Thursday, December 7, 2023

Benevolent history repeats

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The Duncan, Perry and Howard families have a long connection with farming. They were instrumental in setting up Smedley, Taratahi and Massey University and the latest generation is doing it again with a group of farms in Rangitikei, particularly Otiwhiti and Westoe, providing a start on the land for cadets from all round the country.
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Much has been said and written of the Duncans of the Turakina Valley but the transformation that has been happening on Otiwhiti Station deserves some focus of its own.

The farm cadet training school was established at Otiwhiti by Charles and Joanna Duncan and Charles’ parents, David and Vicky, in 2006. With the addition of Jim and Diana Howard’s Westoe Farm near Marton it could well be the premier farm cadet training establishment in the region.

The whole project is the latest chapter in the story of three families – the Howards, the Duncans and the Perrys – who have agricultural training and philanthropy in their blood and have been strongly involved in those areas for more than a century.

Charles Duncan is the great-grandson of Sir Thomas and Lady Jeannie Duncan and also Sir William and Lady Perry, from Charles’ mother Vicky’s side of the family.

In 1919 Sir William gave 130 hectares to establish the Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre. The aim was to train servicemen returning from World War I. Taratahi today, along with Telford in the South Island, is one of the largest providers of basic farm training.

In 1922 Sir William was appointed as a foundation director of the New Zealand Meat Board and served for 16 years. He was also chairman of the NZ Wool Allocation Committee. In 1926 his Masterton farm, Penrose, won both first and second prizes in the export lamb competition run by the Smithfield Market in London.

In 1927 he founded, funded and petitioned Parliament to establish the Royal Agricultural Society and was its inaugural chairman. The following year Sir William was the driving force of a group that established Massey University and the Massey Veterinary College. He was knighted in 1933.

On the Howard’s side Josiah Howard bequeathed Smedley Station in Hawke’s Bay to the Crown in 1919 for agricultural education.

Jim and Diana Howard had similar aspirations for their 400 hectare Westoe Farm in Rangitikei and seem to have found the perfect partners in Charles Duncan, the Duncan Land Company and Otiwhiti Land Based Training. 

Charles had been working closely with Jim Howard in combining training experience for the cadets between Otiwhiti and Westoe and both men saw the potential of combining a large store stock operation in the Hunterville hills with a finishing farm such as Westoe. 

The transformation of Westoe into a demonstration farm also appealed to both Charles Duncan and the Howards. It wouldn’t just be in the traditional sense but also as a comprehensive value chain model to highlight the synergies and benefits that could be achieved through farmers, processors, exporters, marketers and consumers all working in collaboration.

Westoe is the shop window to show the benefits of integrating hill country store farmers (breeders) with finishing farms then linking them with NZ’s only farmer-owned red meat co-operative processor, Alliance. 

Collectively, they could then focus on the incremental gains that could be achieved by owning or at least controlling the brand all the way to the consumer.

The Duncan Land Company was formed in mid 1998, shortly after Charles and his brother Joe leased Otiwhiti from the Sir Thomas and Lady Duncan Trust. The trust sold all the stock and plant to the brothers. 

By the mid 2000s the Sir Thomas and Lady Duncan Trust was facing a significant dilemma grappling with the relatively low returns from sheep farming (even under the lease to Charles and Joe Duncan) when compared with the returns it could achieve elsewhere. In 2006 the decision was made to sell Otiwhiti. 

Otiwhiti Station returned to Duncan ownership when the auctioneer’s hammer went down on May 25. That day $8.75m changed hands and the Sir Thomas and Lady Duncan Trust could continue to fund causes helping young New Zealanders. 

Charles Duncan and his parents were now back farming Otiwhiti as the new owners.

The main lane to the Otiwhiti woolshed that’s 5km into the middle of the station.

Charles has one special attribute, he is a very good networker, especially among his fellow farmers and so works in closely with a number of breeder and finishing operations over much of the North Island where he secures lambs for finishing. His close work with Alliance ensures Charles and DLC have good relationships on both sides of the trading operation.

But it is Charles’ family that is the ultimate glue that holds this agri-businessman’s feet firmly on the ground. There is his brother, Joe Duncan, who lives in Auckland and his sister, Koo, who still lives in Rangitikei. Along with the legacy that his parents brought to the family table there is also  Charles’ wife, Jo, and their four children, Jonty, Ben, Maddie and Sophie. Jo was a Hurley from Siberia Station 40 minutes further up the Turakina Valley and so was no stranger to the demands of station life.

But Jo is also very involved with helping out and organising events for the cadets and works in closely with all the other families up and down the valley. She is a real champion, a great cook, a part-time teacher in Hunterville when called on and operates a taxi service for the kids like most modern day rural mothers are forced to do. 

Five days before Charles and Jo were to get married the Whanganui region was hit with a one-in-250 year weather bomb. The Turakina river rose 25 metres above normal. It was a devastating event that destroyed a lot of Otiwhiti’s infrastructure but Jo and Charlie Duncan didn’t let it stop their wedding or their new life together.

Four kids later there is not much this farming couple can’t cope with. The Duncan family are all sports mad and whether it is hockey, cricket or rugby for the boys or netball, dancing or riding the ponies for the girls, Jo is in heavy demand. 

Add the needs of running the family home and ensuring Charles gets all his messages – no cell phone coverage in the valley – then Jo Duncan is one busy woman. 

This story is an edited extract from Ross Hyland’s book Our Land, Our People, launched on Friday.

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