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Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World

The Farmers

The Farmers

Dairying prospered over these years as a steadily growing worldwide demand for both fresh milk and dairy products continually outstripped the supply. While new producers, such as Argentina and Siberia, entered the market, growing home demands cut into the exports of older northern hemisphere producers, and some, such as Germany, became substantial importers. Telling a 1912 parliamentary commission of these developments, David Cuddie, director of the Dairy Division, mentioned that New Zealanders had also become increasingly generous consumers. While he had no accurate figures for this home consumption he thought that for butter it might involve more than a third of production.21

Kaponga's settlers prospered with the industry, and with a seemingly page 251 assured future they had both the incentive and the means to invest in upgrading all aspects of their farms. In this they were enlightened, goaded and encouraged by the Department of Agriculture's very active Dairy Division, by A & P and other shows, by agricultural journalism, and by increasingly stringent government regulation of their industry. Of course they also met with various difficulties and challenges, not the least of which was the daily manning of their milking sheds to cope with their growing herds. We will see how they handled this challenge as we first give a general survey of their progress, and then examine how they faced up to several other difficulties and challenges.

Some idea of the range of improvements that could follow initial clearing and stocking was given in 1901 in ‘Notes from a Bush District’ by a Star (6/2/01) correspondent apparently resident in the Kaponga district:

It is strange how particular herds of cows will vary…. I hear of one dairy farmer who last month from 31 cows took £39. Another who is milking on shares took £92 from 72 cows. Another who supplies the Rowan creamery, I am informed, is sending close on 40 lb of milk per cow, and has a 3.9 test. There is no doubt that winter feeding has a lot to do with the output of the season, and it is a pleasant fact to notice the amount of hay that has been saved this summer, also the increasing number of really good cowsheds that are being erected from one end of the district to the other, also the large amount of resowing that is being done and artificial manuring.

Steady improvement of herds, cowsheds, pastures, provision of winter feed and the application of fertilisers is also mentioned in other contemporary reports, including those of the Hawera subdivision of the Department of Agriculture. In its 1900 report we read that owners of dairy herds ‘are paying more attention to constitution, culling, breeding, &c’, a and in 1902 that continuing improvement is leading to ‘the poor inbred brute, commonly known as the “free boarder” being absent from most herds’. The 1903 report tells of ‘a decided improvement in the class of shed and surroundings throughout the district’ and draws attention to a boom in pig farming.22

A significant rise in the district's pig numbers had already been noted in the 1900 report and accounted for by ‘the inducement given by the erection of several large bacon-factories’. The Star (30/5/01) reported pig rearing to be growing, especially between Kaponga and Eltham, and that it was ‘nothing unusual for buyers to take away 140 to 150 baconers from Kaponga in one day’. This growth was driven by a general rise in New Zealand living standards, giving a higher consumption of pork and bacon. On the farms it became more profitable to raise pigs than calves, and more attention was being given to their breeding and feeding.23 Between 1901 and 1906 Taranaki pig numbers more than doubled from 20,000 to 44,000 and bacon factories increased from four to seven. By mid-1906 five firms competed vigorously for Kaponga's pigs, for slaughter in both Taranaki and page 252 Wellington.24 Before the year's end there was also access to the London market. It was Newton King who told the Star (6/11/06) of this:

… I look for a much reduced supply of calves on account of the export market opening up for pigs, which latter is going to be a splendid thing for the district, for Borthwick's say they are prepared to take as many pigs as can be supplied … If frozen pork will meet with as good a demand as the exporters claim it means a fortune to the dairy farmer.

So the bacon factories now competed with Kaponga's John Hollard, advertised by Borthwick's as one of three rural agents for pigs for their Waitara works.25 By 1907 New Zealand's frozen pork exports had doubled. They then fell off, probably due to the shift to cheese.

This rush to pigs had various repercussions, some of the ‘nuisance’ variety. In 1907 the Kaponga Tradesmen's Association complained to the Town Board of a Christchurch Meat Company plan for a pig-receiving yard facing the main street near the town.26 In 1910 the District Health Inspector asked for, and gained the support of, the Eltham County Council for the regulation of the location of pigsties on account of

… a practice prevalent in the county of settlers building pig-styes [sic] on portions of their own sections abutting on to public roads…. the practice was capable of giving rise to considerable nuisance from bad smells arising from the pig-styes, and the barrels of skim-milk, etc., stored near by. It was generally agreed that within a hundred feet of a dwelling-house or road was the minimum of proximity that should be allowed.27

It is easy to see how this practice would have arisen. Sties beside the road would be convenient for dropping off the skim milk from the factory, and for sending off pigs for sale. Meeting these new county requirements would often have forced one well away from the road.

In his 1906 chat with the Star Newton King mentioned hides as another source of farm income beside those from milk and pigs. Formerly farmers had largely ignored these as there was little demand for them but now the hide and skin market had ‘grown rapidly into a big thing of great value to the farmers’. The rise in pig rearing had added a flood of calf skins to the market. The Agriculture Department's 1908 report for the region—now referred to as the West Coast (North Island) District—reported 75,000 calf skins sold during the year, up from 60,000 the previous year, and (no doubt with a concern for herd replacements) remarked that ‘this “slaughter of the innocents” must in time be felt’.

On the farmers' increasing difficulty in finding milkers the Labour Department's reports concurred with those of the Agriculture Department. These the 1901 general survey of the labour market mentioned ‘great differulty in getting young men and lads for dairy tarming’ and in 1903 the Hawera office reported that ‘men for milking are very scarce’. The April 1903 Farmer, in reporting a farewell to a Manaia settler, told of two speakers page 253
Dairy herd of the widowed Amelia Barton née Hutchinson, Palmer Road, 1908

Dairy herd of the widowed Amelia Barton née Hutchinson, Palmer Road, 1908

agreeing that ‘the dairy industry was pushing the old settlers out, especially those who had no families to do the milking’. But a pungent letter in the Star (31/12/04) indicates that even some with children had real problems. At a conference a farmer had remarked that ‘the only way to make a success of the dairying industry is to marry early and bring up a family’ and the writer responded:

I am sorry to have to take exception to ‘Farmer's’ remarks, but one can do all he advocates, but will he get his cows milked? … I am sorry to say, that from the day a lad leaves school the parents have lost control. If we cheek them or try to correct them it's ‘I'm off.’ I was speaking to a farmer the other day who has six sons. He said, ‘I have to let them do as they like. I dare not say a word, or they would be off and leave me with 80 or 90 cows to milk myself.’ … This has happened, and men and women have to work all hours because their lads of 17 or 18 years have left them in the lurch. And the reason they go is that they have only to open any paper at this time of year and they find, ‘Wanted, a milker; wages, 25s per week.’

Any overuse of the more amenable younger children seems to have been largely kept in check by the recurrent raising of the ‘child slavery’ accusation.28 In the first decade of the new century Kaponga's farmers increasingly tried three solutions to their milker problem: milking machines, Swiss immigrant labour, and sharemilking.

page 254
‘Our Own’ first mentioned milking machines in the Kaponga district on 6 March 1907. These pioneers had the experience of several well-established fanners near Hawera to guide them. In February 1906 the Star ran seven articles on “The Milking Industry’, two of them devoted to the success of these Hawera users of machines. Describing these men's ‘wild enthusiasm’ for their machines the writer quoted the experience of D. Buchanan of Tokaora, who had installed two machines run by a four-horse powerengine:
Fred Nicholas, Duthie Road, machine-milking his herd, c. 1914

Fred Nicholas, Duthie Road, machine-milking his herd, c. 1914

page 255

Recently he had the misfortune to have a child fall ill with the result that he was deprived of Mrs Buchanan's assistance. That left him alone in the shed with sixty-two cows to deal with. Under other circumstances he would have been in a fix indeed but with the aid of machinery he is able to cope with the work and turn his herd out, properly milked, in two hours and a half. His own words are: ‘I never expected to be so pleased with them; the machines have exceeded my wildest hopes.’ Mr Buchanan pointed out that to do the work now being done three men at 25s per week and keep would have had to be employed … ‘When I say that the plant cost £190,’ said Mr Buchanan, ‘you can figure it out for yourself. I reckon the machines are worth three pounds a week to me.’29

A detailed description was given of milking time at Gane's shed at Normanby, where a family team of five put through 125 cows in one hour 50 minutes:

One boy brings the cows in, bails and leg-ropes them and when the forty are snugly established in their stalls turns to and does a little stripping. There are four machines, two attached to each bucket, and an attendant is required for each pair. The pulsators are deftly attached to the teats, and there they hang drawing the fluid in an uninterrupted stream into the receptacle. Beyond being fastened, the machine requires very little attention. But very little time is allowed the attendants to chat to the visitor…. The machines keep them going at top speed, putting the pulsators on, taking them off, emptying the milk to the buckets and rushing it to the receptacles outside the shed…. Almost before one realises it the workers have got to the end of the row of contented kine.30

He went on to describe how the two rows of 20 bails each were filled with successive intakes of cows, down which the two machine attendants moved followed by two strippers. He found the cows much more contented than when hand-milked, and back into the fields an hour earlier, having bee milked at a faster rate than a cow a minute.

A good number of Kaponga settlers must have installed machines for the 1907–08 season for by January W.K. Howitt, Awatuna East's perceptive ‘Our Own’ (18/1/08), was writing of their impact on the appearance of the countryside:

Milking machines run by water power are getting very numerous, and the big water wheels driven by a plentiful supply of water give the country a more interesting appearance, and make many a new chum—and many an old chum too—think of the land where ‘the auld folk lie’.

Howitt, it seems, saw similarities between the relics of the water-powered days of the early Industrial Revolution that he had seen on a visit ‘Home’ and what was developing around him at Awatuna East. We have no such comments from elsewhere in the district, but probably big waterwheels page 256 were common around Kaponga in the early machine milking days, providing a cheap source of power until the farmers could afford the more reliable, but more expensive, internal combustion engines. The shift to milking machines was on the one hand hastened by generous credit terms offered by the competing manufacturers,31 and on the other retarded by widespread reports of their disastrous effects on milk quality. It took real diligence to keep the early machines thoroughly clean. Improvements in the machines and a drive, led by the Dairy Division, for the highest levels of hygiene in their use, eventually mastered this problem.32 By 1913 there were over 4000 machines, and Kaponga must have had a good number.

But milking-shed labour was still needed, by both those who hurried into machines and those who did not. The Star of 3 February 1906 carried the welcome news of some recently arrived Swiss milkers:

Exactly how many there are is hard to state in the absence of any official records, but round about Kaponga in particular there are not a few. These men have taken positions in the sheds, and from the information we have are good milkers. They are clean in habits and thoroughly reliable, treat the animals under their care well, and generally live a quiet and retired life. They seldom visit the township near by … These immigrants are, generally, well educated and read considerably—mostly in German…. The men are quick to pick up the language of their adopted country, and some who were first arrivals now read English with ease. During the course of conversation with one who had arrived a short time previously a representative of the STAR gathered that some of the immigrants had money, but all were prepared to take positions until they got into the ways of the country, when in all probability they would try to secure farms for themselves … Asked why he had come out to the colony the Swiss stated he had friends out here, but did not know what had induced them to come here. He stated that others were coming.

Census returns show that after declining slowly in the 1890s the country's Swiss-born grew by 40 per cent to 464 between 1901 and 1906, largely through a doubling of the number in Taranaki from 94 to 188. By 1911, with a further increase to 247, Taranaki had almost half the dominion's Swiss-born. Other immigrants were arriving in New Zealand over these years; for example from Australia, on account of hard times there, and from Britain, encouraged by a renewal from 1904 of some New Zealand government assistance to approved applicants. A few of these came to the Kaponga district, but the welcome, unexpected Swiss seem to have been the largest influx, and they made Kaponga their provincial centre.33

References to sharemilking began to appear in the Star in the early 1900s. The New Zealand origins of the system are unclear.34 It could not, of course, become common until farms were well established enough, and dairying prosperous enough, to provide a living for the sharemilker and a page 257 reasonable return for the owner. An article on the decline of Victoria's dairy industry reprinted from the Auckland Weekly News in the Star of 19 February 1902 commented that ‘Perhaps family labour and the system of milking on shares have saved the New Zealand dairy industry from the misfortune which has fallen on Victoria.’ It is in casual references such as this, in advertisements by owners and sharemilkers, and in court proceedings and newspaper correspondence arising from disagreements, that the rise of the practice is made evident.35 A Star series on ‘Our Staple Industries' shows that by 1910 a period of sharemilking was seen as a regular stage in the journey from learner milker to freehold dairy farmer.36

We must see how Kaponga's farmers handled various other issues and challenges. In May 1901 they met to consider forming a local branch of the recently launched New Zealand Farmers' Union. After much discussion the motion to form a branch was carried by a majority of one. A week or two later the Kaponga branch called the Riverlea farmers together to consider forming a branch. Initially they dodged the challenge, deciding, against Kaponga advice, to join Kaponga. As Kaponga expected, their attendances were poor, so it renewed the pressure and a branch was finally formed in November 1901. The 1902 a branch was formed at Rowan. After some early enthusiasm all three branches wilted, but with occasional stirrings of renewed interest. In his doctoral study of the union Tom Brooking comments that ‘Apathy of rank and file members and the general indifference of the wider farming community were problems which continued to plague the NZFU.’37 We need to account briefly for both the appearance of the Kaponga, as elsewhere, doubtless owed much to farmers feeling increasingly hassled, used and imposed upon by bureaucrats, middlemen and financial institutions. Inspectors of the Departments of Agriculture and Health were now coming to the farms and enforcing the culling of diseased animals and the resiting or upgrading of sties and sheds. Where would this interference end? Dairy farmers also feared that labour legislation would be applied to the industry's disadvantage, to meet growing criticism of the untimely milking hours and the effects of seven-day-a-week manning of both sheds and factories. But Kaponga's settlers were already campaigning for their needs and expressing their discontent through their industry's various institutions and through local and national politics. They must have found the NZFU an added imposition, cutting into limited time and energy that might well be spent enjoying some of the social and cultural opportunities that prosperity was bringing.

Over these years the 1913 waterfront strike was undoubtedly the most dramatic outside challenge to the interests of Kaponga farmers. They would have received the appeal from J.G. Wilson, NZFU president, for volunteers to register at their nearest NZFU branch, either to man the Wellington wharves, or (for men with horses) to act as special constables. He pointed out:

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Your industry is seriously threatened by the strike… If this goes on we shall have no coal for our factories. Many thousands of pounds' worth of your butter are in the store in Wellington unable to be shipped. Hundreds of tons are arriving every day in the store. If there is no coal the work will be stopped, the butter perish, and the fruit of your industry will be lost.38

Volunteers went to Wellington from various parts of south Taranaki but it is not known to what extent Kaponga was involved. However, in her family history Blank Cheque to Life (p. 226) Marie Cleland tells how Awatuna East farmer, Ralph Farquhar, responded to the call:

They need mounted men, Sarah! Peter's an excellent horse—and with the sharemilkers, I'm free to go—it's my duty to go.’…

Ralph bade them goodbye and with his mount joined others en route to Wellington … nor felt Ralph any qualms other than the regretful pressure of circumstances which made this action necessary.

When he returned it was near Christmas. He was full of praise for his mount, Peter, whose performance, he said, had been magnificent. He had little else to say. His batten [sic] with its leather wrist-strap Sarah made use of for pounding the washing and lifting it from the copper.

This probably typifies the feeling of the majority of farmers—they would not meekly submit to seeing their hard-earned produce lie rotting, but they took no pleasure in having to act against their fellow countrymen.

In the 1904–05 season, just as the town began battling typhoid, the farmers became involved in a not dissimilar battle against the virus disease of blackleg among their calves. The disease was apparently introduced around 1890 in bone dust from India, used to fertilise turnips on a farm near Waitara, and from there it gradually spread in north Taranaki. Its presence caused a high mortality among calves aged from three to five months. Fortunately a vaccination against the disease was available.39 When it suddenly swept across south Taranaki in the spring of 1904 the government acted quickly, imposing a strict quarantine over the whole province and south as far as Wanganui, requiring the burning of all dead animals without delay, and getting a free vaccination programme under way. There was some initial farmer protest, and some again in 1906 when there was trouble with a faulty supply of vaccine,40 but the general picture was of good administration by the Department of Agriculture and co-operation by the settlers. Within a year or two it was well under control. However its rapid spread across South Taranaki must have been one of the causes of the sudden move to slaughter young calves and switch to raising pigs.

Finally we look at challenges arising from booming land prices. Most Kaponga pioneer settlers had paid a £1 an acre for their virgin land. By the time the co-op started in 1898 the going rate for developed land was £10 an acre, and by 1912 this had risen to about £50.41 Of course by this time virgin blocks were very much a thing of the past. These changes had great page 259 economic and social implications. If he thought only of himself many a settler could retire as a wealthy man. But if a family operated as a clan, aiming to see a number of sons established on farms, it faced a real challenge. Some clans opted to stay in the district, helping the next generation to make their way up, with sharemilking as a common strategy. Others opted to sell up and move as a clan to a fresh start on a new settlement frontiers, most commonly in eastern Taranaki or the Waikato. Whatever the tactic, the result was much moving about. Awatuna East's ‘Our Own’ (16/7/08) had these wry comments on the general winter shift of 1908:

… loads of furniture from other parts can be seen passing along the road almost daily. If the people make a rise each time they shift some of them ought to be pretty well off by now. Too much shifting, however, is not good, and very often the rise is a Dutchman's one.

In a 1913 contribution to the Star (26/7/13) Hawera farmer and dairying leader J.B. Murdoch also had reservations on the matter

This shifting population is a deterrent to the progress of the district, as not sufficient interest is taken by the temporary farmers in any movement of a lasting nature to help the district along. It also checks the social life in so far as one does not know his neighbour in many cases long enough to get well acquainted.