No Minister

Big Toys for Old Boys

Attentive readers of this blog – especially our TDS-infused Lefties – will have noticed that I haven’t been posting as much as normal, even as an important US election has been playing out.

There’s a simple reason for this, and it’s based on something I spotted some months ago via our linked blog, Home Paddock.

With the border closures in early 2020 every agricultural contractor found themselves in trouble because they had come to rely upon a flow of young English and Irish guys who knew how to drive combine harvesters, side-dressers, planters and the rest of the complex, computerised machinery that is the basis of modern farming. Think of them as the harvesting version of snow bums who follow Winter around the world’s skifields.

As a result of this, contractors have been forced to call on guys like me; old bastards who last drove tractors decades ago. But the call had gone out, so in the manner of the Soviet call for all hands on deck in 1941, I decided to give it a crack.

The following photo is a good example of what this has involved. On one customer’s farm I discovered, sitting beside the cow shed (sorry, “Dairy Parlour“) and still in working order, the classic farming tractor of the 1970’s and 1980’s. The Massey Ferguson MF 135. All 45Hp of it. My baby from the age of 13 until I quit at 21, with years of earmuffs, mask and goggles as some protection against dust and pollen.

Beside it is one of the beasts I drive now. A John Deere 6145, (145Hp) loaded up with a 1Tonne fert hopper with remote-controlled release and a 3Tonne tray on the back with water, chemicals and so forth. It has an insulated, roll-proof, fully enclosed cab with air-conditioning, USB and Bluetooth connected systems. It can even be over-pressurised to exclude dust, like a silicon chip factory.

You will notice that the back tyres of the MF135 are smaller than the front tyres of the JD 6145! Thus has the world advanced. I’m not worried about getting injured in an accident but that I may end up squashing some poor bugger in his toy car.

Driving one of these things is like driving a child’s bouncy castle. It’s not just the seat but the entire hydraulic system. It’s as if there is no physical connection of cogs and gears between the wheels and the engine – and really there isn’t.

Then there’s the computers in the middle. In the 1970’s the F-16 fighter plane introduced the concept of fly-by-wire, where the pilot’s “joy stick” is connected to a computer rather than wires, cables and hydraulics. Same here.

Driving on highways involves not a foot on the accelerator pedal but a hand on an aircraft-like joystick with multiple buttons and a dial where each thumb-click up or down is a 1km/h difference. It’s a strange way to drive any machine on the road, but you get used to it. Even when you have to pull over seven times between Hamilton and Te Awamutu to allow the traffic to pass.

The larger tractors have an additional tank for something called Adblue, which is a nitrogen-based compound used in diesel engines to reduce emissions. Run out of Adblue and the computer in the tractor will instantly cut power to just 20% of capacity., effectively ending the day’s work. At one point one of our planters broke down somewhere around Te Kuiti – and the solution was a ute that headed South with a USB stick. Plugged into the system the problem was solved. Physically there wasn’t a damned thing wrong with the machine.

But physical work is still involved. After days of hauling 20-30kg bags of seed into a planter’s hopper I found that even after twenty minutes in the shower I could not scrub out the dirt ingrained into the skin of my hands. Not to mention the back pains of unused muscles. One can see where Oxycontin subscriptions come from.

The days are long: 15-16 hour days are not uncommon and it’s Monday-Saturday, limited only by the rain. A few weeks ago, having collected my paycheck of 117 hours for the two-week period, I saw one driver grumbling with humor about how he’d only hit 172 hours, while an English lad on the sprayers chided him with his 224 hours. Two hundred hours a fortnight is not uncommon during planting and harvesting and one of the Irish guys said that he felt things were slow this season. They are young men and women – and they know exactly what they’re doing. Winter will be when they rest.

After some laughs from my mates about running into airline pilots that’s exactly what happened: an Air NZ Boeing 777 pilot in his forties who’s been doing the Auckland-SF/LA/Houston run for several years. He said it does feel strange to be driving a 10tonne rig at 40km/h (max road speed allowed) rather than 300 tonnes at 800km/hr. He was recently called back to his flying job.

But there are plenty of other even older guys than me around. A trucker who is 75 and sharp in exactly the way Joe Biden is not. The planter whom I supported for several weeks: sixty four years old and working hours his body can’t cash because, as he puts it, “I can’t afford to retire next year without more money”. And that was simply a continuation of a recent past:

“Forty years ago I was able to raise a family on my wage, doing fencing and general farm stuff. But my wages haven’t improved in all that time. Fact is they haven’t gone up as fast as most of the costs have gone up. Cars and TV’s are cheaper but overall it’s worse. I haven’t seen anything I care about improve in my life. But what really worries me is my kids.

My daughter did a specialist nurses diploma. But when she finished, Key’s government reduced the programs, so that was that. Even at the graduation, the head of the program said there’d be no jobs for them.”

That’s a hell of thing to hear from a fellow New Zealander, especially when he merely sounds matter-of-fact in his description rather than angry or bitter. There are more like him that I’ve met. Too many.

There was one other thing I found that threw me. A few weeks ago we were planting maize on a 50Ha block. It was a so-called “run-off”; 50Ha purchased by a large dairy operation owned by a rich family with perhaps 2000 cows. We were parked near the old cow shed, which had clearly been the centre of that 50Ha dairy farm, and during a break I took a look at it.

It was like the Mary Celeste. Everything was there intact; rusted equipment, rusted tools on the floor, even the smocks worn in the pit, all covered in birdshit. A tractor and more in similar shape. Whoever owned this place did not sell willingly. I can only imagine that the bank told them that a deal had been made and they just walked off, owing no debt to cleaning up.

We planted the 50Ha in maize as stock food input for the new high capacity, rotary-shed owners and departed late at night. I knew I had seen not just the present but the future of New Zealand farming and it felt melancholy.

I doubt I’ll be doing this work again next season. By the southern Spring of 2021 the borders should be open and things will be back to normal with contractors able to once again use their young, foreign, expert labour.

But there are more days behind me than before me and every experience life has to offer should be grabbed with both hands, as this one has been.

Written by Tom Hunter

November 29, 2020 at 7:00 pm

Posted in New Zealand

Tagged with ,

11 Responses

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  1. Yup.
    Spent some time on David Browns and Cases doing peas, barley, maize and regrassing.
    Only stipulation I ever had was an automatic clutch throwout as it was reclaimed boggy bush and the buried logs could destroy the plough

    George Black

    November 30, 2020 at 7:44 am

  2. bah puny little engines

    These are the ones I worked on a lifetime ago

    2 six cylinder Doxford Js

    It is easy to be nostallgic not so much fun at the time

    Andrei

    November 30, 2020 at 8:37 am

    • Jesus that’s impressive Andrei. My regular mechanic is an ex-South African Navy engineer and he’s dealt with some huge diesel engines (like Submarine-size) that are used for backup power in some parts of NZ. I’ve seen a photo of him beside one. Pretty daunting.

      Incidently the mechanics at this place have told me that future tractors will be even bigger. The idea seems to be that the bigger the engine the slower it can rev while cranking out the same power and torque, which means the tractor might only have to be serviced every 1000 hours!!!

      That’s all very well, but these things are pushing road limits as they are. I assume they’re talking about things like this…

      Tom Hunter

      November 30, 2020 at 2:27 pm

  3. All the while the drones in the Beehive still have no idea what is happening out there in the real world.

    Gravedodger

    November 30, 2020 at 9:33 am

  4. I told the contractor that if he got stuck I was available. Definitely last port of call. Had the odd day on the grass truck, especially if they have a long cart. I wouldn’t describe the Isuzu state of the art as it shows it’s Bedford heritage. I am one of those who got their heavy trade ( class 1-6 and half tha alphabet) just by backing a tractor and single axle trailer through a gateway. Consequently I can’t back a double axle at all. Instructions to turn the opposite way to the opposite way don’t sink in. I enjoy the people side of things. Problem down here is cockies putting the balage off on account of bad weather forecast and the rain not eventuating.

    Ian

    November 30, 2020 at 9:45 am

  5. Like comparing a Tiger Tank with an M1 Abrams. Damnit, I wish I knew how to put an image into a comment!

    adolffinkensen

    November 30, 2020 at 11:33 am

  6. I used to help my brother out with haymaking and feeding out in winter on his dairy farm in the 1990’s. His favourite tractor was a MF135 with dual wheels on the back, half filled with water for better traction.
    The other tractor doing the minor work was typically a MF24.

    uncoffined

    November 30, 2020 at 11:38 am

  7. Tractors are belief defying miracles. We had a MF35 boat tractor. It always seemed like it could haul out the Queen Mary if it had to. Much better than a 4wd and with the three point hitch you could reverse in and hook up a heavy trailer without messing around with jockey wheels.

    I miss that old machine.

    John JohnO

    November 30, 2020 at 11:51 am

    • Heh. Down on Ngawi Beach near Cape Palliser the beach is so steep and stone-covered that even tractors are useless so they have to use bulldozers.

      Tom Hunter

      November 30, 2020 at 2:58 pm

  8. Yeah, but look at the size of the boats they are launching!
    Check out the RNLI launcher: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=viwaDLdcLsw

    John JohnO

    November 30, 2020 at 3:57 pm

  9. […] Big toys for old boys – Tom Hunter: […]


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