Sarah Hopkinson, an urban farmer, reckons with her history as a Pākehā who grew up in Taranaki — and with the future of dairy farming. This piece was originally published here.
On where I stand
I was born and grew up at the ankles of the great mountain Taranaki on the west coast of the North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. This is dairy milk country, and this is my love story.
Taranaki is as majestic as a mountain could possibly be. He rises up, almost urgently, from near sea level to over 2,500m (8,200 feet). He is a mighty sight on a clear day — a nearly perfect conical shape with snow atop for most of the year. When I return home, I bow my head and greet him like a loved one. When I am away, I yearn for his presence behind my shoulder.
My ancestors arrived here on a settler ship, the Clifton, in 1842. I am Pākehā. When asked where I’m from, I used to say:
A tidy story of me, that starts in the 1840s and has been a “New Zealander” ever since. A straightforward tale that completely ignores the stark fact that I am half a world away from all my ancestors’ bones and rituals, their seasons and stories.
But my “Pākehā-ness” comes from many beautiful places that are far from this mountain. Blood runs in me from landed gentry in Sussex, Kent and Berkshire. It runs from an ordinary hill in Wales, from a cliff top near Dingle in Ireland, and from a scrap of Norway that I will not be able to find. And if I lean in long enough here, with all these places running deep inside me, I know there was a time — back in the somewhen, where my people had an abiding love for the land under their feet.
It’s not really like that anymore. Hold on and I will tell you what we did to this land, and in turn, to ourselves.
But first I need to tell you that Taranaki is, and always was, Māori land. This is the land of Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Maru and Ngāti Mutunga in the north, Te Atiawa and Taranaki in the west and Ngā Ruahine, Ngāti Ruanui, and Ngāti Rauru in the south. Māori did not cede sovereignty to the British Crown and the New Zealand Wars raged here.
When it became clear that the colonial government was not going to win easily, the Crown changed tack and went through the courts. They confiscated the entire region of Taranaki — 1.2 million acres of land, as punishment, raupatu, for Māori defending their home.
So, yeah, this is where I’m from.
Most Pākehā want to claim our geographical ties without the historical ones. Want to say that we’re from Taranaki, with its rolling green pastures and calm dairy herds, without the accompanying story of violence. But the two histories belong together — my people’s story in Taranaki didn’t start so much with the milk flowing, but with the muskets firing.
Today, this region is a jewel in the crown of this dairyland, Aotearoa.
In Taranaki, milk flows in simply epic proportions. On the near silent, grassy fields that now surround the mountain slopes, cow herd after cow herd graze. Tankers drive the region’s highway, collecting and delivering “white gold” to Whareroa, the largest dairy factory in the world, which processes about 14 million litres of milk per day.
Whareroa is owned by Fonterra, in turn the largest company in our country, responsible for 30 percent of all of the world’s dairy exports and $22 billion of New Zealand’s yearly exports. Each and every year, Fonterra produces 428,000 tonnes of milk powders, cheeses, creams and proteins.
It’s an unfathomable amount of dairy. Equivalent to the weight of 61,000 elephants, although I’m not sure that statistic helps much. We aren’t used to seeing one elephant, let alone 61,000, but let’s just agree on one thing: it’s a heck of a lot of milk.
I could tell you about the environmental costs of such an industry on this beautiful land. About the state of our rivers, and our soils and the greenhouse emissions. About our reliance on palm kernel expeller from the forests of Indonesia for dairy feed. And phosphate too, from Western Sahara to grow the grass.
But many already have.
And I think you, probably, already know.
I think there is a deep knowing, within all of us, wherever we are, that this scale of food production, this size of monoculture, regardless of what is being produced, is, at the heart of it, unsustainable.
We all have a sense, if we stop still long enough and listen to the aliveness that runs in us, that this level and size of industry, this hurts our earth.
I want to tend to the spiritual cost of separating food production from our shared lives. The spiritual cost of 61,000 elephants of milk coming from the paddocks of Taranaki every year.
I am the river, and the river is me
As Pākehā, longing to speak to the spiritual cost of disconnection feels as dangerous as it is necessary. There is a real tightrope to walk — one foot acknowledging that Pākehā are in receipt of great material advantage as a result of colonising this land, and another foot (which feels a whole lot more ginger) that wants to venture that colonisation, and its associated practices, has fundamentally hurt us as well.
You see, my people have forgotten the inalienable truth that we are home. That this earth below us, she is our sustainer. This collective amnesia has resulted in an extractive form of capitalism in this land that is deeply disconnected from life itself. And perhaps the climate crisis is the natural born grandchild of this great forgetting which we see the world over.
Maybe most alarming, here in Taranaki, is that we’ve created a whole industry around milk alone. This myopia ignores the fact that nature, above all else, is deeply diverse and if there’s any enemy to life itself, it is monoculture. I don’t want to minimise the complexities of turning global food systems into localised, diverse ones. But I do want to say that the way we understand nature, the way we grow, connect, love and share our food, it fundamentally matters.
The values that underpin mātauranga Māori provide many wayfaring signs for more restorative ways of being, pointing us towards a place where we are in right relationship with te taiao.
Many will already know the Whanganui whakataukī that ends, Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au, and how exceedingly relevant this is for this contemporary dairy moment. We are only as well as the world that surrounds us.
There are further cosmic understandings to be had though, that Pākehā bodies at least, very rarely feel. There is recognition within ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au, not just of the reciprocity that exists when we cultivate meaningful relationships with te taiao, but also of the oneness. We are the universe, organised as humans, for now.
As a grower myself, regenerating an organic food landscape in a suburban setting, I have felt this sense of animate two-way aliveness very keenly. In my ancestral tapestry, my kin once knew this too. I have to believe that those ancient threads still run through us all.
The value sets that colonised this land have also brought us to this moment. Clearly all is not well. As hard as it is to imagine a world that is decoupled from global trade, there is nothing inevitable about the systems that we work within. Our waterways, our soil, our animals, all of which is our-selves, need us to reimagine a new future.
I can see my Uncle Dave, a dairy farmer, a bloody good one too, getting harrumpy. I am doing my best, I can picture him saying. And he is. There are many loving farmers trapped inside really badly designed systems. We all are.
I’ve no idea what to do next about the 61,000 elephants of milk coming from Taranaki, but returning land is clearly part of the healing required. For many Pākehā, this feels hard, but let’s feel it nonetheless. As Joanna Macy, a deep ecologist, so powerfully writes: “Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to nuclear war, none is so great as the deadening of our response.”
I am listening to the longing that is within me.
I am listening to the deep knowing in me too — which is the deep knowing in you as well, which is the deep knowing in this earth, which in the end, is the deep knowing in us all.
This article was originally commissioned as part of a Sourced and Wellcome Collection collaboration, Milk, from Ground to Glass, and is published here with permission.
Sarah Hopkinson is Pākehā, of English, Welsh and Norwegian descent. She lives and grows food in Raumati South on Te Atiawa ki Kāpiti whenua. She is an education consultant in curriculum design with a special interest in Pākehā identity and how this could contribute to a more loving world. Sarah is also a front yard farmer at The Green Garden, on the advisory board for the charity For the Love of Bees, a member of Tauiwi mo Matike Mai Aotearoa, and is part way through her Hua Parakore growing certification journey. For further details, see www.sarahalicehopkinson.com
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