August 12, 2014

New Zealand agricultural history. Whatawhata Hill Country Research Station. Joe McLean

By Dr Clive Dalton
(Whatawhata Research Station scientist 1968-1979)

Joe McLean - research station farm manager

Joe McLean
Research on hill country farming needed
In 1952 Joe McLean went to work at the ‘Ruakura Hill Station’ where his father was a fencer. The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries had purchased the block to do sheep and beef research to help farmers increase production after WWII. The station of 2000 acres of rough hill country on the Raglan deviation, had been cleared from native bush in earlier times, but a lot of it had reverted to scrub, bracken and gorse due to lack of investment and technology. 

In 1952, the farm had virtually no fences, and even the boundary fence was in disrepair, and there were no decent farm roads or tracks to get around the property.  Joe said the Ministry of Works had the job of solving the access problems – and they had all the gear and expertise to do an excellent job.

Horse power
Horses were used to provide transport for men and materials around the farm, and fence battens and wire were packed out on pack saddles on the horses.  To save work, strainer posts were cut from the large Totara stumps left over from the initial bush clearing, and they were easy to saw and split for fence battens. Chainsaws were not available at that time.


Fencing and fence maintenance took up a large amount of Joe’s time, as did the demands of scientists for subdivision for their increasing number of trials to improve and manage pastures.  There must have been hundreds of miles of fence in the station.

Top dressing by air 
Fertiliser had been spread by hand on hill country up to the 1950s, when Ossie James pioneered top dressing first using tiger moth planes, and then much later, the American Fletcher arrived in New Zealand which was a leftover from the Vietnam war.  As a result of the 1939-45 war, there were many young men with flying experience who were keen to enter the developing top dressing industry.

To increase pasture production, the hills were starved of productive grass and clover species (seed spread from the air), which then needed lime and phosphate to help them grow.   Ossie James who was a great personal friend of Joe McLeans had the solution by flying on superphosphate and lime on to the hills.

Joe helped Ossie develop the hopper to hold the fertiliser under the plane, and the bunker to hold and protect the fertiliser from the weather, as well as the loader fitted on the front of a truck or tractor to fill the hopper on the plane.
A lot of this development was don the neighbouring Alf Moore’s airstrip and on other Raglan airstrips.

Joe had many wind-blown rides in Tiger Moth planes, sitting in seat in front of the pilot.  Joe’s boss and the first station Superintendent was Ted Clarke, and Ted’s son Dr Neil Clarke, who was brought up on the station, remembers his Dad relating how he had a rides in a Tiger Moth holding on the spars of the wing, to point out to the pilot which bits of the farm he wanted topdressing.

 In the 1970s, under Director Dr Doug Lang, Joe designed and oversaw the building of an airstrip on the station with the advice of James Aviation.  It was in the middle of the farm to save flying time and fuel.  It has a spectacular take off down a steep hill and a similarly impressive landing for empty planes coming up hill again.

The electric fence
The other great innovation, which helped to revolutionise hill country farming, was the development of the electric fence at Ruakura Research Centre by Doug Phillips, and then it’s commercialisation by Bill Gallagher. Bill consulted Joe on many aspects of hill country fencing in the early stages, and methods of erection.

Gallaghers purchased sawmills in Australia to mill the hard native Jarrah timber for fence posts, which they marketed as ‘insultimber’.  The wood was so dense that current couldn’t flow in them, but they were heavy to handle and were overtaken by plastic.

Due to the steep topography, in the initial clearing, the bush had been left in some of the gullies, which Joe said in later years had been a good idea to prevent erosion. Slips were a common feature of steep slopes in wet winters on the Maeroa ash soils.

In getting power to outlying paddocks, it was always tempting for farmers to run wires, high in the air across deep gullies, rather that take the fence down one steep side and up the other. These high wires were lethal for top dressing planes and had to have visual markers hung on them.  But even so, they were still dangerous and nobody was more aware of this than Joe McLean.

Water supply
Joe spent endless hours developing and maintaining the farm water supply, which became essential once more paddocks were needed for trials. Joe designed a complete farm water reticulation scheme, and carefully mapped it so pipes could be found by others and for future planning.  Water had to be pumped from main creeks to water tanks on top of hills for gravity feed to the rest of the farm.

It was a familiar site to find Joe crouched on a roadway by the side of a small hole he’d dug, 'rolly' cigarette hanging in the side of his mouth, and a small fire in the hole heating a plastic pipe to make a watertight joint.

 Then when more houses were built on the station in the 1970s and 1980s as staff expanded, Joe had their water and septic tank needs to worry about, as well as other maintenance issues.  There was always problems and complaints from tenants about water quality, which came from a main creek out the back of the farm, and which was very weather dependent, as after heavy rain was not good to produce clean washing. New families arriving had to accept a few weeks of gut problems until they ‘got adjusted!

On one occasion a large Friesian cow had fallen down the hill into this main creek and ended up on it’s back, very dead.  There was no way it could be pulled out, so Joe had the solution through his loyal staff member and fencer Jack Jones. Jack had ‘contacts’ at the Te Pahu quarry and a few sticks of gifted gelignite into the cow solved the problem beautifully, leaving a pristine creek in a matter of a mini seconds. You had to look hard to see any evidence of the cow on the surrounding hills.

 The homestead and hostel 

The old Homestead sign rescued by Ray Armstrong
The single men at the station were housed in the hostel’s six rooms under the eagle eye of Mrs (Ma) Smith. She fed them like fighting cocks, and provided food for shearers and visitors from all parts of the world who came to see the station’s work.  Joe was her right-hand man – and dealt with all her needs and complaints.  There were also a smaller single women’s quarters and Ma Smith made doubly sure they were kept well separated.  Ma Smith had good hearing and was very alert to squeaking spring beds!

Joe McLean was revered by a whole range of station Superintendents and Directors, as research expanded. The station changed to be controlled by a Director and dropped the title of the Ruakura Hill Station to be the Whatawhata Hill Country Research Station around 1967. 

As stated above, Ted Clarke was the first Superintendent, followed by veterinarian Dr Gordon Edgar, then Ian Inkster (‘overweight Ian’ Joe called him) and then Dr Doug Lang as the first Director with more independent administrative powers.   Doug was followed by station scientist Graeme Hight, and then Dr Peter Rattray who saw the station wind down.

A famous scientist was Dr Monika Wodzika Tomaszewska whose husband Matthew Wodzika was a shepherd on the farm and sadly died a young man. Monika moved to Ruakura after his death and I took her place, joining the staff from UK in 1968.

L to R:  Clive Dalton. Doug Lang and Minister of Agriculture (and Raglan MP) Doug Carter, visiting the station in 1975.  Photo by Ruakura photographer Don 'whiskers' McQueen taken at the top yards
 Sheep yards and cattle yards
Joe oversaw the building of endless sets of sheep and cattle yards all over the farm, doing both the planning and building. When Joe started at the station, there were no cattle yards, and the first set he built was at the woolshed by the Raglan road.  This building also included the main office, smoko room and scientists offices and lab.

Shepherds complained endlessly about how long it took to get stock from the back of the farm to the yards for routine handling, so pressure was on Joe in the early 1970s for a large new set of sheepyard as well as a cattle yard in the middle of the farm with the luxury of a covered roof.

The new woolshed 

New woolshed and yards in the centre of the farm. Location for Open Days
 The Ministry of Works got the contract to build a new woolshed, but the allocated money ran out before it was fully finished. Joe finished the job by using many small requisitions for material (with Doug Lang’s encouraged approval), without approval by the Research director (Dr Wallace) at Ruakura.  Joe and Doug were masters at this ‘art’ of getting around public service regulations.

 Joe had designed a cover for the new sheep yards but the Ministry of Works wouldn’t approve it, as it had to be made to stand a one-in-a-hundred year cyclone, so it ended up with massive laminated beams and decimation of the budget.

The swimming pool on the station was a classic joint venture by Doug and Joe.  It was officially a fire prevention reservoir for the houses! Photo below shows the Dalton kids (outside pair) and Peterson kids (centre pair) ready to dive in - about 1967.

Joe often joined the station kids for a well-earned swim at the weekends - there must have been 20 kids around the pool at any one time - and they always had friends from town to come and enjoy the fun.  Every kid on the station learned to swim in the pool

 Joe also had to manage the hygiene and testing of the pool and do all the ordering of chemicals. It was one of the few fire safety resevoirs with such high health standards -but no bureurcrat ever questioned this.

 Annual Field days
At the annual Field Day in Ruakura week in June, there would regularly be 1000 farmers who would trek their way (by foot and on wheels) up to the top yards to see scientists reporting their research. Even buses were driven up the one lane track to the terror of many passengers. 

To relieve visitors and staff from the suicide track, Joe oversaw the building of a new track down from the yards so a looped one-way traffic system could be used. This again was another McLean major engineering job.

Dog motels
The ‘dog motel’ was another masterpiece of Joe’s work. Before the top yards were built, the dogs were housed in kennels right outside the old woolshed and offices, and their barking and smell were always a challenge to conversation with visitors to the station, especially those from MAF head office in Wellington. 

So Joe had the job of designing a new set of kennel motel units for the 20 dogs, and it was a masterpiece of design and construction.  There was a spring coming out of the steep hill above the kennels, which Joe channeled into the motel to provide a constant supply of clean running water.

At Field days, Joe knew that farmers came to criticise, but they also quietly came to copy Joe’s ideas. Nothing made Joe happier.

Neil Woods - station engineer
Joe was greatly assisted in his innovative ideas by Neil Woods who was the workshop engineer. Difficult challenges took time, and impossible ones took a little longer for Neil who invented and made a mind-boggling range of gear.  These included bridges to be dropped across creeks, cradles to do laparoscopy on sheep, trailers to carry bulls, gates of all sorts and sizes, cattle stops galore, and a classic loading ramp with counterbalance weights so it could fit any size of truck deck. 

Paper work
Joe had an amazing admin load to keep the paper work going.  This was endless with materials needed by everyone on the station – right down to the meat from the Ruakura abattoir for the dogs.  All these orders required Joe to make a weekly trip (and more if needed), to the store at Ruakura in the station van or truck.  Beside the requisition book on Joe's desk was an official government ash tray made of Bakelite, full to overflowing with buts.

Weather station
The weather station was another of Joe’s responsibilities with daily collection of data to be sent to the Met office in Wellington.  Rangi Wood (Neil’s wife) did the reading, but Joe was her stand-in and had to supervise the data and make sure it got to Wellington each month on time.


Gorse was the biggest pest on all the Raglan hills, and spraying it was an annual battle which Joe did himself, and then supervised contractors like Bill Binder who worked at the station for decades.  They never won the war!  Bill Binder's spray unit was an old army troop carrier, which carried about a mile of hose that Bill dragged through man-high blocks of gorse.  His skin was permanently pink from the dye in the 245T spray. Bill lived well into his 90s so he must have had a strong tolerance of carcinogens.

Joe ended his days in retirement with his wife and lifelong supporter Molly, living on the station, looking out on all his hard work, but with the satisfaction that he had made a major contribution to New Zealand hill country research and farming.  We put him in twice  for a New Zealand honour , but he refused to accept one. That was the calibre of the man – he never wanted public recognition or thanks.  His death was sadly mourned by hundreds of those who had worked at the station over many decades, and from all parts of the world.

At the opening of the new buildings on the station around 1980,(which were subsequently moved to the Ruakura campus),  there was a station gathering at which I read my poem, and presented Joe and Neil Woods with ‘The Whatawhata Long Service Medal’ for their contribution to research.  It was a polished brass cow tag that we used before plastic tags were invented.  They should both have had real ones.

An Ode to Joe McLean, 
Farm manager for over 40 years service. Died 2008
By Clive Dalton 
The fence is down
The creek is blocked
The water's all aflo,
We're heading for a balls up
If we can't find blardy Joe.

The rails are on
The posts are in
But the concrete's drying slow,
Jock's bringing in the blardy cows
For God's sake send for Joe.

The shearing's due
The shed's not ready
The Min. of Works are slow,
We'll never finish it ourselves
Just leave the job to Joe.

The track has gone
The hillside's cracked
Any minute she could go,
We'll lose the whole damn'd paddock
We'd better send for Joe.

Jack's cut the pipe
The water's brown
The nappies ‘ill never clean,
Carol's talked to Rangi
And she's after Joe McLean.

A run cow’s died
She's in the creek
She's poisoning the domestic flow,
Jack's blown her out with jelly
Who showed him - it was Joe.

The weather's right
The fern's been lit
Back Range is all aglow,
Oh shit - the fire's in the bush
Jeeesus - send for Joe.

Ruakura’s phoned
They're seeking blood
The requisition's not been seen,
They're asking who approved the job
We all said - Joe McLean.

For all of us
Who spent time here
There's one thing we all know,
That we owe a massive vote of thanks
To our idol we call JOE!

And when that day
St Peter calls
Cos' his gorse has begun to grow,
He’ll open up the pearly gates
And say - Come in mate, you must be Joe!

Further reading
Farrelly, Elizabeth, J. (1986).  Whatawhata Hill Country Research Station.  An historical review.  Ejay Enterprises.  

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