This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.
This article was one of the most popular articles on farmersweekly.co.nz in 2023. Norm Johnson celebrated his 101st birth in October 2023.
A Taranaki farmer who late last year celebrated his 100th birthday has slowed down, but is still hands-on when it comes to the farm.
Norm Johnson was brought up during the Great Depression and he feels it shaped his view of the world. It showed him that being frugal and never spending money that you don’t have are good qualities for a farmer to possess.
He has lived through the reign of five monarchs, several wars, including World War II, and seen huge changes in the world. He has never married and will never clock up a vast number of air miles points: the sum total of his travel is a visit each to Hawke’s Bay and Auckland. Being brought up through the austere and sometimes challenging times has taught him to treasure life’s simple pleasures.
“When I was a youngster I travelled by bus and train to visit a friend in Hawke’s Bay. I had cards and envelopes to hand to different people along the way and thought ‘What a load of humbug this is.’ I travelled for many miles and thought that there was no need for it,” Johnson says with a wry laugh.
Having recently celebrated his centenary, Johnson still regularly visits the cowshed – and until two years ago was still milking. Now that’s the job of farm manager Piet Robbertze.
An only child, Johnson was born at Kaponga Hospital. “I was born on the 24th October so Mother was in labour on Labour Day,” Johnson says.
He has lived on the farm for 93 years. The family lived at Kapuni South Taranaki, where his father worked as a factory manager at one of the eight Okaiawa based TL Joll Co-operative Dairy Company factories.
“Dad became the Tempsky Road factory manager as a 20-year-old. He had very little formal education, but had qualified as a boiler maker, milk grader and dairy factory manager,” Johnson says.
He has seen vast changes in New Zealand’s dairy industry. He fondly remembers taking milk cans to the factory with a horse and dray. Now dairy companies use tankers able to carry 28,000 litres of milk.
Taranaki has gone from having many local dairy factories, often one at either end of a road, to one servicing all of Taranaki and further afield.
“When I was young there were factories everywhere. Little communities surrounded them; and there was often a factory general store too. Those factories were the hubs of the community, and those communities provided the pupils for the many country schools.”
The Johnson family were as self-sufficient as possible during the Depression and war years. They grew their own meat and vegetables and kept white leghorn chickens for their eggs.
“Mother had a massive vegetable garden and I delivered the Hawera Star newspaper in the afternoon for 7/6d per week plus a free daily paper.”
His paper run was a 16km bike ride around the district. A keen sportsman, Johnson was a long-distance runner and played high school first XV rugby and first XI cricket. A contributing factor of his fitness must have been the 54km bicycle round trips to Hawera for his matches.
“It was a long way when you had to cycle to town, play a game of rugby, cycle home again and then deliver the papers. I’ve always had asthma and diabetes and need to have a few sweets in my pocket or risk passing out.
“That once happened during milking. Thank goodness a passer-by checked on me after seeing the cowshed light on at an ungodly hour. They found me unconscious and called an ambulance.”
Johnson’s father bought a 40.5ha farm around 1929 and employed a sharemilker for two years until leaving his managing role to farm fulltime.
Leaving the security of the manager’s job to become a farmer during uncertain times when money was scarce was a big step.
“Dad was dealing with farmers every day and noticed how they’d been able to advance and show a profit, and he felt that he could do the same,” Johnson says.
“We started off with a mixed six-cow herd and bred up to a 12-cow herd. Dad bought whatever cows he could afford, but took a hankering for Friesians. Being a factory manager, he always said that there was too much fat in high-testing milk, and that lower testing milk was the best for cheese making.”
This was going against the trend as Jerseys were the predominant dairy breed then. Many of the neighbouring farmers shook their heads in disbelief as he transitioned to Friesians.
As soon as he could, Johnson began working on the farm with his parents.
“There was always something to do and I did whatever I was told to do, but never had to milk before school.”
The family bought three pedigree Friesian heifers and a bull from a Greytown breeder and that was the start of their Ratanui Friesian stud. They regularly showed their cattle at the Hawera A&P Show. Johnson hasn’t been registering his cows for some time now though, due to the amount of work it entails.
“Many Friesian cows were heavy milkers but a bit low in test, so we tried our best to improve them. We aimed for a 4% milk fat test.”
By the time Johnson was 10 years old he was taking the milk to the factory in a horse-drawn wagon.
“Later on we used the tractor to go to the Mangawhero Road dairy factory, which was only just across the road from the farm. I built a trailer that was level with the factory loading stage. The trailer had no sides, enabling us to roll the cans straight onto the stage.”
A railway station was situated at the back of the farm. It was 1.5ha in size and cost Johnson’s father the princely sum of £22,000.
“We could then get our super phosphate fertiliser delivered to the station, store the bags in the big goods shed, and use them from there.”
Johnson completed three years at Hawera High School before starting work full-time on the farm at 15 years old. This was near the end of the Depression, and finances were still tight throughout the country.
“One day Dad said to me, “Norm, I’ve got something to put to you. I can’t afford to pay you wages and pay off the mortgage too. What do you suggest?” Johnson says.
“I said ‘Forget about me, Dad.’ So I continued working for a bit of pocket money so they could still pay off the farm.”
In 1938 and 1939, Johnson did Home Service in the New Zealand Army and became a sergeant and instructor. One of his specialties was the use of explosives and he was very proficient at using gelignite to cut railway lines in half.
“My health wasn’t good but I enjoyed the army. The army in peacetime is a great place and a good place to learn a trade.
“My father said that if I was going to do Home Service then I may as well come home and do it on the farm. He applied to get me released and the magistrate agreed.”
Johnson took over the running of the farm in the 1970s after his father passed away. His father was a smoker, and had severely damaged his lungs to the extent that he often needed oxygen. Johnson had been taking on the extra work as his father became more debilitated, and took over the farm on his passing.
During his father’s last years, Johnson would get bottles of oxygen from the hospital on a frequent basis. One day he visited the hospital and was told that they wouldn’t be supplying him with oxygen anymore.
“I raced home to tell our doctor, who told me to go to the garage and pick up a big oxygen bottle and he’d help me get it into the house. “Waiting for him seemed like an eternity, so I got to work and managed to carry it inside.
“The doctor asked me who helped carry the bottle in and I replied, ‘No one, my father wanted me, he needed me, and would’ve done the same for me.’
“But Dad was already unconscious and he never recovered. He was in his 70th year.”
After farming for 93 years, Johnson has witnessed huge changes in the industry. One of the biggest has been the summer task of haymaking.
He began farming when horses were still being used for haymaking. It was an era when everyone pitched in to help one another out. This was especially so at haymaking time, when a number of farms would work together to harvest each other’s hay. This made it a very long season.
Very early on Johnson bought an Allis-Chalmers tractor and fitted a hay sweep on the front. He also bought a McCormick-Deering stacker that could hold two sweep loads of hay.
“I attached a hydraulic lift to the tractor to lift the sweep. The stacker didn’t have grabs, so you could drive onto the stacker cradle, and a horse lifted the stacker load of hay up onto the stack.
“We had a big bay Clydesdale with a white blaze on his face and four white feet who could pull the stacker up without being led. He would go back and forth a couple of times to form a track, and continue to follow it for the rest of the day.”
Johnson was a pioneer of once-a-day milking but was 60 years ahead of the trend. When he began the milking regime more than 60 years ago, there was no one to ask for advice. He had to forge his own path in farming.
“Everyone told me we’d be dry by Christmas or ruined by mastitis. None of that happened. We were always diligent about disinfecting each teat and it certainly kept trouble away.
“When you milk once a day you’re pleased to see the cows and they’re very pleased to see you, and it’s not as hard on the cows as milking twice a day.”
He knows what it’s like to experience hard financial times, and instead of buying more land he’s helped scores of people into their first farms. Those he’s helped have been incredibly grateful for his assistance and most still keep in touch with him.
“I never married, so instead of spending money on myself I’ve helped others. I loaned people money when they’d found the opportunity they’d been looking for, but the banks had turned them down.”
“I can’t fathom why they were turning these people down, because those that I’ve helped have been no trouble at all. They paid me good interest though, so everybody won.”
Johnson encourages other farmers to help young people get ahead in the industry. He’s enjoyed seeing those he’s helped progress through the industry and has found it an extremely gratifying experience.
He is always happy to pass on some of the wisdom he’s gained in his years of farming.
“You’ve got to try to keep your debt down and try not to buy things until you can afford to pay for them. It’s better to be too careful than too rash because paying interest is just money down the drain. If you look after your farm it grows in value,” Johnson says.
“Farming is like a long distance race, you never give in. It’s not an industry to get into if you think you’re going to make money overnight. Get yourself educated. But life will educate you if you’re observant. If you try as hard as you can, there’s no reason why you can’t succeed.”