In 1995 I bumped into an old mate at the Hawke’s Bay A&P show who I hadn’t seen since 1981.We had been classmates through our years at Lincoln College, as it was called then, doing B Ag commerce degrees.
I’d watched his subsequent progress in the rural media with interest and he had quickly risen to become the editor of the long-established and respected NZ Farmer.
I congratulated him and he likewise commended me on recently becoming the Hawke’s Bay Farmer of the Year.
“We haven’t done too badly considering our classmates voted us least likely to succeed,” I told him.
Tony Leggett was dumbfounded and couldn’t believe this was the case, but I told him it had happened at a final function he’d missed.
He took the news badly but didn’t seem troubled that I too had suffered the same fate.
His boss at the time, Hugh Stringleman, was highly amused at Tony’s distress.
Some months later I saw that this regular column had suddenly become vacant and rang him offering my services.
“Have you got any examples of your work?” he asked.
“No, I haven’t written anything since sixth form English.”
He gave me the job, perhaps on the grounds that it would show those errant classmates how wrong they were.
Years later I told him I’d made the story up.
That first column in April 1996 was handwritten, taken over to my neighbours’ and faxed to some poor subeditor in Auckland.
Given that the neighbour and subby were going to get sick of me in short measure, I bought a flash computer with an amazing gigabyte of hard drive (this current one has 1000) which ran the transformational Windows 95 software.
Suddenly I was able to pound out a column at about three words a minute, given certain keys seemed impossible to locate. I’ve just checked, out of interest, and can now do a comfortable 50 words a minute, which is a 16-fold increase in productivity.
I entered the dawning age of something called the World Wide Web with a provider in Wellington named Voyager. My email software was called Pegasus.
The only difficulty with emailing in those very early times was that I only knew two other people on the internet. My mate Chris and the editor.
People used to ask me what was the interweb thing like and was it going to be of any use.
Over the subsequent 27 years, I reckon I’ve written about 1300 columns, given that for three years I was doing it fortnightly.
Seventeen years with Farmers Weekly and this is number 815.
One of the things I’m most proud of in my life is that I’ve never missed a deadline or failed to file. Through sickness, deaths, using iPads, internet cafes and borrowed laptops as I’m still only a PC user.
I’ve seldom found it easy, particularly settling on a topic to write about.
The writing process is not that enjoyable and takes a whole evening, but I love pushing send when emailing the completed column off to my editor and subby. No deadline for another week.
I’ve had about 10 editors and subbies or so of each and because you know I don’t have to suck up can tell you that this editor, Bryan Gibson, is the best I’ve observed.
The other thing I’ve enjoyed is the interaction with my readers.
The old saying that “You are never a prophet in your own patch” rings true in this game.
Because they know me too well, there is little feedback or even acknowledgement from my own area that I write a column, but the further from home I get the more excited people are to meet me and have a chat.
My email address has probably been under the column for 15 years or so and that has given instant response from all sorts of places, including from overseas online readers.
Sometimes I craft a column that I’m particularly proud of and hear hardly anything from anyone.
Other times I knock one out thinking it’s not that great and hopefully the editor doesn’t notice and get a surprising large number of emails.
I’ve learnt I’m no judge of which work of mine will be well received or not.
When I began, we had two small boys and another lad turned up about a year later and that birth would have featured as a column.
He’s 26 now and got married a few months ago.
The eldest is now 30 and he and his wife produced our first grandchild last year and I am besotted with her.
The middle one works and lives in Amsterdam and we miss seeing him.
Jane has often featured and borne it with good grace.
Farming was tough in 1996. We had been farming in our own right for 10 years with debt and low product prices and it had been a hard slog.
In the early 2000s it suddenly improved and although there have been ups and downs with pricing and weather events since then, our business and the primary sector are in far greater shape than we were in during my first 15 years of farming.
I know it is very difficult out there for many of you and these weather events in recent months up the East Coast of the North Island in particular have made it almost impossible to bear.
We will get through this as we have done in the past with many other challenges.
But you won’t be able to do that if you don’t look after yourselves and those around you.
We are fortunate nowadays with organisations like the Rural Support Trust and Farmstrong, which are full of compassionate, empathetic, and caring people.
And our supporting industries have reps and staff who likewise have a more understanding approach with clients than in the past.
I’m confident that, as producers of quality food and fibre to a world wanting and needing those items, farming here has a wonderful future.
I’m also excited about some of the young people I’ve been meeting from the primary sector.
They see the world differently and are the future. Baby boomers like me need to acknowledge that we have had our time and it is time to trust that future to others.
I finish my 40-year full-time farming career this week with a degree of uncertainty of what lies ahead.
I haven’t had any uncertainty for 40 years as I knew what I’d be doing tomorrow, next month and next year given the rhythm of the seasons. I’ve been saying lately that I was looking forward to that uncertainty. But now that it is here, I’m feeling slightly anxious if I’m honest.
I won’t miss the deadline, but it will be odd not having that weekly discipline after so long.
Thank you for reading over the years and the many kind messages.
More: Fans of From the Ridge can look forward to a retrospective of some of Steve’s finest columns over the next few months, starting with his first ever piece, “Sheep farming a piece of cake”, published in April 1996. Find a new old column every Monday from July 10.