Railway Waggons, TV Shows & Produce

A couple of news items on National Radio caught my attention this morning.  The first one related to Kiwi Rail’s intention to buy more rolling stock from China instead of having the waggons built from scratch in its own workshops in Lower Hutt and Dunedin .  The second item concerned the intended sale of TVNZ’s Avalon Studios.  They also are in Lower Hutt.  Predictably, the supporters of those facilities are getting ready to head for the barricades, suggesting not building one’s own railway waggons or not producing one’s own TV shows makes no economic sense whatsoever, given that a) the competence exists and b) the economic necessity to preserve as many jobs as possible should be obvious to even the most dimwitted inexperienced politician. The counter argument suggests that it makes perfect economic sense to buy goods and services offshore if one’s own capacity is insufficient or if one’s own cost of production cannot match cheaper labour sources offshore.  Chuck a couple of accusations related to xenophobia into the mix, interview a minister or two and the debate takes on a life of its own.

As I was pondering what I was hearing, I could not help but think that there is a connection with the produce industry.   The old colloquial term of market gardener, for example, implies something doesn’t it?  It implies that the individuals concerned produces his or her produce for a market.  Where could one traditionally find market gardeners?  Around the towns.  Where were the markets located? Inside the towns!  Being a market gardener therefore suggests a degree of proximity to the locality where the produce meets the consumer.

Is This Really The Solution?

At the beginning of the 20th century Auckland’s market gardens used to be where the Ellerslie racecourse is today.  As the city grew the gardens shifted to Mangere.  Evidence of that can still be seen between the airport and the Manukau motorway. After the second World War, Pukekohe increasingly gained in importance as Auckland’s fruit and vegie bowl.   These developments played out all across the country to a greater or lesser degree.  A lot of Wellington’s vegetables used to come from Otaki initially.

The produce supply scene is changing on two planes.  Firstly, the corporate supply chains at wholesaler or retailer level distribute parcels of produce around the country based on what is the most efficient source on the day.  Gisborne lettuce can be found all over the country as can South Auckland tomatoes. Growing produce locally is therefore no longer a necessity. Secondly, the volume of imported produce, particularly imported vegetables destined for the process industry, is rising drastically.  On the other hand I saw a Turners & Growers press release recently which announced the company is now the largest exporter of Peruvian asparagus into Japan.

What does this mean?  Ask an economist and he will suggest that the sensible way of going about business is to produce goods and services in the most cost effective way.  And if that is China, so be it.  Sociologists will argue that basic functions like food production need to conducted within spittting distance of the people the food is intended for.  Governments are beginning to to grapple with the concept of Food Security.  History tells us that as societies progress, its members no longer want to perform the more basic job function but are looking for more complex tasks to take on.  Germany invented the term Gastarbeiter in the sixties, guest workers, for the mainly Southern European unskilled labour force which was imported to do the jobs Germans no longer wanted to do.  The Communist regime suffered from the same malaise.  East Germany brought in thousands of North Vietnamese workers for exactly the same reasons.  New Zealand did the same with Pacific Islander in the seventies – and today our industry has the RSE scheme for very similar reasons.

Helen Clark called agriculture and horticulture sunset industries ten years ago and substantially reduced government investment into our industries, wishing us to concentrate on developing high tech export solutions instead.  And yet – horticulture and agriculture are part of the very fabric of our society.  We need to eat to survive.  We need food. How much responsibility do we need to take for this individually apart from doing our hunting & gathering in the local supermarkets? 

The answer, I suggest, lies somewhere in between. As a country we cannot afford to be too reliant on commodity exports.  Yes, prices might be good for a few consecutive weeks, months or even years – but low entry barriers, over- supply and changes to demand will always create a  roller coaster effect .  It is just a question of “when.”  Conversely we cannot afford to go exclusively high tech altogether and import all our food. We can afford this neither financially nor as a society.

What we need then is a mix of sensible commodity production, value adding processing industries and mechanisms which allow us to generate, harvest and market intellectual property along our entire value chain.

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