Topic: We Asked for It by Sheila Armstrong

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As Allan and I stood waving goodbye to the Smiths, the former owners of our newly acquired back-country farm at Manawahe in the Bay of Plenty, my feelings were mixed. I felt a sense of achievement at finally having a farm of our own after working for other people on sheep farms for three years, but also there was the realisation that we knew little about dairy farming and were now on our own, totally responsible for looking after and milking a herd of 52 Ayrshire cows and running the 350 acres of pumice land (only one hundred in grass and the rest in native bush.)

How were we going to manage with Anthony only three and Vivian one-and-a-half?

The burden of milking and farm management would fall on Allan. Life in the RAF wasn’t exactly the right training for running a New Zealand farm, and I was used to the comfortable existence of English town life. However, this was the life we had chosen so we had to get on with it.

Now the Smiths had left, after showing us the ropes over the weekend, it was time to unpack some of the trunks, arrange furniture and have a snack before Allan had to go in search of the cows. The children were happy exploring and rediscovering their packed-away toys, while I brought in firewood to light the wood-burning-stove and prepare a meal.

After feeding the children and getting them to bed, I looked up from washing the dishes to see how Allan was getting on with the milking. The cowshed was up the hill, visible from the kitchen window, and there were still several cows waiting in the yard to be milked. It seemed to be taking a long time.

I rushed up the hill to find Allan hot and tired, wrestling with a recalcitrant cow which didn’t want to go into the bail.

“These cows are really wild,” Allan panted. “By the time I get them into the bail, leg-rope them, catch their filthy tails and stick them in the mouse traps, get the cups on, with them trying to kick me, and then clean up the mess they’ve deposited on the concrete, it’s time for the next battle.”

The Smiths had developed the farm from standing bush after the First World War. After thirty hard years they’d given up the struggle and had done little to improve the pasture and repair the fences in recent years. The paddocks were littered with felled trees and stumps, and ragwort flourished unchecked. There was no tractor, but we’d acquired two draft horses along with the other stock, so Allan learnt how to work with them until we bought a wheeled tractor - the first in the area. Most farmers had caterpillar tractors to cope with the hills.

There was a scarcity of water troughs; an absolute necessity for milking cows. The only one was near the milking shed, so the cows tended to wander back for a drink, finding their way through the broken fences. More troughs and secure fences had to be the first priority if the cows were to produce more milk. I stayed at the shed to help Allan clean up, and when we’d at last finished washing down the yards and sterilising the separator, Allan took the cows to the back paddock where there was more feed.

We crept home, thoroughly weary, feeling we’d bitten off a bit more than we could manage. Was milking always going to be such a nightmare? Neither of us felt very hungry, so we sank down on the sofa and drifted off to sleep. We aroused ourselves enough to get to bed, thinking that we only had a few hours until the whole performance began all over again.

In the morning, Allan went off wearily to find the herd. They were not in the paddock where he’d left them; many had escaped through the broken fence into the bush. Milking was rather late that morning.

The pasture was poor, so fertiliser had to be applied with the aid of a draught horse and sledge. This was made more difficult by the trunks of dead trees, some standing and others lying abandoned all over the paddocks like a graveyard.

In time, Allan learnt from neighbours how to use gunpowder to blow them to pieces, small enough to be dragged out of the way and finally burnt. There were a few singed eyebrows in the process, but luckily no real damage. In retrospect, this seems such a waste of good timber, but at least we had a plentiful supply of firewood for the stove and open fire.

We were fortunate to obtain the help of an old bushman, Bill, who could turn his hand to anything. We’d sold our faithful old Essex car and were lucky in buying one of the very few new 30 cwt Morris trucks available in this time of shortages. With Allan’s help, Bill built stock-frames to fit on to the back so he could take cows to the sale yards and bring back sacks of fertiliser.

Bill split fence posts from the timber lying around, and was an expert fencer. When he got his pay, he’d go down to Matata and drink at the local pub, staying away until his money ran out. He paid no heed to Allan’s advice to save his money for his old age, saying that the state would look after him. Bill was a kind old man and good with the children.

Though there was much to do on the farm, the house also needed attention. The long-drop toilet had to go and so did the copper in the washhouse/bathroom. I had to use it for a while until we saved enough to buy a washing machine. At least the birds didn’t nest in the chimney preventing the fire from catching, as they had in our first house.

There was no hot water for the bath. We tried bringing buckets of hot water down from the shed, where it was necessary for sterilising the separator, but by the time we had a few inches in the bottom of the bath, the water was stone cold.

Lighting the copper and baling out the water for the daily bath didn’t seem an option. A complete renovation of the room was necessary. But the house had to wait. The farm had first claim on Allan’s time.

By the end of the first season we had saved enough, and had the time to think about the house. There was a carpenter doing renovations in the area, who was happy to come and live in, while fixing up the house. Allan gave him a hand with lining the sitting room and the soot-blackened bathroom. Previously the wallpaper pasted on to hessian had billowed in and out as the wind blew through the wall boards.

Jack built kitchen cupboards and made a hatch through from the kitchen to the dining area. Then he extended the kitchen to make room for a washing machine and tubs. The old copper was removed and a hand-basin and flush toilet installed, with a septic tank dug under the back lawn. This was built with the help of a neighbour, following instructions from a book. Building regulations were a thing of the future.

We also discovered why my cakes didn’t rise in spite of piling wood into the stove. The alterations uncovered day-light through the rusty back of the oven. Nothing for it but to buy a new stove and an electric water heater.

At that time there were electricity cuts, so I decided it would be better to have an electric water heater that was only on for a few hours a day, than having the power going off when I was cooking a meal, so we got another wood-burning stove. When putting in the new sink, Allan discovered there were no waste pipes. The water just poured on to a wooden trough, very rotten and slimy, and then seeped through into the soil.

Life was a bit chaotic while these renovations were being done. I had to cook on the old stove in the garden, rather like a barbecue.

Allan developed a septic finger after we’d been there for about three weeks, so I had to learn how to milk in order to help him. There were other times when I had to help in the fields, bake for the hay-makers, feed the pigs, chop kindling from the logs Allan sawed up, and try to become a ‘good farmer’s wife’, as well as looking after the two children. However by the beginning of the next season things were coming right.

Manawahe is an experience I wouldn’t have missed although it was hard work at the time. I think we were too busy to worry about it then, but looking back it amazes me how we managed.


About the writer: Sheila Armstrong has published two books of short stories, The Luck of the Draw and Travels with the Essex. She followed them with two historical novels about British Guiana, The Chill of the Tropics about British Guiana, and its sequel, Exodus from Demerara.

Greener Pastures is another novel, based on her early experiences of farming in the backblocks of New Zealand. My Two Grandmothers was written for her family.

‘We Asked for It’ was Sheila’s entry for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region) with support from Tauranga Writers.


Sheila, Vivian and Anthony in the cow paddock.


Looking down at the cowshed and piggeries and over to the neighbour’s house across the road.


Allan, Vivian and Anthony on the haystack.


The Manawhe farm, showing the house from the road with the children sitting in the hutch for the cream cans.


Building the haystack.


This page archived at Perma Cc in October of 2016:

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