Friday, April 12, 2024

Four farmilies, a small town and 100 years of being neighbours

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In North Canterbury is a pocket of history-rich farmland that has been owned by four neighbouring dairy farming families since the days when their ancestors ‘about chased the moas off’.
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This article was one of the most popular articles on farmersweekly.co.nz in 2023.

Robinson, Stalker, Stewart and Tull are four farming family names synonymous with the small rural town of Waikuku in North Canterbury.

The neighbouring families boast a proud history of farming the same land since the early 1900s when the then Coldstream Estate near Rangiora was cut up and sold.

“We chased the moas off,” jests 91-year-old Barry Tull. 

“And we have all been farming as neighbours since, more than 100 years.”  

At the time of its subdivision and sale, Coldstream had been farmed by just one family, which acquired the land from the provincial government of Canterbury in the 1880s. 

On March 31 1921, the subdivided lots of the Coldstream Estate were put up for auction at the Choral Hall, Christchurch, described in the newspaper advert as “without any possible doubt one of the very choicest bits of country anywhere in New Zealand”.

The families who put in the winning bids – several of whom had been farming in the area for decades by then – embarked on a journey that over the years has seen them farming as “one big happy family”.

“We have grown up together, lent a hand, shared the good times, and the bad times, celebrated milestones, made memories – you name it, we have done it together,” the families say. 

 The Stalker family is into its sixth generation on the same land, going back to the late 1800s when the family farm was converted from sheep to dairy. 

“A lot of what we do now is done with the stories of the past going round in your head as we take on debt and we take on more debt, and more debt,” fifth-generation farmer Richard Stalker says.

“I think of Dad and his father with the struggles in the 1930s to hold onto the land in the depression.” 

Richard has two daughters rearing calves this season, clocking up six generations working on the farm.

His father, Russell Stalker, 92, and mother Eila still live on the farm.

Russell says that “it was tough back then, but farming is tough today too”.

“We have been here since the 1890s when my grandfather bought the first 100 acres [40.4ha]. 

“We were mixed farming, wheat and barley, the cows and a few sheep. I remember as a child we supplied the local cheese factory taking the milk by horse and cart and bringing back the whey for the pigs,” Russell says.

The Stalker family is into its sixth generation on the same land, going back to the late 1800s when the family farm was converted from sheep to dairy. Pictured are Russell and Eila Stalker.

He say he lost his father when he, Russell, was just 19. He has “milked for almost 70 years, only 30-40 cows at the start, though” and has lived in the same house on the farm for 60 years.

“Richard is a vet. I am very lucky that he came back to the farm and took over in the early 2000s. I was struggling to do it,” he says.

“I am very proud of our family history on this land.”  

Richard says he “looked over the fence and saw more in farming”.

When he and his wife, Keren, took over the farm it was milking 120 cows.

“It was not economically viable. Today we have more land milking 650 cows, supplying Fonterra. 

“Dad made more off his 120 cows with value-add to town supply than I sometimes do now with 650 cows.

“We are always looking at options, the only way we got ahead is leasing land, family support and more cows,” Richard says.

For third-generation farmer Graham Stewart, Holstein Friesians have long been in the game, with his Cresslands Farms known for the stud’s founding pedigree stock.

Graham, the newly elected president of Holstein Friesian NZ, and his wife, Nicky, have two sons and grandchildren, taking the generational game out to five on Cresslands Farms.

The farm went to dairy under his grandfather Arthur Stewart.

“Grandad tried to grow crops but they kept getting washed out. Granny tried milking cows for a bit of income and that was the start of dairying,” Graham says.

“There are good pockets of land to grow grass in summer. Milk has been a massive driver of profitability and survival of this land and much of that is because of irrigation.

“Grandad was the pioneer of irrigation, the first to put in spray irrigation in the district in the 1930s.”

Nicky says: “Those were the days they made money. We don’t.”      

Graham and Nicky milk 400 cows year-round, supplying Fonterra.

“It all started on 49-acre [19.8ha] block and it was added to and added to and went up and up in cow numbers.

“We are on the third milking shed in 100 years, the first a walk-through, now a herringbone.” 

At 91 years of age and still living on the farm, Barry Tull has many a tale to tell.

“Grandad started cropping and had four cows. We delivered the cream to the local creamery by horse and cart. There were 600 creameries in NZ in the 1920s, one on about every corner.”          Over the years Barry has acquired machinery and plenty of vintage tractors and these days he’s wanting to build more sheds to house his treasured collection, every vehicle with its own story.

From his father’s first tractor and every one of his own since, they are now parked up, with his collection having moved on to trucks, “and anything else I am allowed to keep”. 

“Talk about a man’s shed or cave. It keeps me going, that’s for sure,” Barry says.  

His son, fourth-generation Neil Tull, is now at the helm of the family land.

“I started small, milking 90 cows and over 32 years have made it to 500,” Neil says.

“We were year-round but converted to seasonal supply to Fonterra in 2003 and while I recall the old walk-through, I managed to stay out of that. It was 10-a-side when I started and now we milk in a 30-a-side herringbone.” 

The current generation, from left, Richard Stalker, Neil Tull, Alastair Robinson and Graham Stewart.

The Robinson team, with fourth-generation Alastair Robinson, his partner Bridget McIntosh and fifth-generation young son William, goes back to 1905 when the first 129 acres (52.2ha) was purchased at Waikuku. The ongoing purchase of neighbouring farms grew this to 221.3ha by 1926.

Over the years the land has continued to be sold within the family, with more than half of the Robinsons’ current farm having been in the family for up to 118 years.

One block was sold outside the family in 1953. It was bought back, in 2013, and is part of the 396ha now under Alastair’s stewardship.

The Robinsons originally farmed sheep and wheat, and kept horses. They are part of the Holstein Friesian Association, with Alastair’s grandfather David having registered his Royal Oak herd in 1928.

The family has winter-milked since the early 1930s and still does today.

Their farm has had just three milking sheds in 100 years, from a walk-through shed, operational from 1920 until 1997 and still standing on the farm, to a 30-bale rotary used to milk 650 cows until 2013, and the latest, a 70-bale rotary, milking the 1080-cow herd today.

The family initially suppled Canterbury Dairy Farmers, which merged to become South Island Dairy Farmer, and Kiwi Dairy, which merged into Fonterra in 2001.      

Alastair’s mother Doreen, 83, continues to live on the farm.

“I came onto the farm in 1971. I was the book worker for 52 years. I still help a little bit, but I let the accountant do the GST,” she says.

All agree that technology has brought the biggest changes over the years, with head collars, centre pivots, auto drafting and electronic ID being cited as recent learning curves.

Rules and regulations and environmental compliance “have become a nightmare”, they say.

“There’s always something to grumble about, but there’s plenty of good times,” Richard says.

“Really the milk price is not that bad,” Alastair says. “It’s the increase in inputs – every time we get the highest payout, inflation takes it and it’s cyclable, then it crashes all over again.” 

The families have worked together for more than a century, making hay and silage together, helping each other through floods and storms, sharing sheds and loaning gear when someone breaks down.

Do they see that being the case for the next 100 years?

“We would like to think so, but we don’t think so. We expect some of the farms will be pushed out,” the families said.

“We are a pocket of farmland surrounded now by four local towns, Waikuku, Rangiora, Pegasus and Ravenswood.  

“Very sadly, it seems urban development is on the horizon.”

This article first appeared in the October edition of our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.

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