Dairy farming is part of a long and proud agricultural tradition in New Zealand.
Dairy cattle were first imported by European settlers in the early 19th Century to provide milk, butter and cheese for local supply. As early as 1846, only six years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the first exports began. In 1882 New Zealand exported the first refrigerated shipment - a worldwide first - of meat and butter from Port Chalmers, Dunedin to London on the ship "Dunedin".
The advent of refrigerated shipping enabled New Zealand to develop a substantial dairy export trade to the United Kingdom, which remained the largest export market until the 1970s, when Britain joined the European Union.
Refrigerated shipping, New Zealand's temperate climate and a highly innovative and efficient dairy industry based on farmer-owned co-operative dairy companies enabled dairying to grow into New Zealand's most important industry. Since the 1970s there has been significant diversification in both dairy products and markets. Now China and the United States are our largest markets and the United Kingdom has been surpassed by Japan and several other Asian markets that barely existed 30 years ago.
In terms of industry structure, dairy co-operatives have been part of New Zealand's history since 1871 when the country's first cheese company was created on Otago Peninsula. Like co-operatives all over the world, they were established to create the power that comes from pooling resources.
By the 1930s, more than 400 separate dairy co-operatives were operating throughout the country. They were export focused, and had their own international marketing arm in the Dairy Export Produce Control Board which later became the New Zealand Dairy Board.
The 1930s to the 1960s saw the beginnings of the industry consolidation. As technologies in transport and refrigeration improved - for example, cooling of milk on-farm was introduced 1955 - co-operatives began joining forces to become more efficient. By the 1960s, 400 co-operatives had become 168.
Driven by technology and cost efficiencies, the processing industry continued to consolidate and by 1995 had shrunk to 13 dairy companies. In contrast to this consolidation at home, internationally the industry's marketing operations were expanding. The 1960s threat of Britain joining the EU encouraged the Dairy Board to diversify, both in terms of product and export markets.
By the 1980s, the Dairy Board had 19 subsidiaries and associated companies around the world. By 1990 it had 40 and by 1995, 80. In a little more than 10 years, the New Zealand Dairy Board became the world's largest dedicated dairy marketing network.
At home, co-operatives began to expand their manufacturing capabilities, shifting from butter and cheese - the mainstay of exports to the UK - to begin investing in the infrastructure to manufacture the milk powders which are an important part of today's product mix.
In 1996 the Dairy Board Amendment Act transferred ownership of the Dairy Board's assets to the country's 12 co-operatives. Subsequent merger discussions culminated in the formation of Fonterra in 2001 while Tatua and Westland remained as independent cooperatives. Since 2001 the industry has continued to grow, with new export-orientated dairy companies Open Country, Synlait and NZ Dairies being formed.