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

Working for the Markets

page 63

Working for the Markets

Our account of wages, contract and subsistence work has sketched in the context of work for the markets. In simple outline we can say that the Kaponga district had no real market problem in the first half of the 1880s, the second half of the decade were years of market crisis, and by the early 1890s the solution was well in sight. The early 1880s had no problem because the settlers were concentrating on the abundance of wages and contract work. On the first small clearings families got subsistence activities under way, with women and children releasing the men for the good earnings off the section. Most bachelors probably shut up most of their clearing for grass seed so that they too could go after these good earnings. A steady flow of newcomers to this active settlement frontier meant an eager market for grass seed and all types of food produce. But suddenly in the mid-1880s this all changed. The generous government spending disappeared, the settler inflow dwindled to a trickle, while the clearings had grown to a size that made market decisions urgent. In the Star of 14 December 1885 ‘Kaupokonui's’ ‘Our Own’ gives us a feel of these times:

Of course your contributor G.W.'s articles on bee-keeping are eagerly read by your own, but I fail to see the extraordinary benefits he points out. In this colony—I might almost individualise it, this district—we suffer periodically from crazes. Some new idea is wafted abroad whereby heaps of coin may be amassed; frothy ideas are expressed and for a time we dream of untold fortunes.

Besides the apiarist enthusiasm of ‘G.W.’ (Manaia's disputatious headmaster, George Wilks), ‘Our Own’ would also doubtless have had in mind the hop-growing movement initiated in Normanby in April 1883 and fanning out from there to other bush districts until brought to a sudden halt by gales in December 1884 and March 1885.21

In brief, the district's dilemma was that all significant colonial markets had been preempted by more convenient, well-established suppliers. A long-term solution needed products that would return a profit after being got out over primitive frontier roads and shipped around the world. Hence the interest in high-value, easily transportable produce such as hops and honey. Frozen beef was another possibility, but Taranaki's early frozen-meat ventures quickly failed and there was little profit in sending stock to more distant works. Cattle raising for the market (as distinct from dairying) was of some significance in the ‘Kaupokonui’ throughout the 1880s, especially for cash land buyers with large areas felled on contract. One such sent up the first mob in October 1882: 22 cows with calves at foot, from the Manaia saleyards.22 DP settlers will have run some cattle, mainly by raising calves from their dairy stock for sale as either beef cattle or milch cows. But throughout the decade their leading market crop appears to have been grass seed.23 In the hard years of the later 1880s the main supplement to this was page 64 ‘Taranaki wool’, a fungus growing on the felled logs of their clearings, which Taranaki Chinese immigrant Chew Chong was exporting to China. We must look more closely at these two key products.

The grass seed crop was always a bit of a gamble. As it matured it was at risk from fire, and over the short harvest season from rain. The market was as hard to judge as any, depending partly on the amount of new country being sown over the following season, partly on the overseas market.24 There was also the choice of variety. A Star editorial of 18 October 1887 deprecated a shift over the preceding year or two from cocksfoct to rye grass, pointing out that cocksfoot was the only New Zealand grass with an export seed market. As prices drifted lower in the late 1880s many settlers began holding much of their crop off the market.25 Even at the lower prices there were reasonable returns until the market collapsed in early 1889.26 The harvest's heavy labour demand drew on both Pakeha and Maori.27 ‘Our grass seed harvest lasts only a few weeks, but during that time all is hurry and worry,’ noted the Farmer's Hawera ‘Our Own’ in March 1889. Some families had the hands to harvest their crop but those that could not had either to sell it or to have it reaped on terms. Standing crops sold for as much as £1 and 5s an acre in 1887 and 1888, but dropped to around 13s in 1889. For reaping on terms most harvesters settled for two bags out of every three in 1887 and for three out of every four in 1889.28 The grass was cut with sickles, then spread on threshing sheets to be beaten out with flails and supplejacks.29 The ‘gamble’ inherent in the crop continued through the various decisions the harvesters had to make, as ‘Kaupokonui's’ ‘Our Own’ explained on 19 February 1886:

At a time when grass harvesting was in full swing, rain came, doing a deal of damage to the crops which were cut, and driving the greater part of the seed out of the standing stalk. Cocksfoot does not seem to have been as severely affected as rape and Italian rye. The latter is a most fickle grass to harvest, as there is no ‘turn of the tide’. Unless reaped on the green side, a lot is lost through shaking. A great mistake was made by harvesters this season in getting too far ahead with cutting and depending on the weather keeping fine to finish threshing. Many believe now in threshing two days after the cutting.

Fungus had been a significant commodity for Taranaki bush settlers since the early 1870s but until the mid-1880s ‘Kaupokonui’ settlers mainly lett it to the Maori, including parties that came camping from Parihaka.30 With the onset of hard times coinciding with a fungus price rise the settlers turned to it eagerly.31 The ‘Kaupokonui’ ‘Our Own's’ letter of 31 July 1886 told of fungus picking ‘becoming an established industry’, encouraged by the fact that much of the bush had been felled the right length of time for a prolific yield. Picking continued widely for some years, causing friction with Maori gatherers.32 At first settlers gathered their fungus in summer and cried in the sun. By 1887 they were gathering throughout the year and page 65 showing some ingenuity in the wood-fired devices they constructed for drying.33 In the autumn of 1889 the Auckland Weekly News's ‘Agricola’ found that experts could make better money fungus gathering than at any labouring jobs.34 There were also markets for the wood of the forest. Open-country demand for fencing timber reached steadily deeper into the bush, providing work for some bush settlers. Much more work was provided by the sawmills, several of which operated in the Kaponga district in the 1880s. Information on them is limited, and sometimes confusing, partly through changes of location and ownership. Important in the Kaponga story of the 1880s and 1890s was Robert Palmer,* an experienced sawmiller who in 1883 came to take over the pioneer Manaia mill as manager and senior partner in R. Palmer and Co.35 Beginning on Charles Tait's Manaia Road section, a little above Skeet Road, this mill worked its way up Manaia Road, reaching the outskirts of Kaponga township towards the end of the decade. There must have been various arrangements with settlers for mill and tramlines sites, the purchase of logs, and contract and wage labour. In turn, the settlers were important customers of the mill.

In the later 1880s Kaponga settlers must have felt that market industries were marching towards them. They were, for example, caught up in the beekeeping movement but their enthusiasm was shortlived.36 As they watched the various initiatives of the somewhat earlier settled areas to their south and east they must have valued the opportunity to benefit from these neighbours' experience. It spared them, for example, the false start of the hop industry.

It will also have prepared them for the shift from a cottage-style dairy industry to a factory one. Throughout the 1880s their home dairies found customers mainly through the Manaia and Okaiawa storekeepers and their own Henry Davy. The south Taranaki factory dairying movement began in earnest in the autumn of 1883.37 It made out a strong case against the home dairies. The home product varied widely in quality, giving storekeepers the onerous task of assessing and pricing each offering and customers a source of constant dissatisfaction.38 To compensate themselves storekeepers often insisted on a barter approach. From other districts came reports that both settlers and storekeepers were well pleased with the changes that factory dairying brought to their relationship.39 The home product's inconsistent quality was also a major hindrance in the export markets. In north Taranaki, and also from 1888 at Cardiff on the Kaponga district's own boundaries, a butter-packing approach was tried to counter this problem. Settlers churned their butter to the granular stage then brought it to a central depot for final working and packing. But hopes that the rejection of bad offerings and blending of the rest would ensure a consistent product were not fulfilled.40 The Kaponga settlers could not ignore the cogency of the case for the new dairy factories that took raw milk from the farmers, separated the cream using the new centrifugal separators, and turned it into butter under page 66 hygienic conditions. Over 1885–87 they saw dairy factories established nearby to their west, east and south at Opunake, Normanby, Manaia, Otakeho and Eltham. Around 1888–89 their storekeeper, Henry Davy, began his own little factory on a stream just east of the township site,41 and to their south on Skeet Road, just east of the Manaia Road intersection, young William Hutchinson* had set up another on his father's farm in 1889.42 The stage was set for the district's leap into factory dairying.