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

Working for Subsistence

Working for Subsistence

‘However hard the almighty dollar is to get possession of, a man can't starve if he has his piece of land, pigs and garden,’ remarked the Stratford & Ngaere ‘Our Own’ on 15 October 1887. For most ‘Kaupokonui’ pioneers such an outlook was not merely an option but a necessity. The purchase and development of their sections demanded every penny they could get, and in any case there was no market at hand to supply the daily necessities of life. Moreover a subsistence approach made good sense for other reasons. In the short term there was a small local outlet for produce from the page 61 clearings, as surveyors, newly arrived settlers, bushfellers and sawmill workers needed the very goods subsistence farming provided. For the longer term it was as yet unclear which products best suited the local conditions and would find viable markets. To understand these settlers we must see that to them farming options still seemed wide open. We know that dairying was soon to become dominant, but as late as 1883 Patea, Hawera and Normanby storekeepers were complaining of having to import most of their butter. I have described elsewhere the tussle in 1880s South Taranaki between differing views on farming options, suggesting that the futures most settlers had in mind can be covered by the three models I label ‘Lincolnshire’, ‘Kent’ and ‘West Country’.17 Until a regional consensus emerged it was sensible to test a wide range of products, in their various breeds and varieties, against the local climate, soils and pests, while keeping one's ears open for long-term market prospects. This most of ‘Kaupokonui’ pioneers seem to have done, making a virtue out of the subsistence farming necessity.

Settlers were encouraged in this course by their most widely read guide on such matters, the Star. Over the early and mid-1880s it supported mixed farming and criticised a local bias towards sheep and grain. Its leader of 7 February 1884 upheld as a model a local Kentish immigrant who maintained a full range of mixed farming whatever the state of the market. Each season he planted his wheat, oats and potatoes, maintained his sheep, cattle and pigs, and pressed on with his dairy and orchard. His results proved the wisdom of refusing to guess the short-term markets. This Star editorial particularly recommended dairying, pig keeping and fruit growing, and gave its blessing to the recently founded Normanby Horticultural Society, whose annual show was rapidly to become a regional event, giving steady encouragement to diversified farming.

With grass being of necessity a clearing's first crop, a house cow was commonly its first livestock. The ‘Kaupokonui’ ‘Our Own's’ letter of 20 May 1886 reported: ‘The dairying industry is in a flourishing condition in this district and there are few families who do not make a considerable quantity of butter weekly.’ Butter-making led inevitably to pig keeping to provide an outlet for the skim milk. Competently managed, dairy and piggery would within a year or two provide a year-round supply of milk, butter and meat. In the late autumn of 1889 life in the Kaponga district must have been similar to that of nearby Ngaere, from where a correspondent wrote:

… nights are cold, mornings colder; cows are milked and firewood chopped by lantern light…. pigs are being killed by hundreds. Ngaire will soon rival Chicago for bacon. Every settler's house is decorated with flitches of streaky bacon and juicy hams, and every settler's child is fed on the same, which no doubt accounts for their healthy appearance.18

Cropping on the clearings seems to have begun with gardening as soon page 62 as a piece of ground could be fenced away from livestock. ‘Our Own's’ letter of 29 May 1884 from ‘Kaupokonui’ reported some extraordinary crops of potatoes, though it was impossible to estimate the weight per acre as ‘most of the crops have been stuck in in odd bits and corners between logs and stumps’. He had seen one root with a 14lb crop, and also a 52lb pumpkin. Carrots also did particularly well. In 1889 ‘Agricola’, a visiting Auckland agriculturist, expressed surprise at the quantities grown. ‘With scarcely an exception every homestead seemed to have the inevitable crop of carrots,’ he reported, ‘the beds being large or comparatively small according to the requirements of the family.’19 He found these roots served up in a wonderful variety of ways. At one house he was entertained with a ‘lovely’ carrot pudding. Carrots were also being fed to pigs and other stock. The depredations of birds, especially sparrows, discouraged grain in the bush subsistence economy. Beans became popular because ‘they are hardy, quickly sown, easily kept clean, sparrows don't take them, and they are good food for either pigs or fowls’.20

On 28 July 1883 the ‘Kaupokonui’ ‘Our Own’ reported that most settlers were planting fruit trees. It would of course be some years before these came into bearing, but on 19 February 1886 he reported almost every settler harvesting many quarts of gooseberries. On 18 September 1886 he noted that ‘an enormous number of fruit trees have been planted throughout this district this season’. Settlers must have gained much help from the press on how to cope with their new environment. Thus in the Star of 11 June 1887 an Okaiawa resident wrote about his orchard, with news on three varieties of apple, a good crop of blackcurrants and success in fruiting figs. He gave a range of advice on adapting husbandry to local conditions. He noted that ‘some loads of fruit trees are already being carted up towards the mountain on the Ahipaipa road, so that planting has begun in the bush districts’.

Subsistence living of course also meant meeting housing and fuel needs from one's own resources. For this, most of our settlers, with their axemen's skills, were well equipped. Let us now summarise the likely subsistence fortunes of a well-organised Kaponga settler family. They would have moved from an initial primitive ponga whare to a growing slab cottage. Dairy, piggery, hen house and barn would have been added as required. The first year may have seen a surfeit of damper and of beef and pigeon from the wild. Thereafter the variety of the diet would have grown steadily, the additions (roughly in the order of appearance) being: milk, butter, potatoes and other root vegetables, eggs; pork, bacon and ham; small fruits such as gooseberries and blackcurrants; apples, pears, plums and other tree fruits. Producing, processing and preserving these foodstuffs would have required a range of skills, a basic minimum of equipment and supplies, and the necessary initial livestock, seeds and plants. Families will have varied in their ability to meet these requirements, and in the discipline needed to provide the necessary input of labour and continuous care. Few bachelor settlers will have been competent to cover more than a small part of the range.