August 25, 2014

Agricultural history in New Zealand. Herd testers. Hugh Oliver

By Dr Clive Dalton

 Hitler's plans for the Channel Islands
Jersey Island (photo Internet)
  Hugh Oliver was born in Jersey in the Channel Islands in 1933, so was aged 7 in June 1940 when the arrival of Hitler’s troops was imminent.  Britain didn’t take defence of the Channel Islands seriously, and thought they would be considered neutral by both sides in the conflict. But Hitler had other ideas, as getting his toe on these scraps of English territory, and having his troops  photographed with English ‘Bobbies’, was seen as prime propaganda to hide their evil intent. 

Wernher von Braun (photo Internet)
Hugh remembers that the Germans had dug a number of tunnels in his parish, using slave labour, similar to those dug elsewhere in Europe to house their developing intercontinental ballistic missiles. 
 Hitler was rushing this research ahead with the genius of Dr von Braun (who the Americans grabbed after the war).  Hugh says that during that period of the war, Hitler was convinced that Britain would surrender and assist him to conquer America.  The missile tunnels were all pointing west!

 Hugh’s grandfather had been a medical doctor in Jersey, and retired to Guernsey from where he took a couple of voyages to New Zealand (his birthplace) as a ship’s doctor.  During WWII he was appointed Minister of Health for the states of Guernsey.

Leaving in 15 minutes
deHavilland biplane (photo Internet)
Hugh’s father was the local doctor in Jersey airport, and he was working in this capacity when he saw a deHavilland biplane land to refuel on its way from France to England. 
As there was only one pilot and radio operator on board, Hugh’s father asked if they could take his family of six (his mother, two brothers, his sister and their nurse) and a woman who had just had a baby.  The pilot agreed, provided they could get on board in 15 minutes, as very soon after that there was a high risk of meeting the Luftwaffe.

They achieved this rapid departure, heading for Exeter airport, and Hugh remembers looking down on the Queen Mary while crossing the Channel, and being told she’d been converted to a troopship.

Hugh and the family lived in different parts of Devon, initially with relatives and it was spending time in the country that fired his love of Nature, especially insects, trees, wood and woodwork, starting whittling from an early age with his ever-present pocket knife.

The Royal Agricultural College 
Royal Agricultural College (photo Internet)
After leaving school, Hugh went to the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester from 1953-57 to complete a Diploma in Estate Management.  Several students at Cirencester had spent time in New Zealand and sang its praises.

Also, Hugh’s grandfather had been born in New Zealand where his father (Hugh’s maternal great grandfather) owned the Anchor Shipping and Foundry Company Ltd in Nelson. 
  His steam ships had brought the West Coast gold to Nelson, so that when he died the city of Nelson erected a monument in the town to honour him.  So there was another incentive for Hugh to come for a few years to see the country where his ancestors had worked.

Herd testers wanted in NZ
While back to Jersey after college while working on local farms with herds of 12 cows, he saw an advert in the local papers for herd testers in New Zealand – ‘Degree or Diploma essential’ it said.  So after applying, Hugh was interviewed in Jersey by an official called Leggett from the NZ High Commission in London.  After completing all the paper work and health checks, Hugh was accepted and on his way to New Zealand, 55 years after his family members.

The 'Captain Cook' via Panama
The Captain Cook (photo Internet)
 Hugh had to travel to Glasgow to board the ‘Captain Cook’, which after five weeks at sea sailing through the Panama Canal, arrived in Wellington on 25 July 1958. There he was met by his fiancé Molly, who had gone to New Zealand a couple of weeks earlier on the Southern Cross.

AHIA London Street Hamilton
He and Molly then boarded the ‘overnight limited express’ train from Wellington to Frankton Junction, arriving at 6am, and then were driven with at least 10 other budding herd testers to the offices of the Auckland Herd Improvement Association (AHIA) in London Street, Hamilton.   Here, they where they were lectured for two hours by Mr Ken Stone, (assistant to the manager Mr Selwyn Sheaf) in great detail, on such things as how not to get cow dung on the record sheets. 
Hugh described this as being boring and patronising for most of the audience, who after the long journey were keen to get to work. He said nobody actually fell asleep after the long journey – but it was a close thing.

Scotsman Bill Calder instructed them for three days, where they tested herds on three farms, and then they were out on their own. Bill was noted for developing new gear and equipment for the milk testing operation.

No car - collect horse and cart
Lady herd tester on the move - names unknown
The ‘car’ to be provided in the British advert Hugh said, morphed into a horse called Patch, who had to pull a rubber-tyred cart carrying all the testing gear.  Patch was 23 years old with a maximum speed of a fast walk. Hugh had to collect him from a farm at Elstow, where he’d been ‘feeding out’ during winter, and had to rider him bareback the 10km back to Waitoa.

The areas Hugh tested were between Springdale and Motumaoho, which made quite long trips for Patch, particularly as he also had to drop milk samples off at Morrinsville railway station each day, to go to the Waiato dairy factory lab for testing.  Hugh didn’t do any butterfat testing on the farms as herd testers did in other areas, because of the proximity to Waitoa.

Hugh kept a diary for 1958 and still has it; recording which farms he worked on, times of starting work and long working days.  It took a long time to get from one farm to another with horse transport.

The herd testing job was 7 days a week with 5 days off at the end of the month, with a month off in mid winter when the cows were dry, so he had little time for himself and Molly, which he wanted. Hugh said he was fascinated by the bush on Mr Te Aroha, but never had time to explore it. 

Letter of resignation
Hugh didn’t find the herd testing routine of going to 25 different farms over a month a very stimulating challenge, and before the end of the first month, he had written a letter of resignation to Selwyn Sheath, who objected to Hugh’s  ‘Dear Sir’, and ‘Yours faithfully’ as he told Hugh this was not how letters were penned in New Zealand.

Sheath told Hugh in no uncertain terms that he had set a very bad example for the other English immigrants, and added that he had spoken to the Labour Department and reported that ‘you may find they don’t have much for you’. Selwyn clearly had Hugh in his sights, and there was the other business of Hugh having to refund his £119 fare, as he hadn’t stayed in farming for the required two-year bonded period.

Hugh was offered a job on a pig farm in Taumarunui when Molly already had a good job in Hamilton, so he decided to try his luck looking for employment touting his technical experience around various businesses in Hamilton.  He had an interview with the farm manager at the Ruakura Research Station collecting dung sample at Number 5 dairy, but declined the offer, as he preferred not to work with animals – at least not their rear ends.

Railway platelayer
Hugh eventually found employment as a temporary surfaceman on the NZ Railway, repairing and repacking the lines at Frankton Junction. 
This was hard and dirty work but a useful education for a very new and green ‘Pom’. Hugh said the best part about this job was that it allowed him to get a 3% home loan as a ‘public servant’.

Photo shows the tracks at Frankton Junction where Hugh applied his skills.

Rukuhia Soil Research Station
One of the girls (Glee) who was boarding with Molly moved on to board with Jo Karlovsky who was a seniour scientist at the Rukuhia Soil Research Station, and who was complaining that he was about to lose two of his technicians. Glee told Joe that she knew someone who had a qualification in agriculture, and who was working on the railways.  Jo was interested, so an interview was arranged for Hugh with George Hopewell who was Joe’s section leader. All went well, and after three months on the railways in 1958, Hugh was delighted to be out in the fresh air again mowing grass.

Hugh’s job at Rukuhia consisted of mowing and weighing grass from different experimental plots, measuring growth responses of different pasture species on different soil types, after varying rates of different fertilisers.  This was pioneering work at that time in the drive to increase agricultural production, especially from the peat soils in the Waikato which were being rapidly developed for dairying.

After four years of flies, Hugh moved into the Microbiology Section at Rukuhia working on a fly, which was causing problems in the fledgling NZ mushroom growing industry.  In cooperation with Professor Roy Harrison at Lincoln College, Hugh spent August 1965 in residence there, assisting with research on the fly, which was not present in the South Island.

Dr L.R. Wallace

In 1966 the Rukuhia Microbiology Unit was moved to the Ruakura campus as the Director of Agricultural Research, Dr Lyn Wallace, decided that all entomology work should be done at Ruakura. Prior to this, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, had passed on any insect problems to the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (D.S.I.R) in Nelson.

So Hugh was able to join the rapidly expanding entomology staff at Ruakura who had to deal with pests like solider fly, porina, black beetle and many more in those days of DDT and Dieldrin.  From 1975 until Hugh retired in 1993, he worked on insect pathology and general entomology, with a special interest in pests of stored products in the dairy industry.  

Hugh’s loss to herd testing in New Zealand was fortunate, as it allowed him to make a significant contribution to New Zealand farming through his work on controlling the many insect pests which were, and still are, a major threat to pasture and crop production.

Hugh (pictured right) has continued his work on pests in stores for more than 20 years after his retirement because of his recognised expertise.

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