Nearly 60 per cent of the Mid Canterbury plains land is now used for dairying or dairy support, says Ashburton farm valuer Bob Engelbrecht.
Many conversions are continuing by default. To improve profit, farmers are opting for dairy cows over crops and sheep.
Bob,who has advised farmers in the district for 45 years, says he can't blame them. He thinks the region is not yet at saturation point for dairying, either.
"I have farmers who said five years ago, 'Only over my dead body.' Now they have been milking cows for a couple of seasons."
Poor financial rewards for arable farms top the list of reasons to convert. "The alternatives of dairy farming are relatively good compared to other land uses, subject to appropriate debt levels," he says. "But diversification has been our strength, with mixes of sheep, beef, deer, arable and dairying."
He says arable farmers are the most skilled in the business and face big risks growing any crop. But weather and market prices do not reward them consistently.
Dairy farmers are less affected by the weather and can still milk in the rain and calve in the mud. "And once they have milk in the vat they don't have to worry about it ... It is marketed mostly by an organisation working on their behalf."
Bob says dairy farming and irrigation has buffered Mid Canterbury from the recession.
"Ashburton is clearly the best place in the country to go dairying. Canterbury has the largest dairy farms, the highest production per cow and per hectare in New Zealand. Herds here are an average 840 cows, compared to a New Zealand average of 386."
The importance of farming to the nation needs to be re-stated, he says. Land-based exports make up nearly 70 per cent of the country's total exports, yet 88 per cent of New Zealanders live in towns or cities. "We are dominated by urban attitudes, yet agriculture makes New Zealand's way in the world.
"Tourism never will be competitive against agriculture. We have some great scenery but New Zealand cannot survive on tourism, though it is a useful contribution."
Bob was born in Oxford and lived there on the family's 80ha farm until he left high school for a job as a land-survey cadet.
The farm ran sheep and a few dairy cows, and Bob was called back to help out when his father became ill. "It was an uneconomic farm in those days. I shudder to think I could easily have ended up there, and how naive I was. I would not have survived."
He ended up going to Lincoln University instead and in 1964 enrolled for a Diploma in Agriculture, a two-year course with student numbers that year breaking 100 for the first time. Back then there were only 400 students attending the agricultural college, including 11 women.
Bob followed the course with a Diploma of Valuation and Farm Management, which is now offered as a degree.
He then took a job with the Lauriston Farm Improvement Club and two years later teamed up with fellow farm advisers Bryan Royds, Dick Smith and John Tavendale to run their own consultancy business.
But in 1967 wool prices had collapsed and farmers were battling a major porina outbreak.
Clients were many and varied, from those on 36ha to 566ha farms including arable, sheep and beef, dairying and horticulture. Bob says farmers call on him from 7am until 10pm, and in many cases he is treated like a member of the family.
On-farm development has been driven by irrigation, a subject Bob has been passionate about for 40 years.
"Ashburton has gone from being one of the least desirable farming districts to being one of the most desirable," he says.
"Primarily it is irrigation availability, second, the versatility of our soils, and third, Ashburton town is a very good farm-servicing town."
Times weren't always good, though. Economic reforms introduced by the Labour Government in 1984 left farmers exposed to huge debt levels. By the autumn of 1986, land values had dropped by 70 per cent, lamb and crop prices were low, and the district was in a drought. Interest rates were as high as 30 per cent and lenders were worried about their money.
But drought, at least, is a thing of the past thanks to irrigation. Bob knows careful irrigation improves the soil capability and creates a more confident farming community. Irrigation has also been a magnet for businesses such as South Pacific Seeds, Five Star Beef, CMP and Talley's.
But Bob warns that Environment Canterbury's Land and Water Plan may threaten continuing development. He says farmers will be seriously limited by the plan.
"Some of the things in the LWP, if taken to conclusion, will mean that agriculture will have to back off its intensity. It means a lower stocking rate of cows and that has huge consequences for this district."
Bob has been a driving force in Irrigation NZ, formerly the New Zealand Irrigation Association. He remembers driving out to Pendarves, where irrigation pioneer Brian Cameron was banging a 15cm pipe in the ground. "Some people thought he was crazy, but he found water and it is really when the deep-well irrigation in New Zealand started."
He joined forces with Brian, though the irrigation association went into recess in the 1980s when farm development stopped thanks to "Rogernomics". With the late John Young and other enthusiasts, Bob reformed the group in 2001. Since then Irrigation NZ has tackled technical and political issues.
Bob says opposition from environmentalists to irrigation is often sparked by misinformation.
He says the district's fertile soil is better for irrigation. If not for that precious water, the population would be lucky to reach 10,000 and low-intensity sheep farms would dominate the landscape.
Bob says the rift between town and country has deepened in the past few years, and he tries to show people the good work farmers do. "In 1967, when I left Lincoln, the land-based contribution to exports was 67 per cent. Today it is the same. So in spite of Government and other leaders in the last 45 years trying to change our focus, our income from agriculture is still the same percentage as it was."
He says to go forward in farming, New Zealand may need to look at growing genetically engineered crops. Farmers are not currently rewarded for their GE-free status. "We need to keep these things in mind. Never close the door. It may be the best answer to our future.
Bob's services to Lincoln University were recognised last week, when he was presented with a medal for meritorious voluntary service to the institution.