Anthony (Tony) Michael Connor Interview
Today is the 1st of the 3rd 2016, and I’m interviewing Tony Connor about the life and times of his family in this area. Tony would you like to tell us your story?
My grandfather, John Joseph Connor, was born in Cloghleagh, County Kerry, in 1860, and emigrated with his sister to Australia, subsequently – two years later – sailed to Petone, and then to Napier. He heard that there was work to be had in Central Hawke’s Bay and stayed the night at Fernhill, walked across the Ngaruroro River to Roys Hill, where the river now flows. He worked in Central Hawke’s Bay and developed a small intensive cropping farm. He was a member of the first committee who started the Takapau Ploughing Club. With other farmers he imported a vet to service the district, and was the first in this area. Wheat, oats, barley and chaff were the main crops on the intensive cropping farm.
He married Christina Morrison of Ashley Clinton, and produced three sons and two daughters.
In 1907 Prime Minister Coates was a guest of Walter Shrimpton, owner of Matapiro, adjacent to where we now live. And from the upstairs verandah Coates inquired of Walter Shrimpton where the boundaries were, and he said “as far as you can see”, whereupon Prime Minister Coates vowed to break up such properties and make the land more available to potential farmers. Within a year this legislation was put through Parliament. Walter Shrimpton had insufficient children to qualify for ownership of the land he held.
Omapere, four thousand two hundred acres, was sold to my grandfather, being the less fertile and less developed area of Matapiro at the time. An old cottage sufficed to live in while woolshed and sheep yards were built, and cattle yards and a homestead followed in 1910.
Two horse plough teams were bred and maintained to grow oats, chaff, hay, fodder crops, rape, turnips, lucerne and huge cattle pumpkins, which were fed in situ as they were too big to be lifted. The Takapau sandy loam soils in this area of low rainfall make supplementary feed essential, and still does. Droughts vary in duration and limit farm production. Many pine trees were planted in the form of plantations to provide shelter for crops and stock from the prevailing westerly wind.
Tragically my grandfather, John Joseph Connor, died aged forty-eight, two years of arriving at Omapere, leaving my grandmother to farm with employed staff until my father, Maurice Clifford Connor, returned from working in Australia, shearing and driving wool wagons. With younger brothers Frank and John, they farmed the property successfully until 1929, when my grandmother retired to Auckland, having sold the central part of the property for six Returned Servicemen’s farms, John Connor taking nine hundred acres area at the end of Ohiti Road end of the property, and my father retaining six hundred and forty acres off Matapiro Road, in six paddocks with no buildings.
During the war rabbits were out of control and ate more grass than the sheep. With a single man helping, sixty thousand skins were sold over a three year period of poisoning using Jim Wattie’s personally made apple rabbit jam, with strychnine poisoning in phosphorised pellets, and trapping. My father skinned and trapped rabbits as a hobby each weekend for the Hastings butchers’ shops. My mother delivered these en route to my primary school, St Joseph’s, by 9 am on Monday mornings. Being a self-taught amateur blacksmith-engineer with a farm to fence and water, and with little money, some pioneering instincts emerged.
My grandfather, as he was able, sent money – approximately £10 for passage from Ireland to New Zealand to bring four other members of his family here, one being a cousin, Norah, whose husband died early in their married life, but whose son was a rear gunner in the Dambusters raid over Germany toward the end of the War. Their plane crashed and everyone presumed lost, but his mother didn’t believe that was the case, so she steadfastly carried on until after the War when her son John had been able to be passed through the underground network, down to Portugal and then to England on a fishing boat, and was able to ring his mother and say that he’d be home soon.
On my grandfather’s property, at Mangapohio at Burnside, Takapau, the famous racehorse Moifaa was bred, trained locally by the Ellingham family, subsequently won all the jumping races and steeplechase races in New Zealand, and was sold to the Gollan family and taken to England and prepared for the Grand National. Moifaa to this day is the only horse that has come from New Zealand or Australia to England, and achieved this success. Recently the horse – Moifaa – has been inducted into the Hall of Fame from 1904, which is a hundred and eleven years later. Just recently the achievement has been recognised.
My father developed a Clydesdale stud and imported a sire from Scotland. Omapere needed and had two four-horse teams to grow all the necessary crops, which operated in its entirety. When my parents came to live on this property in 1947, tractors were just emerging and my father was one of the first to own a tractor in the district at the time. It was a McCormick Deering W6 with no hydraulics, but did a huge amount of work on the property, and we still own it.
Well, that’s interesting. They were big – just hauling tractors weren’t they?
Yes, they were.
One stroke, petrol motor.
Full complement of implements with the plough and discs, harrows, a Cambridge roller and a Booth MacDonald drill.
Yes. And so thistles – were they ever a problem in this area?
Yes they were, but sprays and spraying really hadn’t – or was just emerging on the scene at that time, and subsequently made a huge difference to farming efficiency.
So what about other ground crops? You said at some stage you started to grow some cereals and rye grass …
The only cropping that was done seriously on these relatively dry soils was barley and oats. With rabbits under control subsequent to a huge input from the pest Boards and farmers themselves after the War, farm production increased. Wool prices were very good at that time. Things progressed in a fairly orderly manner. The 1951 wool boom was fortuitous for some of the Returned Servicemen in this area in that they had a huge income which they could help to pay off their mortgage.
My parents farmed this property well until 1964 when they wished to retire, and I was back from overseas experience. Having been to primary school in Hastings I went to St Patrick’s College, Silverstream, and subsequently did an Agriculture Diploma at Massey College, after which I worked around New Zealand on various farms in different parts of the country, travelled overseas with a friend that I worked with in New Zealand for two years, and returned when my parents wished to retire in 1964. The last lecture that I was given at Massey College by the sheep husbandry lecturer, was that we should travel and bring some more genes back to New Zealand to infuse here, and I did that because my wife, Jenny, I met on a ship going to England. Her home was in London and the transition must have been quite dramatic to come to farming in this region in 1964 when we were married in Wimbledon.
We had a profit of £24 the first year, because we encountered one of the worst droughts that this district had suffered in recent times. I saw the need for extra income so I started a hay contracting business, and subsequently over twenty-five years made a million bales of hay in this area in collaboration with our farming operation.
Those days you were mowing with the sickle bar mowers …
Yes we were, and things were pretty … pretty simple. But the weather was on our side mostly, because being a dry area with a low rainfall meant that we could make good hay most of the time, and it was a very important part of the farming operation to protect yourself from drought conditions, so we always had on hand about five thousand bales of hay.
So what sort of balers and tractors did you have?
We started with – well we always had New Holland balers and upgraded them to keep pace with the demand for the haymaking job. Massey Ferguson tractors to begin with; subsequently John Deere tractors. We made seventy acres of lucerne for racehorse stables who demanded hay that hadn’t been damaged by rain, which was a specialist business. We employed a Massey student over the summer vacation which was our busiest time. Our other basic farm production was export lambs and beef from fattening heifers.
So how many lambs would you normally get away per year?
We had a flock of about eighteen hundred to two thousand ewes, and if we were lucky we got a hundred per cent lambing, but sometimes less than that depending on the mating season, facial eczema being a problem often in the autumn with humid weather conditions.
So did the pattern of farming change much when you took over the farm? Did you change the type of sheep or the type of cattle?
We changed from Romney sheep to Coopworth sheep to increase the fertility, which was successful. We were breeding our own replacements at that time, which was difficult in dry land conditions. We started growing crops. We grew barley for grain – incorporated in a regrassing programme – to get better species of grasses growing subsequent to growing barley crops, which we harvested with a co-operative system in the district. Somebody owned the harvester, and we had a truck and two other farmers had trucks, so we were able to do our own transport directly to a poultry farmer, the Keighley Poultry Farms in Haumoana, mostly. We carried along these lines until my oldest son came back from overseas, and we farmed together and put in irrigation on three hundred acres of the property, which was from a water consent from the Ngaruroro River, which made all the difference to our whole farming operation when we were able to grow grass through the summer.
Subsequently we’ve grown sweetcorn for one of the canning factories on a regular basis, and in more recent times we have developed a calf-rearing operation to supply bulls for leasing to dairy farms in the Waikato. Our two sons have become involved five years ago in intensifying our farming operation to the extent where we now lease other properties in order to grow enough bulls to supply the market demand in the Waikato, for natural mating service bulls to dairy farms, which go for six weeks in the late spring for mating, and subsequently either come back to us as yearlings, or are sold for slaughter directly from the Waikato.
Tony, you made mention earlier that … first year you started rearing calves you started with twenty, and now you’re in excess of two thousand a year. That’s a pretty big operation. There must have been some growing pains, or something?
Fortunately our youngest son, Michael, had banking experience and farm advisory experience in Taranaki before working his way around the world and coming back on the farm. So there’s a substantial asset in the logistics of organising the correct bulls to the correct farmer at the correct time. So it’s grown – the business has grown quite quickly but we’ve been able to organise the logistics of it successfully.
And this would all be done with milk powder?
All our rearing of the calves … we rear a thousand calves here at Omapere on reconstituted milk powder, and they’re housed for five weeks before going out on the grass to be given pellets … high protein pellets … to ensure that they grow to a hundred kilos as quickly as possible before they’re weaned altogether onto grass.
So that was a pretty prudent move, being associated with the dairy world, because the dairy world‘s come through a very profitable time. But I guess they will still need replacements, and they’ll still need bulls. And this should keep on going long term, shouldn’t it?
Yes, they do need bulls every year at the time that they order them. We endeavour to supply the market requirements, but I think this year it will fall short. And it appears to be an ongoing business because it is a cheaper way for the dairy farm to service their cows than it is for them to own bulls which eat grass on their property all year round. [Phone rings]
That’s fascinating. So off farm interests – have you been a golfer, are you involved in any community groups? Federated Farmers or Young Farmers Clubs?
I was in the Young Farmers organisation for many years and was a representative on the Farm Information Centre, which was created in the culmination of Federated Farmers and Young Farmers Club resources in Hawke’s Bay, with an employment officer who endeavoured to place staff available with farms that needed it, which operated for some ten years until the economic downturn in the middle eighties.
I’ve been involved with an intellectually handicapped group, Heretaunga Land Skills, for some twelve years until recently when we amalgamated it to the Greenmeadows Intellectually Handicapped Group.
I’ve always been keen on tramping and hunting and travel which seems to be a disease in our family because they all … all our kids have travelled extensively.
No, I’ve never been involved in golf.
And you live closer to a golf club than most people do.
Yeah, we did have a golf club in our district of nine holes which was very successful, but my farming demands seem to preclude that – I’m not sure whether that’s the right order we got things, but …
Now what about your fleet of boats – almost makes you a Rear Admiral doesn’t it?
Because we live on the Ngaruroro River, boating seemed to be an obvious recreation which I’ve participated in since 1970, when I bought a Hamilton boat and put it together over the years and still use it to this day. My eldest son, Pete, had Riverside Jet, which was a tour business on the river for some years until he got too busy. And he and his friend locally built on our property at the river level one of the six New Zealand Jet Sprint competition courses, which is every year in March for one day. And we have between seven hundred and a thousand people come to watch.
When you build a jet sprint, would they need a tracked excavator to dig out the channels?
My son and his friend learned to drive diggers very proficiently, because they were cheap to hire if you didn’t have a driver. So they’ve actually built the course with hired machinery and now that it’s all up and running, there’s only some small maintenance to be done.
So that means it never floods out?
No, no – it’s in a paddock near the river, and the river dictates the levels. So we have permanent water available at the correct level all the time.
Now while we’re talking about water, you made reference earlier that you put in an irrigation scheme to irrigate three hundred acres – is that by a centre pivot? By underground?
We have two centre pivot irrigators, one which does two hundred acres and one does a hundred acres. They operate automatically when necessary, and we use water measurements to dictate the amount of water that’s required. Yes, we just apply the necessary minimum to maintain the optimum grass growth.
And they’re all with the drop sprinklers?
Yes, they’re very efficient aren’t they?
They are very efficient, and if it wasn’t for that our calf rearing operation wouldn’t be nearly so successful.
So now you’ve set these boys up and you’re looking to do things – as you said, you come out and you’re the dogsbody around the farm – you’ll do any job that’s going?
Yes, well I seem to be a full time odd-job man when I’m available, and if I’m not available that’s bad luck. But the system works very well. We have a wonderful working relationship between my sons and myself, and we all seem to enjoy doing what we’re doing.
That’s wonderful really. Now just coming back to Jenny, you said you were married in Wimbledon – was that Wimbledon, England?
Yes, ’cause we’ve got a Wimbledon in … Southern Hawke’s Bay.
Oh yes, in Southern Hawke’s Bay – we have, yeah.
Yes. She’s obviously worked very closely with you over the years here, and has obviously adjusted to a dry country. She will have some interests as well?
Yes she has, gardening has been a major hobby and she’s created an excellent garden at our farm property. We now have a house – a small house – in Hastings, and she enjoys gardening, the Rose Society, and seems to be a champion marmalade maker for the Red Cross and other charities.
Yes – well that’s good. Well look, what say we just leave that at this time, and can we go and have a wander ..?
Yeah, yeah – no, that’d be good.
… and then we can come back and stitch in anything we think about.
Yeah, yep, yep.
Well we’ve just come in from looking around the farm and now it’s time for Tony to tell us some more. But before he does, I was amazed at how much of this six hundred and forty acre farm is flat. There’s calves and sheds, there’s young bulls, young heifers, there’s black cows, there’s white – black and whites – it’s all there. Thing that impressed me – that we were down on the river flats and we were looking back to the cliffs. They’d obviously formed the banks of a very, very deep lake that was there many years ago before it broke away down towards Ohiti.
And it was interesting just looking at the profile of the soil. This is red metal country, but it’s got a healthy layer of reasonably fertile soil on top of it – looked as good as down in the Heretaunga Plains. So Tony – might be some things that you think of that you might like to talk about?
The original cover on our river flat on the banks of the Ngaruroro River was covered in Old Man Gorse, and had to be removed. So the procedure was to cut with the slasher by hand, leave it for two years and then plough the crowns of the gorse out with a single furrow plough and four horses, which was done progressively. And the weeds were put into a windrow and then burnt. And that was quite a laborious, time consuming operation, but very necessary. And now that land is in full production and with irrigation on it. Did I mention before about making concrete posts or not?
No, you didn’t.
After the war my father managed to find three tons of cement that was supposedly water damaged in Napier, which he purchased cheaply and got Cyril Wilkie, the carrier, to bring out to the farm. F L Bone the plumber made up the moulds for concrete posts – line posts for fencing – and also made the moulds for making five hundred gallon concrete water troughs, which my father proceeded to do with shingle from the Kikowhero Stream which is nearby, shovelling it onto the truck by hand and then off into a concrete mixer which was driven with a belt pulley on the side of the truck, and proceeded to make a trough for every paddock on the farm, and all the line posts for the fencing on the farm. He also made a collapsible mould for making strainer posts which were cast in the ground by digging the hole, planting the reinforcing and then putting this box on above the ground, filling it with concrete and setting the gudgeons in for the gates. And we still have many of those in use today.
One thing I noticed Tony, out in the paddock was the old wool wagon … four-wheeled wool wagon that used to sit outside the Rangitaiki Hotel. Would you like to tell us how come it travelled?
The wool wagon, which I have a photograph of, is one of the original wagons that took wool from those coastal stations into the Napier Woolstores, when the woolstores were built and it was no longer possible to lighter bales out to offshore anchored ships on the coast. The wagon had many owners over the years, but spent a lot of time parked at the entrance to the Rangitaiki Hotel on the main road; subsequently went to Neil McDonald in Havelock whose intention was to restore it, but he had other more pressing things to restore, so I’ve ended up with it. And I intend to restore it and make it available to John Bailey who has a wagon museum up the coast near Nuhaka. The substructure is all completely sound, although there are a few rotten parts in the wheels, so with some TLC I’m sure it will look a lot better than it does at the moment.
That sounds as if we’ve got a bit of a picture. And just sitting in Tony and Jenny’s home surrounded by lots of old English and European mature trees – it’s early spring at the moment, there’s no leaves on them or flowers or anything, but this must look a picture in the summer time, and the garden with all its roses.
Yes it certainly does, and we’re lucky now we’ve got some irrigation to keep the plants alive and healthy in the summer. And fortunately we have a water consent so we can keep them in a healthy state, but we are lucky to live in this locality. I’ve discovered over many years of planting trees – ornamental trees especially – on the property, that all oak trees survive the droughts, but many of the other species don’t, so we have a predominance of oak type of trees for that reason.
We have a picnic area at the river where people come and camp in the summer with tents or motor homes or caravans. Because the Island Bulb Company from the Isle of Texel spent four years growing multiplying bulbs here and sending them back to Europe, we had quite a few colourful Asiatic lilies planted both in the garden and at the river at the picnic area, which are very colourful at the beginning of January.
Oh, so that’s why they’re there – because of the bulb growing people?
Yes. Well, there $7 each if you want to buy one, and we’ve got hundreds down there.
Okay, well I think Tony, we can round that off now, and if you think of anything else … because there will be things, we never remember everything. So thank you, Tony.
No, thank you Frank, it’s been a most interesting morning.
We are at February 2016. It is very satisfying for Jenny and I to see Mike and Pete promote and succeed at their farming operations, including the ever-increasing bull leasing business. Jacob, Pete’s eldest son, is working here for a year, and is the fifth generation on the property.