Each summer, birds in their thousands migrate from exotic locations like Siberia to wade about in such places as Parengarenga Harbour, the Firth of Thames and Farewell Spit. As far as we know, they partake of the local tucker, swap yarns, speculate about the weather and compare local mud with the stuff back home. Each winter, farmers in their tens of thousands load up their utes and travel from distant places like Opononi, Martinborough and Waimate to the coldest part of the Waikato: a spot called Mystery Creek. There they swallow a bit of local grub and beer, splosh around in the gritty sort of mud they have down there, complain about the weather, government and stock prices, and catch up with a few far-flung cronies and, like as not, neighbours. A few days later, they return home with a mountain of glossy brochures and perhaps the odd piece of shiny new machinery.
This annual ritual has been taking place for the last 27 years, and its popularity is rapidly increasing. No longer is it just the farmers congregating. If present trends continue, within just a few short decades everyone in the country could be assembling for the New Zealand National Agricultural Fieldays.
In our increasingly urbanised and telemesmerised society, those who make their living from the land are a small and not very visible minority. In popular culture Wal, Fred Dagg, Edna—the farmer is often portrayed as the slow-witted oaf with a streak of cunning. Clad in hairy black bushman’s singlet and gumboots, with only a tenuous grasp on anything that doesn’t contain beer, he is Homer Simpson minus the sophistication and the savvy kids. Farmers enjoy the caricature as much as anyone.
The Fieldays at Mystery Creek undermine this image. Amble in through the orange entry booths and you are confronted with a bewildering city of stands this year 1008, up from half that number in 1988. Yet it is not so much the number of stands, but the diversity of wares and services displayed that is truly mind-boggling.
Successful farmers need to be at least acquainted with a fair measure of it all. Silage preservatives, family trusts, grass varieties, foreign exchange movements, spraying equipment, fertilisers, farm accounting computer packages, electric fencing products, bale wrappers, animal health remedies, cultivators, soil aerators, fungicides, welding gear, pregnancy testers, cattle dehorners and hay conditioners, along with pest control, tractor safety and maintenance, sire selection, public liability insurance, effluent disposal and the ramifications of the Health and Safety in Employment Act, to mention but a smattering.
The Mystery Creek Fieldays are a giant agricultural showcase and supermarket, where all these things and much more are on display, and the farmer can view the latest offerings and decide whether any of it will improve his operation or make life easier.
Not that everything on display is agricultural. At the eastern end of the site are 120 stands offering just about anything imaginable. Even within the main agricultural section there is plenty to entice the non-farmer. Rainwear, jerseys, lawnmowers, gardening tools, dog accessories, real estate, computers, mobile phones, universities peddling their courses, emu oil cosmetics, Crocodile Dundee hats, even cars. Rather than representing purely farming para‑phernalia,the Fieldays offer most things that a farmer and his family might want.
Should you tire of browsing and buying, there is plenty else to do. Watch a product demonstration or a sheep dog trial. Catch a lecture on floral art, self defence, how to avoid back injuries, home weather forecasting, home banking or possum industry development.
If you hanker for something even less mainstream, take a boat ride on the Waikato River that flows along one edge of the site, or ascend for an overview in one of the numerous helicopters incessantly whumping around.
“Just eight weeks ago we took out the prize for the world’s number one invention at the trade fair in Geneva. Won against all sorts of electronic devices, computers, everything. First time it’s been won by anyone from Australasia. Now we’ll show you why. With this little gadget you can get a pull of three times, five times, even six times your own strength.”
Already a hundred people are craning their necks to see what the fast-talking Australian is on about. It’s called the Master Hitch, and it is impressive. Resembling a tie rack with a couple of hooks facing forward, and no bigger than the palm of the hand, the device mimics the action of a block and tackle at a fraction the weight and cost.
“Ever been bogged out in the bush, needed to tie down a load, had to lift something heavy?” The crowd gaze at him in bovine silence. The salesman invites a solid male to try and lift a car motor. “Yesterday I told a bloke that there was a $100 note under this. When he couldn’t hoist it with the rope over the bar, he tried to knock it over with his foot.” Of course, with the Master Hitch in place a nineyear-old child is able to raise the motor.
At the end of the 10-minute demonstration there is no great rush to buy. I feel momentarily sorry for the salesman, but within minutes he’s back into the routine again. And again. In fact, over four days he’s there working the crowd most of the time, although another guy gives him a spell periodically.
When I eventually corner him sipping a coffee, I’m surprised to learn that he’s the inventor of the tool. I’d never thought of inventors having to be their own salesmen, but showing and selling are what the Fieldays really boil down to. Some 40 Australian enterprises are offering wares at this year’s show.
Purveyors of large items like balers and tractors—there seem to be a thousand models on offer—take a more laid back approach to selling. Only if you drool over their machine so long that rust starts breaking out, or put your kids at the controls, do they perk up. Salesmen can be distinguished from farmers by their natty jackets, lack of gumboots and frequent use of neckties. They stand around in groups laughing a lot. The few I talk to tell me that, contrary to popular belief, almost no actual sales of more expensive items are made at the Fieldays. “It’s not like the old days back at Te Rapa,” one Fieldays veteran tells me. “Then you could sit a cocky on a tractor, hook on an implement of some kind and he’d pay you and drive off. Now everyone has a trade-in to be assessed for a start, and deals take months to sew up.”
Tractor racing is the biggest crowd-puller at the Fieldays, but it is more akin to giant snail racing than the speedway. Top speeds reached are perhaps 25 kph, because each of the racers is handicapped by a large weight on a sled towed behind the tractor.
At the finish line of the hundred-metre-long course is a large banner proclaiming “Massey University Finish.” A parable of university education perhaps—students struggling under huge burdens towards a distant graduation?
Stephen Reymer, a driver for a local contractor, and winner of the event in 1990, set me straight on the connection. “Drivers with tractors of 50 to 112 hp can enter the event. Massey University people determine each tractor’s power output with a dynamometer, and then calculate the load to go on the sled, so that all contestants’ machines are evenly handicapped and the race is a test of driving skill. The only rule is that all four wheels have to remain firmly on the ground at all times. Beyond that, it’s up to you—two- or four-wheel-drive, turbo or not, tyre pressures, dual rear wheels, where you put ballast on the tractor. Really, you want a very flat torque to engine speed curve, because the start is the hardest and you need most power then. Turbos are not so good because they only kick in at higher engine speeds. Four-wheel-drives are a bit easier to set up. With too much weight on the front of a two-wheel-drive, the front wheels are just ploughing through the ground. Even so, two-wheel-drive tractors often win.”
The laden sledges—weighing close to five tonnes for the 111 hp tractor that Stephen Reymer uses—leave the dark sandy surface compacted and smooth as satin. Two tractors race at a time, and the surface is re-harrowed before every run to provide optimum traction. Stephen doesn’t fare too well this year, but one of his brothers does all right.
Another class of tractor racing—the super-modifieds screams for attention. These drag-race derivatives boast lengthened bodies and the sort of glorified engines that would really get Tim the Toolman Taylor grunting and salivating. At close range their roar is overpowering. One orange six-ton monster belches black smoke as it accelerates down the track.
Most of these behemoths have come from the South Island just for the Fieldays. On Thursday afternoon, the engine of the machine belonging to the Waihora Young Farmers Club blew up. Undeterred, they had a new one flown to Auckland from Canterbury and laboured through the night to be back in the races by midday Friday.
Only a few hundred people-packed metresfrom the tractor racing is an enclosure where a dozen carefully spaced sculptors circle their plump sections of pine trunk, here thrusting, there nibbling, slowly unburying the intricate creations of their imaginations. Decidedly cubist at first, most gradually slim down and acquire grace. Withtime, feathers appear on the upraised wings of an eagle, a horse’s head acquires a mane, dolphins and penguins develop a woody if not watery sleekness. A recognisable Elvis throttles his guitar, NZL 32 sails again, and a truck and trailer take the field along with an All Black and a rather Neanderthal-looking axeman. That it’s all accomplished with a chainsaw (with a bit of quick rasping and sandpapering at the end) remains hard to credit.
Afterwards, all the pieces are auctioned for the benefit of St John’s Ambulance. Most fetch $150-$200—pretty cheap for the hours of work and skill involved, but perhaps not every home would have the right spot for one of these Mystery Creek masterpieces.
Chainsaw sculpting has long been popular at Fieldays, but in a dome at the opposite end of the ground an event only in its second year is pulling in the masses: wearable agricultural art. I’m expecting . . . well, I’m not too sure: something amusing, probably a bit rough around the edges, a whiff of manure. I’m completely wrong. The Drury Lane Dance Company features a half-dozen young females clad in gear that has never brightened any cowshed.
Before the gumbooted and Swanndried (but not unappreciative) crowd, they run through a slick menu of cabaret-style dance items, interspersed with the nine entries in the Ag Art contest modelled by dancers. Entries include “Shady Lane,” a stylish assemblage of Donaghy’s bird netting and shade cloth, with lashings of twine, “Natural Woman,” decked out in possum, ostrich and emu products, and an ensemble featuring a cape made of plastic fly spray and drench containers and an outfit covered by sheep lice remedy ads. It’s true: the only difference between us and the animals is that we know how to accessorise.
After one item, a couple of men attired as farmhands appear on small quad bikes, mustering the girls and driving them off stage like a mob of wayward ewes.
Ostriches and emus the current heirs to Boer goats, llamas, alpaca and angora rabbits as exotic (read expensive) livestock of the season—cropped up in several stands at the Fieldays. A single ostrich egg (about the size of an infant’s head) would provide a Jonah Lomu-sized breakfast, but with three-month-old chicks fetching $22,500, you may consider abstaining some days.
The birds that were on display looked pretty straggly, like overgrown moulting turkeys. According to the brochures, though, mature birds yield 30 kg of no-fat, low-calorie meat (supposed to fetch the farmer $30 a kilo), and a hide that becomes a very superior leather and brings in another $500. If you would prefer the birds to be looked after for you, that option is available at around $40 a week. and insurance premiums run from 9 to 16 per cent depending on the age of the bird.
Those all-important golden eggs start being laid when females reach two years of age, and hopefully you will get 20 or 30 chicks a year. Even if the price drops a bit, the brochures assure me that I’ll still make a killing. I take a couple of brochures. You never know.
The ostrich’s cousin the emu has all the above, and more. Emu oil is said to be that elusive emollient that will impart an eternal baby-like smoothness and softness to skin. Here at Mystery Creek it is presented in myriad formulations contained in small costly pots. I’ve never heard of most of the other ingredients. A facial toner and cleanser contains “emulatum (the bird oil), the ultimate natural skin emollient for exceptional softness and suppleness, multifruit extract to increase cell turnover, reducing lines to make you look younger, polyanionic biopolymer to control and balance facial sebum, Yucca extract, excellent anti-inflammatory and moisturisation properties; also contains glycopeptide mineral complex and witch-hazel.”
Emu Velve contains emulatum blended with deer velvet. It has the alluring possibility of “enhancing the user’s pheromones.” There were dozens more products. Quite a few of the partners of the blokes watching the tractor racing seem to be here, smearing on a dab of this and a blob of that, sniffing, doubtless checking out those pheromones. Still, its a bit disconcerting that those emu don’t look better with all that emulatum inside.
Back in the real world of non-investor animals, the various cattle breed societies are busy promoting their blood lines. Several stands have a few bored stud animals munching hay. Murray Greys, Salers, Angus, Simmental, Texas Longhorns, Limousin, Piedmontese, Gelbvieh, Maine Anjou, Belgium Blue—each breed boasts high fertility, easy calving, unmatched growth rates, high-yielding tender carcasses and the promise of maximum profits for their delighted owners. I collect a bevy of brochures. The Piedmontese breeders offer Piedmontese steak sandwiches and Piedmontese sausages alongside their animals, a conjunction that a couple of schoolgirls waiting in the food queue describe as “mean.”
Not far from the cattle displays a possum the size of a grizzly bear identifies the entrance to the Possum Busters area. Atop a 10-metre pole sits a four-wheeled farm bike. At its base, a slightly grimy real live possum catcher is collecting possum tails in plastic bags from small boys, and in exchange issuing tickets to a draw for the bike. As of 11 A.M. Saturday, they had 61,101 tails in the bottom of a giant measuring cylinder.
Inside the tent are a range of sales and informational displays. Many feature ways of eliminating possums: rifle, poisons, lethal injection, electric shock—we seem to have adopted just about all the modes of despatch known to the American criminal justice system. On one stand, spectators crowd about a video showing the lethal-sounding Electrostrike in action. Powered by a large sealed battery, this trap kills a possum feeding on bait by electrocution, then drops the corpse through a trapdoor and automatically readies itself for the next customer. Greg Linton, one of the developers, tells me that it is the only trap on the market that can kill multiple possums in a night.
From another stand I learn that by using Talon (a popular poison) dispensed in 500 bait stations over five months, up to 98 per cent of the possums have been killed on 31 hill farms (16,000 hectares) inland from Tolaga Bay at a total cost of $1.30 per hectare. I can’t poison the mice in my kitchen for that!
Escaping from the crush inside the tent with a few more brochures, I pass a possum skinning display and find Val Keightley and Noeline Stewart enjoying a bite to eat outside. From their base in Taupo they make possum fur hats in a variety of styles on a 1920s sewing machine, but business here is pretty quiet.
Some of the hats feature panels of possum fibre spun into yarn, then knitted. Joe Dunn of Furdown in Te Awamutu is responsible for the fibre. He has some knitted garments on display. The colours resemble wool from coloured sheep, and there is some wool in the blend to give stretch, but the fabric has a much softer feel than wool. Joe explains: “Each possum fur fibre is in two parts: a hollow crimped flexible base staple, and then a solid shiny tip that sheds water. It’s the perfect fibre for outdoor use—warm, light, yet water-resistant. Fur pulls easily off a freshly dead possum in little clumps, and we keep those clumps in our spinning.”
Joe, a keen possum hunter, has been involved with the fibre project for three years. “Their fur is the best thing that comes out of the bush,” he says.
Over the four days that the Fieldays run, more than 125,000 visitors put in an appearance, including more than 3000 from 49 overseas countries. Not all look sturdy farming stock. Among the gumboots and work boots a few highish heels teeter. Business suits, jackets and ties aren’t abundant, but this year the chirps of mobile phones compete with the whir of helicopters overhead.
A peculiarity of Fieldays crowds is that every second person carries a metre-long fibreglass wand—actually a type of electric fencing post—to use as a walking stick. And there is a lot of walking to do. After four intensive days, trudging around the 30 hectares occupied by stalls from before 8 A.M. until after 5 P.M. each day, I still failed to see some of the displays I’d meant to visit.
Manager Barry Quayle tells me that the Fieldays generate $110 million in business, both during and after the event. Sites cost $10,000-$15,000 to rent, but, compared to the sales potential, that’s only “petty cash.”
“The ostrich folk have had over a million dollars in sales this year,” he says. The record is a fertiliser company that took $9 million in orders three years ago.
I move on. Onion toppers and potato harvesters, dairy shed detergents, shadehouses, a three-wheeled all-terrain pushchair, climbing lilies, portable sawmills, poultry houses and dog kennels, Lazy Devil drive-through gates, goatsmilk soap, glider trailers, a sheep pregnancy scanning crate and vehicles of all sorts vie for my attention.
Fieldays have afforded a great platform for viewing the continuing evolution of farm vehicles. In the beginning was the Landrover/Jeep. Then the Trekka, Gnat, ute and farm bike. The first bikes were two-wheelers: knobbly tyred versions of road bikes with beefed up suspensions. Then came fat-tyred three-wheelers, and, about ten years ago, the first four-wheelers or quads, also known as ATVs. These could tow a trailer and didn’t churn up the ground. Farmers loved them.
But heftier models are now expensive ($10,000-plus), and can’t match the load-carrying ability of a ute or tractor—and the driver’s out in the weather. A few have come to sport diesel engines, and others well-sided trays like mini-utes, perhaps with five or six wheels. Now a Te Anau engineer is producing a true mini-ute for the same money. The Stallion has a fibreglass body, can seat at least two on a bench in the cab, has permanent 4WD, ATV-like tyres and is built with secondhand components from common small cars.
The distributors cheerfully drive it up slopes that I’d hesitate to tackle on a quad. It’s the final link in a new continuum between farm bike and ute. I accept a brochure, this one a no-frills one-page photocopy. It matches the product.
Inventions, prototypes and new product releases are three interlocked aspects of Fieldays that hold a lot of appeal for farmers. There is nothing like seeing someone else’s fresh solution to a problem to stir up your own imagination, and farmers are always keen to find better ways of doing things.
Inventions are the first stage, often still moist with creative juice, perhaps with a few wrinkles to be ironed out, and on display for comment, not sale. After a year of tinkering, hopefully a fully functional prototype will have emerged, and expressions of interest or orders are now welcome. New releases will be under some sort of manufacture—often by the inventor in his shed—usually having passed through one or both of the preceding stages.
Among the prototypes this year is the “Wickham Easy Crutcher,” developed by retired Tauranga farmer and inventor Les Wickham. Sheep move along a race elevated to waist height, and are snared one by one in a head bail. The section of race containing the held sheep is then rotated through a right angle, so the sheep’s daggy backside is right there in your face, allowing you to clean up its coiffure without putting your back out. Len has a couple of more straightforward devices on offer as well: non-return “valves” for stock in races and a batten-holder for easy stapling of battens on to fences.
Patenting is often a problem for small operators. It is too expensive for most of them to obtain much more than temporary local protection. The Patent Office has a stand to let inventors know that they can do some of the patent searching themselves, saving a bit of money.
Many products are not sufficiently novel to be patentable, but are nonetheless worthwhile. One such is the Supa Scraper. It has been estimated that there are 15,000 cow sheds in New Zealand, and each requires some 10,000 litres of water each day for hosing manure out of the yards, and that dirty water then constitutes the bulk of the effluent problem associated with dairying. The Supa Scraper resembles the sort of trolley gas bottles are wheeled around on, but with a broad strip of tough rubber along the bottom. With it you push the sloppy stuff around—even uphill—and cleaning up the shed takes only half as long. Water use is cut by two-thirds. It’s simple. It’s great.
At the opposite end of the machinery development spectrum is the Wessex Agriculture stump chipper. This monster has been put together in Christchurch over the last couple of years at a cost of $750,000. On confronting it, the universal reaction is to stop and gape. Bulky as a locomotive, it dwarfs even the largest tractors. The length must be close to 13 metres, and it looks four to five metres high. The cab can be raised and lowered, and six headlights, like spiders’ eyes, protrude from beneath the edge of the roof. The machine rests on eight fat tyres, and at the front is an enormous toothed roller. One 250 hp motor drives the wheels, and a second 38-litre twin turbo V12 1050 hp motor turns the roller at about 400 rpm. The whole carcass of the thing, including the drum, can tilt to either side. The only machine of its type in the country, it is designed to grind up stumps, mainly in peat country.
Owner, designer, and operator Harvey Rickard tells me that it’s still under development. He is planning to replace the front tyres with steerable tracks to lower the ground pressure to 3.5 psi, which should allow him to get almost anywhere without sinking.
“Peat is very spongy and it shrinks,” he says. “Over, say, 20 years, 16 feet of peat will shrink to become only one foot of topsoil, and as this happens the stumps mainly kahikatea get repeatedly exposed. In swampy ground they never rot. We grind up the whole surface of the paddock to a depth of 0.3-0.5 m to get even the stumps we can’t see. With this machine I hope to cover one to oneand-a-half acres an hour, at a charge-out rate of about $700/hour. With a couple of other drivers, we try and run our present tractor-towed machine 15-18 hours a day at least nine months of the year.”
It’s a demanding life. Although based in Te Puke, Harvey and his family were last there in 1993. “My wife and kids travel with the work, living in a Portacom building on site—Hauraki plains, Hawkes Bay, Dargaville, Taranaki, Kaitaia, Manawatu, Waikato, you name it.”
Harvey tells me that he is the only person in the North Island doing this sort of work, and there is no shortage of stumps to grind. “I got the new machine to help me catch up, but I’ve got a million dollars of new business just through appearing at the Fieldays.”
Not every cocky has a stump problem, but reliable fences are one of the cornerstones of farming, and the Golden Pliers contest—the national fencing finals is held at Mystery Creek each year. The eight singles finalists for 1995 all look lean and hard, although many of them can’t be that young: Nick Liefting of Pukekohe, seventeenth time in the final; Alan Schuler, five times winner and fifteenth year in the final. All the gear here is well used; nothing shiny and unproven. Each contestant has to erect a 50 m fully battened nine-wire fence containing a steel gate, and it takes three or four hours of hard work.
“The effort involved in building each fence today is equivalent to running two marathons,” the commentator says. The pace is steady, not frantic, for quality of construction rather than speed will determine the winner. Ground conditions are gritty pumice, easy digging compared with clay. Alan Schuler reckons he can dig post holes as quickly as he can use a motorised auger (which all the other competitors prefer), and it saves him lugging about a bit of heavy gear.
Competitions such as this result in overseas work for our top fencers. Paul van Beers, last year’s winner, has at least nine miles of fence to erect in Minnesota shortly, and it will not be his first overseas fencing job. Our use of unbarbed high-tensile wire in strong yet relatively light fences leads the world.
Colin Culshaw of Hawkes Bay, the senior fencing judge, shows me what to look for in the competitors’ fences. “The gate has to be horizontal (checked with a level) and free to swing right back against the fence one way and open to at least 45 degrees the other way. The knots tying off the fence on the end posts must all be even. It is usually 30 mm from the post to the start of the knot, and then another 50 mm until the wire is broken off at the other end of the knot.” He measures it. “Where the stay is inserted into the strainer, the stay must be smoothly planed and a tight fit so no water can get in. Battens must be even in height and spaced at 960 mm. This one is well out.” He pulls the tape out again from under his white coat. “Yep, it’s 30 mm out. And that batten over there is far too low.” I am quite unable to determine which is the slovenly batten. “Because on slopes the batten is supposed to be perpendicular to the slope, the spacing at the top of the batten could deviate from 960 mm, so we measure batten spacing half way up the fence. Battens must not be stapled in the centre, but towards the outside edges so that they cannot be twisted off.”
Although Nick Liefting completes his fence an hour ahead of anyone else, Paul van Beers wins by a point from Alan Schuler, the same result as last year. Results don’t appear until a few hours after the contestants finish. The strength of all fences has to be tested first—by a bulldozer! The contest is not all aesthetics.
I wind my way back past a hydroponic stand, with plants growing in bags of clay balls like dried peas. Kids queue to roar around a hay-bale-padded rink on mini-quads, pursued by reps trying to keep within grabbing range of the pull cord that stops the bike. I watch a bale wrapper in action—an elaborate tractor attachment that rotates a bale while tightly swathing it in plastic film. A farrier is hammering red-hot steel for Clydesdale shoes. Once he has struck up a rhythm with the hammer, he seems unable to break it, for he keeps whacking the anvil even while he repositions the glowing bar.
I pass stands offering pumps, offal cookers, wood splitters, portable sawmills, waterblasters. Time is running out on the last day, and there is still so much I haven’t seen. My bag of brochures is getting heavier. The rep on one machinery stall tells me that he thinks the Fieldays have to be careful where they are headed. “Seeing everything in a day is impossible, and many so-called agricultural stands are selling things like lawnmowers that aren’t really farming gear. The real farmers are in danger of getting lost among all the stalls, and there is a risk of attracting too many people who aren’t into farming, which means that it is not worth us coming here.”
I could see what he meant—even before I plunged into the maze of non-Ag displays. Investment plates, spa pools, Outward Bound, Maori art, water purifiers, gemstones, the Bamboo Society, vacuum cleaners, clothing. Sandwiched between a popular stall promoting metal detectors and underground radar, and another advancing the virtues of a product that scrapes condensation from windows and pet fur from furnishings, is the Labour Party, proclaiming jobs, growth and health for all. Across the aisle, St Paul’s Collegiate School offers traditional values and a future of opportunities.
Unsettled by all these promises, I collapse into a chair at Ezy-Life Promotions for a “Biocomfort therapeutic foot massage” administered by a small German-made machine a bit smaller than a set of bathroom scales. I’ve needed this for days.
How much?. . . Well, I’ll have to think about it. But I’d love a brochure.