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

The Farms

The Farms

Travelling down Manaia Road that morning our Rip Van Winkle saw ‘farms’ rather than ‘clearings’. There will stil have been bush further back on most properties, but bordering the road was a continuous band of cleared and fenced land, some of which had been under the plough. Though he said quite a deal about dairying, our visitor seems not fully to have appreciated that the boom in this industry was the most potent cause of the remarkable transformation he found. The factory dairying for the ‘Home’ (British) market that had been pioneered in south Taranaki's older settled districts from the mid-1880s had swept into the Kaponga district at the beginning of the 1890s. Its coming was intertwined with the take-off of the township. If our returning pioneer rather failed to catch the essence of what was happening, the Farmer's Hawera correspondent got it well in his letter for November 1892:

The boom is on in Taranaki. Milch cows are fetching fancy prices. Factories, creameries, etc., are now in full swing. Water power and steam power are the motive powers as yet used…. many an old steam engine from various parts of New Zealand is finding its way into Taranaki province.

He took up the theme again in August 1893:

A few short years ago land and stock of all kinds were a drug on the market. Now everything is on the boom, and a boom that is likely to last, not one of those big gold rushes or town property booms that comes with such a rush that many wise and cautious people are carried on with the stream of excitement to their ultimate ruin. Here we have the gold mine in our midst, and outsiders are finding out that fact. Had we not this past season many London representatives in our province purchasing our products for their respective homes?

Budge and Good's saleyards, which our traveller saw as he left the township, were largely concerned with dairy stock. Thus the forthcoming fortnightly sale advertised in the 9 January 1893 Star had 235 cattle but no sheep and only three horses. Of the cattle, 97 were listed as ‘cows’, ‘spring page 105 cows' or ‘heifers’. The 142 listed as ‘steers’, ‘yearlings’, ‘weaners’, '2 yr olds’ &c were probably mainly the progeny of dairy cows. As the boom got under way the price of a good dairy cow quickly rose to about £8; by the end of the 1890s it had edged up to £11.1 The dominant wheeled traffic on the roads will have been milk carts and the dominant livestock traffic dairy cows.

As primitive clearings matured to become dairy farms, the harvesting of fungus and grass seed declined. New Zealand's peak year for fungus was 1888, when 9844cwt valued at £19,204 was exported. Not much fungus would grow after the timber had been down for five or six years,2 but in the Farmer of September 1894 its Hawera correspondent reminded the settlers that

… that now despised item was once our pioneers' only stand-by, and many a family who can drive their carriage and pair now, can look back to their early start, and really, if willing to admit the fact, attribute it to fungus.

In the January 1894 Farmer this correspondent explained the grass seed crop's decline:

COCKSFOOT. The area is limited this year. Many paddocks have become too foul for seed purposes, the dairy industry too tempting and certain, while cocksfoot is a fickle crop both to save and market profitably.

While dairying boomed around Kaponga, there was still a considerable local bush frontier and a much more significant one accelerating in the east of the province. Every spring cattle sales boomed as these districts stocked their newly sown clearings. So Kaponga dairy farmers stopped knocking their bull calves on the head and instead raised them for the market.3 The Farmer's September 1890 Hawera letter explained that while sheep could be used for bush clearings in many other districts, this was not so in Taranaki:

For bush land no cattle under two years old do much good until the grass has obtained a firm hold and a good sole. Strong, robust cattle are best adapted for a new bush ground; they tread in the roots of the grass, and harden the surface of loose loamy soil of our newly-burnt bush lands. It is for this reason that sheep cannot be kept on the greater part of the Taranaki bush district until the grass has obtained a good bottom and the land well trodden. This takes about four years.

The dairying boom brought new settlers, with good numbers from the South Island, many looking for developed farms. As early as July 1890 the Farmer's Hawera correspondent reported that in the past quarter ‘more land has changed hands than ever was the case before’ and that ‘the purchases are mostly made in the bush land’. In August 1891 he commented that ‘We are having an influx of Canterbury settlers, they are going in for improved bush farms. The demand for this class is beyond the supply.’ Many of these page 106 southerners would have found their farms through Charles Major's Hawera agency. Two examples of Kaponga properties in his Star advertisements were:

145 acres adjoining Kaponga, one of the best farms in the district, all in grass and well improved. (9/1/93)

121 acres near Kaponga, 45 acres grassed, ring fenced, level and well watered, section adjoins dairy fac. (3/4/95)

The strong demand and rise in land prices continued throughout the 1890s.4

Since the fortunes of the district's farms depended heavily on the coming of the dairy factories we will quickly sketch how this came about. (The next chapter gives a fuller treatment.) We saw in Chapter 2 how at the end of the 1880s individuals such as Henry Davy and William Hutchinson set up small factories to which a few neighbours could bring their milk each day. This meant that instead of the laborious (and often unhygienic) practice of setting each day's milk in skimming pans and making butter (usually weekly) in a hand churn, the separating and churning of the cream was undertaken daily by the little factory, using water power from a small stream. This turned a separator to get the cream and a good-sized churn to make the butter. But these little concerns had neither the capacity nor the marketing contacts and expertise to handle more than a fraction of the district's potential output. Clearly a larger-scale approach was needed, but it was difficult to see where capital for this could be found. The Kaponga settlers will have seen the Otakeho, Manaia and Opunake co-operative factories having to be rescued from financial difficulties by the New Plymouth entrepreneurs Newton King and J.C. George.5 Still struggling to master their holdings and hampered by the late appearance of their township, they had neither the money to venture down the co-operative track nor the unity and influence to seek out an outside entrepreneur. They were rescued from these dilemmas when in the autumn of 1893 the Wanganui branch of the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency Co Ltd decided to enter the south Taranaki dairy industry. The launching of this initiative was described thus in the Farmer of July 1896:

Mr John Stevenson, the Company's manager in Wanganui, met the settlers on several occasions, and laid before them the Company's scheme, which was to provide the required capital at an agreed rate of interest, erect the necessary buildings and plant, manage the undertaking, and market the produce (butter) for the ordinary commission. All the other details were to be on the lines of a joint stock company, with the exception that dividends were to be shared solely by the settlers, in proportion to the value of the milk supplied by them. For this programme a three years' guarantee of milk supply was asked and given, and operations were begun.

Kaponga was at first suggested as a factory centre and its settlers were very disappointed at the final decision for a Mangatoki factory with page 107 Kaponga as one of a several associated creameries. But dairying was more advanced around Mangatoki and the company took over an existing factory there. Kaponga was fortunate that from the spring of 1893 all the cream it could produce was separated locally, carted daily to Mangatoki, churned there into butter and exported via the Eltham railway station.