Taranaki hay maker's long history

HAY MAKER: Toko man Neville Cleland has been a hay contractor  since the 1950s.
HAY MAKER: Toko man Neville Cleland has been a hay contractor since the 1950s.

While his farming career is behind him, Neville Cleland's major claim to fame rests with the fact that as either a farmer or commercial contractor, he has baled hay for 60 consecutive seasons. 

Nor is he done yet. Now living in semi-retirement in Stratford, he plans to put his 1967 Massey Ferguson 165 and baler of the same vintage, through their paces for a few seasons to come.

Cleland's foray into commercial hay contracting began in 1953, soon after leaving school. His dad was a third generation farmer on a 400 hectare sheep and beef property at Toko, and like most young men setting out in the world, Neville looked at ways of making money.

Contract hay making or running a few dairy cows seemed at the time, to be the best options, so he opted to do both.

"My dad took me into the bank and went guarantor for a loan which enabled me to buy a second hand 30 hp Massey Harris tractor and a baler of the same make and vintage which had to be cranked to start it. It weighed about two tonnes," he recalls.

"Just a day or two later I paid $160 for two tonnes of baling twine which was railed down from Auckland to Gordon Rd station at Toko. I thought that I was buying enough to last me for a season, but it actually lasted for three."

At the same time, Cleland bought a few dairy cows along with a separator and hand milked them on his dad's property. By the end of his first season he had a herd of seven and could probably lay claim to being the supplier of the smallest volume of milk to the Stratford Dairy Company.

While the herd was small, the returns were excellent, due in no small part to the fact that Cleland's dad made no charge for those 20 hectares of flat land which his son ran his cows on.

In 1953, when Cleland launched his hay contracting business, many farms, especially those on steeper country, still used draft horses for many of the farming operations.

"I sort of came in near the end of that era," he says.

"On one pretty steep property I called at, the farmer had mown the grass with a horse-drawn mower, but there was no way that I could get my tractor and baler on the slope where he was working. I don't think that I could have done it with a crawler tractor.

"Once mown, the grass had to be swept down on to flatter country so that I could put it through the baler."

Cleland can still remember his first client, George Anderson of Toko, for whom he pressed 265 conventional bales of hay. 

"I started out charging one and threepence (15 cents) a bale, but I was forced to drop my price to a shilling (12 cents) because competition loomed," he recalls.

"After that there was no going back and when I finished contracting 22 years later, I was still charging 12 cents a bale.

"Farmers expect to get a fair deal, and most tend to check that they are receiving this by testing the tightness and weight of the bales. The first bale to leave the machine is no indication of what might follow, however, because once it has been pressed and tested, everything gets tightened up from there.

"Similarly with broken bales, the contractor has to keep count of them because at the end of the job these have to be deducted from the final count."

In his first season, Cleland pressed about 9000 bales of hay, and while he didn't advertise his service, someone was saying something nice about him, because this doubled to 20,000 from the second season onward. His main competition came from a firm named Wickstead based at Cardiff, which operated as far eastward as Tututawa.

"I envied them," says Cleland.

"I had a Massey Harris baler which had a Wisconsin motor and had to be hand-cranked, but Wicksteads had the same motor on a Holland baler, and this was started by a battery.

"Most of my work was pretty local, but it has to be remembered that in those times the roads were nowhere near as good as they are now - the tarseal ended at Douglas. From there on, it was gravel roads, which really slowed down progress when I was moving machinery from farm to farm."

While Cleland cites aerial topdressing as the first major breakthrough during his time on the family farm at Toko, it was his father who initially reaped the benefits of it.

"It came around 1952," he says.

"The first Taranaki airstrip from which aircraft operated was at Douglas, but then we got our airstrip going. It made farming so much easier. The biggest problem on our farm was carpet fern, we had bracken fern as well, and the superphosphate gave the soil sufficient fertility for the grass to start to grow through it.

"Dad spread about 100 tonne of superphosphate annually by air and the flats, where we grew our hay, got extra.

"Actually, one year when Dad was developing 20 hectares of flat, swamp country, because of the lack of tracks through the property, we had to get hay dropped by air to isolated cattle. A Cessna flew down from Te Kuiti twice weekly, with three bales of hay sitting on  bomb bays on either wing. The pilot had only to press a button, and the bales would drop."

By 1960, Cleland's hay contracting business was flourishing. There was a new tractor and the aging baler was replaced with a battery start Massey Ferguson model. The seven-cow dairy herd had expanded in number to 57. But the latter brought some new problems.

"After a long day out hay contracting, it was sometimes 9pm by the time I could start milking the cows," says Cleland.

"Getting married that year made the world of difference. Ruth, who was a dairy farmer's daughter, was a God-send. She helped out with the milking, moved the machinery from job to job for me, and sometimes helped out baling hay."

In 1967, Cleland bought his third tractor - a brand new Massey Ferguson 165 - for $3000. He also bought a new baler for $1800, and both are still operating.

It was a year for splashing out. He bought a new, but smaller second Massey Ferguson 135 for general farm work.

While times have changed, and either big round or big square hay bales are commonly made on most Taranaki farms these days, there remains a limited demand for the smaller, conventional bales. This is especially the case for farmers with small holdings or lifestyle blocks.

But while the machinery may have changed, farmers haven't. The weather determines when hay can be cut and baled, and as the proverb goes - "hay needs to be made while the sun shines".

"Farmers can be easy-going for 364 days a year," says Cleland.

"However, when the hay has been mown and teddered and there's a black cloud hovering over the farm, that same farmer's temperament can change dramatically."

ON THE JOB: Neville Cleland baling hay at Huiroa, east of Stratford, earlier this year.
ON THE JOB: Neville Cleland baling hay at Huiroa, east of Stratford, earlier this year.

Taranaki Daily News