealthy iwi group and a Dunedin Rich-Lister adding 29,000 additional dairy cows into two of the most sensitive catchments in New Zealand.

While I was pondering these two dairy conversions, I stumbled across DairyNZ’s latest campaign The Vision is Clear. Its aim, apparently, is “to inspire Kiwis to get involved with looking after New Zealand’s rivers, streams, lakes and beaches”.

I’ll have a closer look at these three developments in a moment, but first, a quick update on what’s happening at Happy Cow Milk Company.

Our purpose has always been to enable responsible local farmers to supply their local community. To do this we need to bring milk processing to the farm level. This, in turn, puts more control in the hands of the farmer. If consumers had the choice to buy milk from their local farmer who farms in a way that they believe in, it then creates a market where the best farmers are rewarded financially.

That model doesn’t really exist at the moment, because it’s a hard task to bring the complexity of modern food safety regulation and equipment to the farm level – see my previous Spinoff articles here and here.

But that’s exactly what I’ve been working on for the past six months. As the time has gone by I’ve realised how technology can solve many of the barriers to low-cost on-farm processing.

We’re about halfway through building the equipment needed for the new Happy Cow system. There is stainless steel being welded in China as we speak. I have a coder from Xero coding the control system for the on-farm processing equipment.

A guy called Sachin is halfway through the development of our low-cost milk dispenser, and Sam the network engineer who works with me at Bizdojo in Christchurch is coding the backend that makes it all work together.

What does this all mean? It means dairy farmers who use our system will receive $14 for a kilogram of milk solids (kgms). Just so you know, the average Fonterra payout is $5.60/kgms. So the most sustainable, ethical dairy farmers in New Zealand who have the happiest cows and calves will be paid three times more than Fonterra farmers.

That’s the way it should be.

Also, the goal is to charge the same retail milk price as shoppers pay for Anchor milk in the supermarkets. Except, the milk will come in reusable glass bottles. So no more plastic!

This is quite a change from the old Happy Cow Milk, where we charged $4.50 a litre and still lost money.

It’s all made possible by our Patreon supporters. The crowd has built this business.

The Happy Cow Vision is Clear!

Back to some of the examples of how the rest of the industry is still doing it.

Ngāi Tahu’s Waimakariri plans have been common knowledge for a number of years. The picture below is the plan I was shown in 2014. The circles on the map are centre pivot irrigators. I counted 57.

Map showing up to 57 centre pivot irrigators at Ngai Tahu’s planned dairy farming development. (Photo: Happy Cow).

I don’t understand where the water is coming from – irrigation water in Canterbury has been over-allocated for years and yet there seems to be enough for another 57 pivots! Maybe they have held the consents for a number of years already.

The day after the Waimakariri news I read that consent has been approved to set up a 15,000 cow dairy farm in the Mackenzie Basin.

Even dairy farmers are wondering about the wisdom of the Mackenzie Basin operation, and Fonterra doesn’t really want to pick up milk from the area either. But due to DIRA (Dairy Industry Restructuring Act) requirements it has to.

This developer is doing the dairy industry a huge disservice, because the level of outrage from the public will be directed at the whole of New Zealand’s dairy industry. This is the sort of development and publicity that builds animosity towards the sector. The result is that the public and politicians start proposing things like water taxes which affect all farmers, good or bad.

Many dairy farmers considered the last election as very anti-farming. These sorts of developments will ensure the next election is even more anti-agriculture.

Meanwhile DairyNZ’s ‘Vision is Clear’ campaign in conjunction with NZME can be translated thus:

DairyNZ has paid the Herald to publish their campaign. The message is, ‘dairy farmers are working hard to clean up their act, but townies need to realise that they are also polluting the waterways and should look at themselves before blaming it all on dairy farmers’.

Why does this campaign bother me so much? I’m imagining how this went down in DairyNZ offices:

“OK, guys. We got $66 million from farmers here and we all know we need to ‘tell our story better’. Dairy farmers get all the blame for our waterways but we have research that shows those jolly townies are doing a fair amount of damage too. It’s vital we get this message across to New Zealanders, so we’ve organised some high-priced consultants to help us.”

In walks a team consisting of a communication strategist, public relations practitioner, storyteller, copywriter and a social media activation manager.

“OK, thanks for engaging us. This is a tough brief, so it’s not going to be cheap. The risk here is that you might, kind of, sort of, come across as, you know, ah, how do I say it, hypocritical.

“So, to avoid that, we need to make this sound like we’re all in this together. We’re all going to be inspired to look at ourselves in the mirror and take action.

“The result is when the Auckland resident is washing his car in the driveway he’ll realise, ‘Oh shucks, I’m just as bad as those jolly dairy farmers. I better not give them such a hard time in the future’.”

The reason this campaign bothers me is that it shows (IMHO) that either the industry is not really prepared for the challenges they are about to face, or they are not willing to make the changes needed.

I suspect both are true.

When the dairy industry leadership sit down and think about how to solve the dairy farming perception issues, they come up with a plan to spend millions of dollars on a PR campaign. They actually think that it will have an impact!

Public relations worked in the 1980s and 1990s. These days people are so sceptical, and you can’t hide or spin out of bad news. You just have to be authentic and honest. People will ignore you otherwise.

In fairness to DairyNZ, they have this money and their job is to serve all dairy farmers. They can’t do anything controversial that will upset any part of the dairy sector. So a puffy PR piece like this is probably the only logical option.

I think I know a thing or two about public perception of dairy farmers. My Patreon account is proof that the public are not anti-farmer. They’re just uncomfortable with what they see and perceive happens on farms. If farmers changed a few things on-farm, we would see perceptions begin to change.

I am contacted by many people in DairyNZ, Fonterra and the wider dairy industry who are supportive of Happy Cow Milk.

But most dairy farmers think I’m a dick, they think I’m a threat and they think that our cow and calf policy is a gimmick to fool naive townies.

I’m not trying to criticise dairy farmers, there are honestly lots of really good ones that actually have very little impact on the environment. But they are let down because they come under the collective Dairy NZ/Fonterra collective, where good and bad farmers are lumped in together.

Anyway, it’s a depressing state of affairs because it shows that nothing is really going to change.

All the more reason for Happy Cow Milk to persist. If you would like to support the cause, you’re welcome to make a monthly donation for as little as $3.50 a month.


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