By Glenys Christian
Most farmers get into the business because they want to be able to make their own decisions without interference from others.
Carry that to its logical conclusion and there would be no trading producer boards. But it is argued that the common good is more important when individually, farmers can wield only the power of a miniscule exporter unfortunately placed at the bottom of the world.
The question many of them are grappling with, as the producer board debate proceeds in evolutionary rather than the Government's preferred revolutionary mode, is just how power within each industry should be decided.
The matter was the subject of a lengthy debate at the recent Meat Board annual general meeting.
The many Maori who attended wanted their commercial clout to be recognised or, as Paul Morgan from the Federation of Maori Authorities threatened, "we're out of here".
Other voices were more conciliatory, with unsuccessful board candidate Jim Gray pointing out that with Maori sheep and beef farming operations contributing 36 per cent of the board's levies, their presence and views were vital to the industry.
"We pay the bills," he stated unequivocally.
But other farmers protested that they had always accepted that none of their number had any more wisdom than another simply by dint of their stock numbers.
This principle has always served dairy farmers well, voting as equal shareholders on company issues. And the thorough debate which occurs before votes are counted means that every supplier, no matter how insignificant, has ample opportunity to get his/her point of view across directly to the company chairman.
It has been said that the dairy industry makes the right decisions because it takes many small steps towards its end goal rather than one enormous leap.
Shareholders of the largest dairy company, the Dairy Group are now contemplating whether its planned merger with the South Island Dairy Cooperative comes under the first heading or the second.
They are under pressure with international dairy prices not at the levels the Dairy Board had hoped for.
There is also the delicate state of the company's joint venture relationship with its rival Kiwi Cooperative Dairies. Only one can win the battle to merge with the South Island company, but in doing so the war may be lost to bring the total industry together in an acceptable way which will no longer require its present legislation.
Most farmers, happy with their own ability to make this important decision, will not welcome the attention the Commerce Commission is turning to the issue.
For many in the Waikato the commission's twists and turns in deciding first no and then possibly yes to Kiwi's merger aspiration is an unfortunate replay of its doubts over the merger of the old Cooperative Dairy Company and Waikato Valley.
Back in 1991 the commssion turned down their linking, arguing that it would mean dominance in the town milk market.
After a successful appeal to the High Court the deal went ahead, but at the cost of substantial income as the efficiencies it eventually brought to the merged company's operations were forgone.
The dairy farmers of today are in no financial position or frame of mind to see history repeat itself.
* Glenys Christian can be contacted on e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Glenys Christian