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

The Farms

The Farms

While the rise of the dairy industry brought new life to the district, farm life did not become simply a matter of watching the flow of milk increase year by year and spending the ever-growing milk cheques. We must now examine the heavy burden of the twice-daily, seven-days-a-week milking of the herds. And we must note that farming was not only a matter of cows. page 144 Feeding the herds required good pastures and ample supplies of winter fodder. This meant following up stumping with ploughing, cropping, and resowing in improved pastures. Also the ever-increasing supply of skim milk meant coping with growing numbers of pigs.

For most settlers the herd size was determined by the family's milking capabilities and therefore varied with the family life-cycle. A few with larger herds employed outside labour but the work was not popular with working men. Why this was so is explained in ‘Cow Spanking in Taranaki’, reprinted from the Sydney Bulletin in the Farmer of February 1897.

… Taranaki wasn't the best place in the world to carry a swag. It's too wet and the roads are goat tracks…. My first job was on a place where they milked 120 cows. Talk about slavery. You get up at half past three in the morning, muster cows in the dark and start milking at four.

Milking isn't hard work! Wait till you have to milk 120 between six— especially when the boss and you are the only men, the others being the missus and kids. Your wrists start first, they ache worse than they would with first day's shearing. Then after a day or two your hands swell, you get cramp in them, in the mornings you can hardly straighten your fingers. You are always pretty certain to get cowpox, likewise your nails fester…

Bailing up your cows is nice, too. You have to wade over your boot tops in filth and drive the beggars out….

We would get the morning's milking done about 8.30 a.m. when one of the youngsters would cart the milk off to the factory. Another half hour scraping down the bails—phew. Breakfast would be about 9, and you had hardly time to fill your pipe before you were hurried off to feed the calves. I had about 40 of the brutes to feed….

When I had finished with the calves … the waggon would be back from the factory, and I helped unload and feed the pigs. After that I just had a minute to put on the water for washing up and it would be dinner time. When dinner was over I went and washed out the big milk cans for a couple of hours … At three I caught a horse and went after the cows again, knocking off milking about eight.

In commenting on the scarcity of milking labour and the unpopularity of its long hours the Star (20/10/99) told of a traveller calling at a farmhouse at midday and after dinner hearing the farmer call out, ‘Now lads, go to bed, no larking.’ This farmer had found his men worked better and were more cheerful if they rested for a couple of hours after midday dinner. But on most farms it was the family members who had to shoulder all the tasks described by the Bulletin writer. Somehow they had to cope, whatever vagaries of weather, health or farm mishaps they met with.

From time to time from 1893 onwards the Farmer's Hawera cor respondent commented on the large areas of land being ploughed in the bush districts.26 This, of course, followed through from the vigorous felling of some years earlier. Widespread stumping, clearing and ploughing to get page 145
Kaponga Co-operative Dairy Company's Riverlea Creamery

Kaponga Co-operative Dairy Company's Riverlea Creamery

the land into quality permanent pastures was to continue around Kaponga into the early decades of the new century. Little of the cropping that followed ploughing was aimed at the market; rather it provided subsistence for the family and fodder for the livestock. Turnips, mangolds, rape and oats were grown to see the dairy herd through the winter. The oats were often cut green for the cows in winter and then harvested later to provide chaff for the horses. Beans were widely grown both for the household and for ‘topping off pigs just before killing time’. The bean stalks provided additional winter fodder for the herd. Almost every farm raised its own needs in potatoes, and carrots continued to be grown as a field crop. Farm orchards, planted extensively in the earlier subsistence farming years, were now maturing.27

With their bush swept away the settlers became increasingly aware of the need for shelter from recurrent southerly gales that drove killing salt spray across their orchards, gardens, crops and pastures. From 13 to 16 April 1895 salt spray was carried ‘fully twenty miles inland’ by a great storm, longer and stronger than the oldest inhabitant had known. It left pastures looking as though swept by a tremendous fire, denuded fruit trees of all their leaves, and forced the abandonment of ‘all flower shows on the coast’.28 Similar storms over the following years forced the settlers to give serious attention to shelter belts. The comparative abilities of various trees and hedge plants to withstand the blast were widely debated. In a long editorial on ‘The Shelter Problem’ the Star (5/6/97) told how Normanby page 146 nurseryman William Rowe had scoured the world in the settlers' interests, and remarked:

So far as is known African box thorn is the best, or rather the least tender, for it does not withstand it altogether. It will, however, continue green on the lea side, and the plants thus have a chance to recuperate.

Rowe's global search turned up nothing superior to this plant, which he had been stocking as a farm hedge plant since the early 1880s.29 The boxthorn hedge has become a ubiquitous feature of the south Taranaki landscape.

As long as the dairy industry concentrated on butter the farmers had little choice but to rear pigs to consume the voluminous skim milk by-product. The August 1893 Farmer told of a ‘pig boom’ coinciding with
south Taranaki's dairy boom. Pigs were soon part of the dairy farmer's profit equation. In 1895 one Kaponga settler estimated that ‘with pigs his cows were worth over £11 yearly to him’.30 Bacon factories at Stratford and Hawera appointed local agents to purchase Kaponga's pigs.31 Pigs are not suited to droving so they were brought to market by other means. In the Star of 20 March 1897 a Rowan correspondent provided a good description:

The pig-raising industry is causing quite a commotion in these parts, and a general exodus occurred last week of the ‘Boys who pay the rint.’ Traps, brakes and so forth in great demand. One of our worthy settlers was jogging along … calculating to himself the value of his by-products, when he felt a sudden upheaval, and he discovered that he was ascending on the point of a pig's nose … quite determinedly, and in spite of that worthy settler's efforts it effected its escape for a time from the butcher's knife, and returned grumbling and grunting to its now forlorn home.