The Old Apple Tree

There’s nothing quite like crunchy, crisp apples straight from the tree. But if you ask your great-granny about her youth, I guarantee she’ll say, “Apples tasted better back then.”

And it’s true!


Since the 20th century we’ve let many old varieties of fruit and vegetables slip quietly into oblivion — and with them have gone taste… aroma…and diversity. Count up how many different apple names you can see on the supermarket shelves. You might see six, but years ago there would have been dozens throughout the country.

It’s both sad and dangerous for the environment that we’ve lost so much plant diversity in the last hundred years. That’s why we treasure the oldest tree on our farm.

Mystery

In a quiet gully, far from prying eyes, stands an old apple tree.

Why is she there, far from the houses and sheds on the farm?

The now-dry creek used to wash down through the paddocks and home orchards on the terraces above. Perhaps an apple tumbled downstream, or a bird deposited a seed as it flew by?

However it happened, a seed sprouted and against all the odds, our tree thrived. How long she’s been there no-one can say but she’s old in New Zealand apple-tree-years, make no mistake about that.

An ancient apple tree, grows alone in a farm gully.
The old apple tree nestles in a gully, far from prying eyes.

A Special Apple Tree

But it’s not just the isolation, nor even her age that makes our old girl special, for she is a heritage tree. Because she has grown from seed this tree is actually unique — the only one of her kind in the world. You can’t be more special than that.

And her apples are beautiful; cooking apples like your great-grandparents grew. Raw they are tart on your taste buds, but cooked they turn fluffy, sweet and delicious. You might find apples like these in a farmer’s market, but never on the supermarket shelves.

Apples on the tree on a rainy day.

Our family loves this old apple tree, and when we climb up the gully each year at harvest time there’s a niggle of worry at the back of my mind.

“What if a fire raced unexpectedly down the dry gully? Would we lose her if disease struck? Even trees succumb eventually to old age…”

The world is losing its unique plants and animals at an alarming rate. I would hate for our old tree to join that list.

And yet, we may have worried, but year after year we stayed stuck in procrastination mode, until one day we met Riverton’s famous tree-saving duo.

Tree-Saviours Arrive On The Farm

Robert and Robyn Guyton are passionate permaculturalists and have developed their once-gorse-covered Riverton property into a food farm which supplies most of their daily needs. They are also the guiding lights behind the Riverton Environmental Centre and are well known in Southland for their conservation efforts and their enthusiasm about saving trees.

One windy, wet Sunday in early spring, Robert and Robyn decided to explore the old orchards around the Garston area. Our son Chris found them peering at some trees near the woolshed.

“These trees aren’t bad,” he told them, waving his hand around the nearby orchard, “but would you like to see the best tree on the farm?”

Of course they would. So he drove them up the gully to the quiet old tree.

So that’s how it came about that when Terry and I drove home from church that Sunday morning, we discovered Robert, Robyn and Chris all dripping wet and happily stowing cuttings into their car.

“What a find!” the Guytons smiled.

Robyn Shields

One of the Guytons’ missions is to train other people up in the art of tree-saving. So they passed the cuttings onto Robyn Shields, a former student of theirs, who lives not far from Queenstown.

Robyn Shields photographing the heritage apples.
Robyn Shields photographing apples from our heritage tree.

Robyn’s always loved old things so the idea of saving plants that might otherwise disappear for good immediately attracted her interest.

Naturally, she was keen to learn how to graft trees from the Guytons as part of their programme aimed at saving Southland heritage apple trees. In fact, the idea combined Robyn’s two favourite passions: gardening and antiques.

Not long ago the Shields were immersed in running a busy paua shell and souvenir business in Riverton but when they retired to Queenstown, Robyn ‘seized the day’ and set up a tree-saving haven in her backyard.

Grafting Baby Apple Trees

To get a true replica of an apple tree you need a cutting — or scion —  from the new growth of your original tree, and a rootstock to graft it onto.

Rootstocks come from trees that are particularly hardy and disease-resistant. They’ll ensure that the new tree has well-developed roots and a good uptake of nutrients. The rootstock also determines the size of the new tree and you can find ones from dwarf all the way up to vigorous (which are likely to be huge.)

When the new growth has hardened up — usually in late winter — Robyn takes cuttings from the old tree, pops them in the fridge and ensures that she’s got enough rootstock growing in her nursery.

When spring arrives it’s time to graft the scion.

First, Robyn carefully makes a split in the top centre of the rootstock stem. The next step involves shaving the bottom of the scion into a wedge and inserting it into the split. She tapes the two together with a special tape which will wear off over time.

Our Baby Heritage Trees

When I went to visit Robyn this summer she showed me a group of splendid, year-old saplings from our tree,. They’re growing strong and straight in her nursery garden.

Heritage apple tree saplings in growing in Robyn Shield's tree nursery.

Interestingly, these saplings are hardy, and appear to be particularly resistant to insect damage. The weather had been warm and wet and Robyn’s garden was plagued with aphids, but there was not one to be found on our young apple trees.

In winter it will be time for the trees to move on from their protected nursery, so we’ve got until then to decide where to plant them on the farm.

Looking Ahead

Now that Robyn’s got the tree-saving bug she hopes to be able to replicate other rare fruit trees around the Queenstown area.

After all, there are remnants of old orchards which date back to Queenstown’s gold mining days — especially out in isolated areas such as Macetown, or closer to civilisation at the Chinese Settlement restoration in Arrowtown.

Of course, Robyn would need permission from DOC and other organisations before she can work in those sorts of places. But she is allowed to plant some of her newly-produced trees in a designated area around the lower Shotover. In the future, that could mean that some rarer fruit is available for all to enjoy.

Thanks Are Due

The English and Scottish settlers who came to Southland and Otago brought many trees from their homelands. They have adapted to New Zealand conditions and have now become unique to us.

In these days of mass production where plant diversity is plummeting in the world, it’s wonderful to have people who care enough to work to preserve nature in all its many diverse forms.

Thank you Robyn, Robyn and Robert for your work to preserve our own little slice of apple tree history.

Black bucket full of heritage cooking apples.
A bucket of heritage apples picked last April, ready to be cooked for meal-time goodness.

Autumn on the farm is such a busy season. The men are busy harvesting the grain but I’m focused on gathering all the other food that nature is providing. My 2018 “Autumn Harvest On The Farm” series is a celebration of nature’s bounty and the foresight of the farmers who began developing this farm more than 100 years ago.

More Tree Stories On TOML

Gum Trees On The Farm Walnut Trees On The Farm


Is This Your First Visit To Time Of My Life?

Discover the Who, What and Why of TOML.

Check out my home page here and my behind the scenes story here.

Shane Matheson: Training Horses With Love

Shane Matheson trains racehorses — pacers to be precise. I could say he does it in his spare time, but he really doesn’t have any.

I’ve never been to a racing stables before but I’m fascinated by the whole horse training process. So it was thrilling to visit Shane and his partner Lisa at their Balfour stables to find out what makes a racehorse trainer tick.

A Good Trainer Knows His Horses

Shane Matheson shares a quiet moment with his horse after training.
Shane Matheson shares a quiet moment with his horse Charlton Reactor after training.

It’s easy to tell that Shane Matheson loves to train horses.

He speaks about them the way a good teacher talks about the children in their class. You can hear love and affection, frustration and pride. And, most of all, a deep understanding of each individual personality and what makes them tick.

The frustration comes from seeing potential go unrealised.

“I know it’s in there,” he says of one horse. “It’s just how to help him get it out.”

But that’s a skill that Shane has honed over years, and it seemed to me that he is pretty good at it.

Horses And Sheep — Somehow Shane Does It All

Racehorse training is a time-consuming life, and yet only the big guns can afford to make it a career. Smaller trainers have to fit the horse work around their other full-time jobs.

We see Shane several times a year, when he brings his crutching trailer to the farm.

Shane Matheson at his day job: crutching sheep on the trailer.

When you crutch a sheep you shear around their back end and legs. It clears off any dirt or dags and helps to keep the sheep clean. Most farmers can do it themselves, but for big mobs, it’s easier to call in experts like Shane and Lisa with their crutching trailer.

Crutching sheep day after day is hard physical work — and the travel time takes its toll too. Shane and Lisa start early and often arrive home late.

But no matter how full of sheep the day is, they always have time for their horses.

How Do They Do It?

That’s why on most days of the week you’ll find Shane rolling out of bed at four in the morning. His first priority is always feeding the horses. Then, all too soon, it’s time for the truck and crutching trailer to roll out the gate.

Usually the horses are out in the paddocks — they thrive on being outside with freedom to move. It gives Shane extra distance to cart the feed buckets, but less time mucking-out the stables.

However, dishing out up to 17 breakfasts isn’t the only morning chore.

“The horses need to build up their fitness,” he explained, “so they go jogging most days.”

A Racing Stable Needs A Team

Shane doesn’t have the time to exercise the horses in the morning. So, usually, friend and neighbour Jane Orr comes in to help.

“We simply couldn’t do it without Jane,” Lisa told me, and Shane nodded a fervent agreement.

Jane and Lisa are largely responsible for keeping the horses fit.

Separately or together, they hitch the horses to the jogging trailer which tows behind the ute. That way they can lead up to seven horses around the track at the same time.

Each one needs between 10 and 30 minutes of jogging time a day depending on their stage of fitness.

You can see how getting fit could take a good chunk out of the morning.

Lisa and Shane’s son Tristan is another vital team member. With so many of their daylight hours taken up with crutching, Tristan’s often the one you’ll find doing the night-time feeding round.

The teamwork continues onto race days as well. Sadly, for Shane, he often finds himself crutching on racing days while Lisa does the trainer duties at the track. That’s where 19-year-old Tristan comes to the rescue once more, by taking Lisa’s place as chief rousie and sheep-mover.

Training On The Home Track

Of course, Shane would rather be in the sulky than crutching sheep so each day he’s the one you’ll find behind the harness doing the training runs. The horses love their newly-sanded home track. Since Balfour’s so far inland this is the closest they’ll get to training on the beach.

There are many things for a pacer to learn, but the most important is to love the whole experience.

Shane Matheson in the sulky training a horse on his home track.

It’s exhilarating to watch a horse and sulky zoom past at close range on the practice track. I bet Shane is feeling it even more in the sulky.

Keeping The Horses Fed And Happy

Every trainer has his own magic mixture to feed his horses. Shane’s includes crushed barley, Betabeet, various oils and plenty of seaweed.

Seaweed is said to prevent mud fever* in horses. Shane can’t swear that’s true. But he can say that the horses haven’t had mud fever since he started them on seaweed.

The horses may be lucky enough to spend much of their time in paddocks but they’re still fed morning and night.  And not all the horses get the same mixture.

What they eat depends on a whole lot of other factors. This one’s ready to race; that one’s looking off-colour. Another horse is pregnant… each one has a different brew.

And occasionally a new horse will arrive with some interesting foibles.

Shane pointed to the farthest-away tree in the paddock.

“One horse would only eat over there when he first arrived,”

It’s the coldest, windiest spot on the farm. But every morning Shane had to lug the heavy feed bucket across the wet grass to that chosen tree. In every other spot the horse turned up his nose.

“We got him out of that habit pretty quick, Shane admitted. “He’ll eat anywhere, now.”

Where Do They Come From?

It’s expensive to own and train a racing horse and many people want their horses to win early on. So quite a few of the Matheson’s horses are ‘cast outs’ from bigger stables.


Shane, on the other hand, takes a longer view.

We went to see another horse who’d lately arrived at Shane’s stables a little depressed and refusing to eat. Now, he gobbles his food along with the best of them.

“The potential’s there,” Shane said.

“But this year my priority is getting him fit, healthy and enjoying himself. We’ll give him lots of joyful experiences now so that he’ll be raring to go out and reach that potential.”

We watched as Shane harnessed him into the training sulky. “I’m not sure how he’s going to go,” he admitted. “This is his first run in a while.”

Shane must already be working his magic. Two minutes later that horse was flying around the track and loving every minute of it.

2004 — A Race To Remember

When you’re running late something is bound to go wrong. Take the day that Happy Gilmore was entered into the Tuapeka Cup.

“We got a speeding ticket dashing through Clinton.”

That’s enough to put anyone in a tizzy, but worse followed on the Dunedin motorway. Happy Gilmore began rearing in the box.

You can’t scream to a halt in a horse box, and by the time Shane had pulled over Happy Gilmore’s leg was completely stuck, and his stablemate was not impressed.

“So we had take the other horse out — with cars zooming past — so we could manoeuvre the leg back out.”

It was no easy task.

“By the time we finished he was holding up his leg, looking really sorry for himself. And I thought ‘Damn, we’ll have to scratch him.’”

But they still had another horse — and his race came first.

Gradually, Happy Gilmore seemed to improve so into the sulky he went. Horse and driver galloped off down the course. Enough was enough! Shane decided to go for a drink.

As it turned out, it was just as well he did.

Happy Gilmore refused to settle. The stipes (stewards) decided that Shane would have to withdraw him from the race. So the call went out over the loudspeaker: “Shane Matheson, report immediately.”

In the bar, Shane was oblivious to the fracas holding up the whole race.

Eventually the driver took matters into his own hand and galloped the horse back to the start. This time, as soon as racing got underway, Happy Gilmore paced beautifully.

And, in the best of horseracing traditions, after all that, he won the race.

What’s Next For Shane

Shane’s cautiously excited about his current team — both horse and human.

He can’t say enough about Sheree Tomlinson, his regular driver, and with good reason. Sheree’s the top junior driver in Australasia, and Shane thanks his lucky stars that she’s an integral part of his racing team.

The horses are pacing out of their skins too.

Hurricane Banner set the scene at Gore on February 9th with a come-from-behind win in the last race of the day.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Shane standing with his horse Hurricane Banner.
Shane and Hurricane Banner relaxing at home before the big race.

Reading More On The Blog

Shane’s day job is running a busy crutching trailer business. He’s an expert who makes our farming lives easier by doing the job quicker and better than we ever could. You can read more about life on the farm here.

Our communities are full of people who bring great things into the world by following their dreams. Some create beautiful or useful things. Others – like Shane – bring joy through sport or entertainment. Still more own small businesses which serve others with useful and innovative products. You can read some of their stories here.

“The Shane and Jane Show” by Harness Link

Sheree Tomlinson at the 2018 Australasian Young Driver’s Championship

*Mud fever causes irritation and dermatitis on a horse’s legs. Wikipedia, as usual, has a comprehensive explanation.

Is This Your First Visit To Time Of My Life?

Discover the Who, What and Why of TOML.

Check out my home page here and my behind the scenes story here.

The Great Rides App: Gary Patterson

The Tracks We Take

The Great Rides App is the brainchild of Kingston’s Gary Patterson. The app’s a super resource to guide cyclists along the greatest bike trails in New Zealand. It’s a brilliant idea — but where did it come from?

It turns out that Gary’s own trail has been an adventure-filled ride all the way.

Gary Patterson with his cycle and phone using the Great Rides App
Gary Patterson with The Great Rides App.

A Map-Filled Life

Gary Patterson has loved maps as long as he can remember.

“It’s just the way my brain works,” he says. “I’m terrible with names and don’t ask me to tell you anything about the book I read last week. But I can remember every last detail about trails that I rode months ago.”

As a kid, he constantly pored over maps — any sort would do. “I spent ages following the contour lines on topographical maps,” he says.

Given all that, it now seems inevitable that he would do a degree in cartography.


I love that word, cartography. It has that association with history, with crafting maps.

Gary Patterson

Pioneer cartographers have been crafting maps all over the world for centuries and it turns out that Gary has been adding his own adventurous maps to that treasure trove.

From Suit and Tie to Green Fleece and Boots:

Gary Patterson grew up in the Waikato and never dreamed that one day he’d be settling in the South Island. But destiny called when he and his wife Kim decided to take a road trip. As they drove through the tiny township of Fox Glacier Kim turned to Gary.

“We could live here!” she said.

Gary just laughed. After all, they lived in the winterless north, Whangarei to be exact. He had a comfortable job as a planning consultant. What could they possibly do in Fox?

Yet within a year, he’d swapped his suit and tie for a sturdy DOC “green fleece” and he and Kim were firmly ensconced at Fox Glacier.

Most DOC people only manage a year or two in Fox but Gary bucked the trend and spent ten happy years on the West Coast, project managing the huts and tracks and monitoring pest control in the great forests and mountains which surround the area.  

Innovating with GIS

He did have a few frustrations, mainly around the outdated systems he had to use. After a bait mission, Gary might wait weeks to get the data he needed from the busy helicopter pilots.

It was desperately inefficient.

But, if he used GIS (Geographic Information System) software he’d be able to combine mapping and other data. It would be easy to make a quick, detailed analysis. And he could spot any holes that the pilots had missed.

Gary and his manager, Woody,  thought it was a no-brainer to use GIS technology in the delicate environment around Fox — and eventually, the powers-that-be agreed.

And it was also in Fox Glacier that Gary and Kim bought a pair of cheap mountain bikes and started riding wherever they could find a track. Gary didn’t realise it then, but it was a purchase that would change their lives.

To Portugal …

One day Gary ’s mate said, “I’ve got an awesome chance to join a cycle-trail gang in Portugal. Want to come along?”

It turned out to be not just riding a trail but hand-building it from scratch; surely an opportunity too good to miss.

But Gary nearly didn’t get the job.

The application form asked, “How much is your cycle worth for insurance purposes?” Wow, apparently he would be biking the trails he built.

Gary scratched his head. He hadn’t paid much for his slightly battered bike so he guessed $100 and carried on down the form.

“I think you’ve left a 0 off your cycle estimate” came back the reply.

“No,” Gary confirmed. “That’s pretty much what it’s worth”

Later he discovered that they seriously wondered, for a minute, if a $100 bike owner was the right person for this mission.

But his skills and mapping experience won the day and Gary became the team manager of a Kiwi trail-building gang. It wasn’t an easy job wielding a grubber day after day but the remote location and the friendships formed made this an experience beyond words.

… And Beyond!

Building a cycle trail with shovels and grubbers, high in the mountains of Chile.

Trail building by hand — this time not in Portugal but in Chile.

One trail-building job led to another, and each year Gary found himself working in some of the most remote and beautiful locations on the planet. The mountains of Portugal, Canada, NZ, Australia and Patagonia became home, for a while.

In time he was offered his ideal job: the chance to be the “manager of the trail managers.”


“ It was a once-in-a-lifetime job. Who wouldn’t want to ride trail amongst the coffee plantation of Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, whiz downhill past cedar giants [in Canada], or bike around remote and pristine glacier lakes in the Patagonia Andes with condors soaring overhead?”

Gary Patterson
Trail-builders on the cycle track in the Chilean mountains, cooking dried bread to make it more palatable.

Cooking dry bread in Patagonia, to make it easier to eat.

But, incredibly, this wasn’t the only job taking Gary abroad. He also had another chance of a lifetime, helping to eradicate pests in the subantarctic islands.

By now somewhat used to extreme temperatures and remote locations, Gary couldn’t resist. So he headed south to the Furious Fifties, home to marine life beyond compare — and the weather to match.

Ridding The Sub Antarctic Of Rodents

Macquarie Island

Rodents were wrecking the delicate ecosystem on Macquarie Island. Gary’s job in the eradication mission was mapping, monitoring and recording what actually took place using GIS software.

“It’s vital not to miss any little pockets of land because of the different rodent ranges,” he told me. “Rats, for example, have a larger range than mice, which tend to stick to one small area. If you happened to miss a pocket where mice were they could easily spread again and ruin all the hard work.”

Administered by Tasmania, Macquarie Island has now been declared predator-free after seven years of monitoring. It’s a magical place, once more filled with elephant seals, penguins and oftentimes foul weather.

“We had eight days work to do on Macquarie,” Gary remembers, “We spent three months there and the winds never let up enough for the helicopters to fly. In the end, we had to leave and go back another time.”

Elephant seals and Gentoo penguins on Macquarie Island.

Gentoo penguins and massive elephant seals on Macquarie Island.

South Georgia

South Georgia — home to spectacular glaciers and teeming with wildlife —  stole Gary’s heart.

The little cemetery and Shackleton's grave at South Georgia Island.

This is the island renowned as Shackleton’s final resting place. He is buried within cooee of the whaling station which saved his life — and that of his crew — during their ill-fated Antarctic expedition. (You can read more about Shackleton here.)

“We had three-ton elephant seals roaring and cavorting in the night, whole pods of whales – seven different kinds. Then you have the penguins!”

Penguin poo, however, was something that Gary could have done without. “You wouldn’t believe how bad a penguin colony can smell.”

But it was the scenery; mountains and huge ice caps which made South Georgia so special — and global warming which made the pest eradication mission so urgent.

With 70% of the island covered in glaciers at that time, the Norwegian rats and other rodents were kept in relatively small, isolated pockets. But with the glaciers shrinking there was a very real danger that the rat populations could join and explode.

Helicopter flying into land on a ship's helipad at South Georgia Island. Glaciers and mountains in the background.

Helicopter coming landing on the HQ ship’s helipad at South Georgia. The island has recently been declared rodent free.

Too Much Travelling

Even the most seasoned travellers can have too much of a good thing and it was hard being away from Kim so much.

One year Gary worked out that he’d spent a month hanging around in planes and airports trying to get from one place to another. And another month just on boats.

Just at that time, Tom O’Brien had a brilliant idea to build a cycle trail at Welcome Rock. What a good excuse to stay home. Gary was delighted to help.

Other New Zealand opportunities followed until one day he found a new venture— one that, despite all his skills — he had never imagined doing.

Developing the Great Rides App

“We were riding the Alps to Ocean trail,” says Gary, and got a bit disoriented. I pulled out my phone thinking ‘There’s bound to be an app for this’ — but there wasn’t.”

So, Gary decided to build one, and The Great Rides App was born.

Gary and Kim Patterson on their cycles GPS mapping the Old Ghost Trail for the Great Rides App.

GPS mapping the Old Ghost Road Track for the Great Rides App.

Working on the App

You wouldn’t believe the work that’s gone into this app. I was spellbound by the detail and I’m not even into biking. It’s such an asset for a modern day trail cyclist.

For the Great Rides App, Gary has ridden and mapped every one of the 22 major New Zealand cycle trails — and eight bonus trails to boot.

Creating it was six months of great adventure and intense work.

“There can be patchy GPS coverage in isolated spots,” he explained. “So I took three trackers which marked the trail every one second. That way if one unit seemed to be ‘off-course’ I knew the other two would be right.”

He also took photos at every point of interest along the way. These, along with Gary’s concise, informative notes are available as part of the app. It’s a phenomenal achievement.

What’s Next For The Great Rides App?

Even once you’ve developed an app it seems there’s a lot of on-going work to do. Gary is now busily updating info, changing pics, and double-checking that all his maps are aligned with those of DOC and his official partner The New Zealand Cycle Trail.

He also maintains the App’s links to the gear, food and accommodation providers along the path of each trail. Gary’s also proving to be quite a prolific writer, as he writes regular articles for several cycling print and online publications.

If You’re A Trail Cyclist, You’ll Love This Free App

Download button for Apple App Store.

More Pattersons On The Blog

Kim Patterson is also a go-getter who knows how to follow her dreams. She’s one half of the talented woodworking duo at The Cusp. You can read about them on Time Of My Life at The Cusp: Graceful Furniture Designs

And, of course, Gary is the co-designer of the Welcome Rock Trail, which also features as a bonus trail on his Great Rides App. You can find Welcome Rock featured on Time Of My Life at Welcome Rock: Trails and Tributes

Is This Your First Visit To Time Of My Life?

Discover the Who, What and Why of TOML.

Check out my home page here and my behind the scenes story here.

Making Hay While The Sun Shines

Summer is haymaking season on the farm and I love to reflect on how making hay has changed over the years. We still use dried grass but our ancestors wouldn’t believe how we can make hay now.

The tractor fluffing up rows of hay with the hay-bob in perfect, sunny haymaking conditions.
Terry’s Massey-Ferguson tractor fluffing up rows of hay with the hay-bob.
Our farming ancestors would be so impressed with how easy this is. 

The Easy Way To Make Hay

At its simplest, hay is just dried grass stored for the winter. Cousin Matt, with just five sheep to feed, has haymaking down to a fine art.

At some point during the summer, when he’s cutting a paddock of hay down that way, Terry will run the mower along the grass verges near Matt’s house.

A few days later when the long grass has dried Matt simply picks it up and dumps it into large sacks (called fadges). Hey, presto! Winter feed is done and dusted.

But of course when you have 3000+ mouths to feed the process becomes a bit more complicated.

Back In The Day

Once upon a time, skilled farm-hands would have cut a paddock of long grass with sickles — those wicked-looking long curved, super-sharp blades. Others would follow behind and hand-spread it to dry.

A few days later, the hay was pitchforked into huge piles called rucks.

It was all slow going and hugely labour intensive. No wonder that farmers began to embrace the new technology of tractors and hay-makers when it began to surface.

Working the stationary hay baler at the Vintage Machinery day in Garston, February 2019.
John and Graham Petersen demonstrating hay making using an early stationary baler at the Garston Vintage Machinery Day, February 2019.
Farmers would have towed a “sweeper” behind a horse to gather up piles of hay and dump it beside the baler. The strings are threaded between each bale with a giant metal needle, then tightened and tied by hand. This process needed at least four people: one to fork the hay, one either side to tie the strings, and one to drive the horse.
And don’t forget the cook at home making the mountains of food needed to fuel all the workers.

Square Baling On The Move

By the time I came onto the farming scene, haymaking had become rather more sophisticated. One person could mow the grass with a tractor and mower, turn it over with a tedder or a hay rake, and tie it up with a baler which moved with the tractor. (Nowadays we call them square bales, although of course, they’re not actually square at all.)

The Tedder - a long, angled machine with 6 wheels and multiple tines which turn the hay over to dry.
The tedder runs behind a tractor. The tines on those six wheels are constantly scooping up the hay and turning it over to dry underneath.

The baler pumped out the bales and dropped them onto the ground ready to be stacked. Usually we towed a gatherer behind which slid the bales along the paddock until there were enough to make a stack.

My job was building the stacks. No need for a gym membership in those days  — freshly-made bales made great weights! And of course, since the finished stacks were always head-height, I needed an extra bit of oomph to heave the last bales on top.

A temporary stack of 13 hay bales in the paddock.
A temporary stack like this is the perfect size for a tractor to pick up with a clamp and cart back to the hay shed. The bales would be re-stacked inside the shed, to keep them safe and dry till winter. If rain was threatening, we would tie a cover over the top to protect the bales until they could be shifted. 

Introducing The Sledge aka “The Man-Killer”

Another way to build the stacks was on a sledge which towed along directly behind the baler. You stood on the sledge and picked up each heavy bale as it pumped out of the machine. Relentlessly, every 10 seconds, another bale to lift and stack. No wonder we groaned when the sledge came out.

Hamish and Peter Naylor just happened to be baling small bales the other day.  
You can imagine how tiring this process can be when you have to stack a whole paddock’s worth of bales using the sledge.

Rain Covers

“Grab the covers,” ordered Terry. “It’s going to rain.”

So I dropped everything and loaded the car up with the dusty covers piled in a corner of the workshop. (In later years I had to add kids and the latest baby as well.)

Nowadays, there’s not the same panic if it rains; the big modern round bales are reasonably waterproof. But the small bales would rot if they got wet so we had to protect them if we didn’t want to lose the lot.

There’s an art to covering a stack in the quickest time possible — and sometimes we did have to be quick! I lost count of the times we had to dash down to the hay paddock because of looming rain clouds.

Working together, two people could cover a stack and dash onto the next in a couple of minutes and it was actually pretty fun to race the rain.  

Folding — and unfolding — the covers correctly so that they were quick to use was one of the first things I learned on the farm. I can still almost do it in my sleep.

A tractor takes a clamp full of hay bales up to the hay shed where the men are waiting to stack them in their permanent home.
Photo courtesy of Peter and Pam Naylor.
You can see how the stack of 13 bales fits perfectly into the tractor clamp. This is easier than tossing each bale from the truck up into the hay shed by hand, as we sometimes had to do.

Keeping Up With The Times — Technology Moves On

But although haymaking had become easier and faster than those earlier times, we still needed a lot of hands on deck to make it happen. Nowadays, just as winter feeding out has become a one-man-band, Terry can also make the hay all by himself.

Cutting the Hay

Modern mowers are huge, noisy and fast. Ours is by no means the latest model, but it can still turn a huge paddock into long, flat rows of mown grass in just a few hours.

Turning the Hay

If the weather-gods are kind and the sun shines bright, the grass will be ready to turn in a day or two. Often, the rows are so thick that the grass dries on top, but stays wet underneath. Then we have to turn them over (called tedding.).

Later, he’ll go round again with a “haybob” which fluffs up the hay and puts it into defined rows which are easy for the baler to pick up.

Ready to Bale

In a few days, the hay will be ready to bale, and that’s when the big round baler swings into action. (Of course just as the “square bales” aren’t really square, “round bales” are actually cylinders. Who knows how they came to be called round?)

So, around the paddock we go for the 4th time. This time the baler chomps up the fluffy rows of grass and spits the hay bale out the back like a hen laying an egg.

A hay baler opens to release a large round bale of hay.
The hay baler opens to release a large round bale of hay.

Each bale is the equivalent of a whole stack of square bales and there’s no stacking or stooking to do. The tractor simply picks up the round bales and carts them off to the hay shed.

A Bountiful Summer

In Garston, we have to feed our stock in winter. There are months and months where the grass doesn’t grow, and our sheep depend on hay, balage and grain to survive.

And the weather in spring and summer is a crucial factor in the cycle of winter feed.

This year we’ve been blessed with plenty of rain — but not so much that we’re drowning in it. There’s plenty of grass in the paddocks, and lots to spare for haymaking.

Last summer — in the middle of our two-year drought — Terry managed to shut off two paddocks for hay and their yield was miserly. One paddock managed a measly 19 bales in total. Yesterday that same paddock yielded 19 in just two rounds.

What a difference! It may be hard to please a farmer when it comes to the weather, but this year I reckon we’ve come pretty close.

The lush clover, grass and chicory paddock close up.
This paddock of clover, grass and chicory produced lots of beautiful, nutritious hay this year.


Is This Your First Visit To Time Of My Life?

Discover the Who, What and Why of TOML.

Check out my home page here and my behind the scenes story here.