Skills from a childhood on the farm still handy

21:58, Dec 09 2011

It wasn't long after World War II that we shifted from Te Mapara to the Otewa Valley, at the back of Otorohanga, and it's there that I can remember some of the first things of farming life.

I have vague recollections of a couple of minor events at Te Mapara (a hill-country area of farmland east of Piopio), but I wasn't yet 5 when we got to Otewa – five of us kids, Mum and Dad, and Grandpa.

Grandpa was a short, nuggety man, given occasionally to cussing with great vehemence his two dogs, Jock and Glen, when they did the wrong thing while working mobs of sheep or cows.

Grandpa used braces to hold up his heavy worsted trousers, and he had a wonderful habit of sticking his thumbs in his braces while he was chatting or taking a breather. I think my brother and I, aged about 3 and 5 respectively, sometimes tried to emulate that hard-rock stance – we had tiny braces, too, which held up our tweed shorts.

Grandpa also wore an ancient fedora hat that sported a dark perspiration ring which spread from the bottom of the crown out across the rim. That hat had a reek that made my mother's nose wrinkle daily.

We had dairy cows and sheep in those days, and I have a stark recollection of Dad and Grandpa docking lambs, using a well-honed Green River knife to dispose of long tails, and a razor-blade and splash of camfosa disinfectant to sharply reduce potential levels of testosterone in the ram lambs.


Docking practices these days are perhaps more humane. But such were the accepted methods of operation.

"Ringing" the pigs was another fairly basic but highly effective operation – a six-inch (15cm) length of No. 8 wire had one end flatted with a hammer, sharpened with a file, and then rammed through the calloused lip at the top of the pig's nose.

The wire was then bent double, held firmly with a pair of pliers, and, with another set of pliers, twisted round itself a couple of times. The pigs took violent exception to such rough treatment, and were wary of any human contact for several days thereafter.

But where there had previously been great clods of dark earth turned over as the pigs searched paddocks for worms and other grubs, there was now clean green sward – and the pigs either sought acorns in season or waited, hungrily grunting and squawking, till feeding time.

Life then, and now, requires farmers to cultivate a fair degree of practical skills, and where today those skills may include using a GPS system to accurately plant a paddock, or manipulate a computer to keep tabs on the daily requirements of stock, earlier days required somewhat different skills.

I can remember Dad and Grandpa hitching up the two semi-draught horses we had – Prince and Darkie, I think they were – with horse-collars, swingletrees, hames, traces and reins, and using those big, quiet, gentle power-houses to snig sodden logs out of the big strip of swamp that ran the length of our farm, effectively cutting it in two.

The logs were left to dry all summer, set up on smaller bits of wood for maximum air flow, and then, in the autumn, Dad and Grandpa cut them into segments a little over two metres long, using the big, humming two-man saw. Other sections of log were cut at about one metre.

The long ones were strainer or fence posts, and were dropped upright into post-holes laboriously dug with sharp spades and long-handled shovels. Those posts were rammed tight and rigid with an Australian hardwood rammer shod with a ring of heavy iron sweated on and then secured with two short bolts.

My grandfather made that rammer, tapering and shaping and smoothing the wood, first with his razor-sharp axe, then with a rasp, and finally with sandpaper, before cutting perfect circles round it with a hand-saw, marking off the height of wires in a seven-wire, sheep-proof fence.

Sixty years on, I've still got that rammer, and it works as well now as ever it did.

They split fencing battens out of the shorter slabs of log, shaving off the thin outer layer of rot until the good wood showed, and then expertly splitting off the outer curve of the timber to create a flat face. Then a "board" would be carefully split from the log, using well placed steel wedges that were driven into the wood progressively, smacked with a hefty maul.

You could hear the wood start to talk and sing as the grain parted cleanly, and suddenly the board would fall away from the main block.

From it three or four or five battens, each about 6x8cm in thickness, were then split away, and the pile of clean, sweet-smelling totara fencing material began to grow.

Nothing was wasted. All the off-cuts and splinters were gathered up as they flew free, and heaped into the sledge or konaki to be taken home for use in the fireplace or wash-house copper.

Other logs were hauled out of the swamp too, with those big horses, and later with the little Fergie 19 tractor we got in the 50s. Those logs, and large quantities of swamp-sodden branches and heavy chips of wood, were all laid out to form two crossings over the swamp.

I have no idea where he got it from, but I think my Grandpa must have borrowed a portable forge, because he built a superb farm trailer from the ground up, using a truck axle and two ancient tyres to which he attached the trailer body.

He constructed it from heavy hardwood planks, angle-iron sides and brackets he'd fashioned himself, and all bolted together. It had a huge, heavy wooden draw-bar shod with a solid iron coupling for hooking on to the tractor tow-bar. That trailer did at least 25 years' service.

Those two men built gates and fences and stockyards and pigsties and pump sheds; they dug drains and birthed cows and sheep who had calves or lambs stuck in breech positions; they dug long-drop loos, and taught me how to plait, and to work an eye-splice.

One of the best things my Grandpa taught me was how to peel the long white linen threads from flax leaves, dry them on a fence for a few hours, then clean them and twist them into cracks for use on stock whips.

Then he taught me how to use the whip too, making it roar and slash and sting. I got good enough with that whip to take a blow-fly off an animal's back without hurting the animal.

That skill saved me once when an angry jersey bull decided to have me on. Several searingly painful snaps across his lowered nose as he lumbered at me fortunately changed his mind. I was a very skinny 12-year-old at the time, and, but for the flaying whip, it would have been no contest.

Another skill my father taught me was how to use an oil-stone properly to sharpen chisels, plane-blades, axes and knives.

I had reason to use that skill again just last weekend, tweaking a dozen kitchen knives for a family member.

Some skills never go out of fashion.

Kingsley Field can be contacted @

Waikato Times