published Nelson Mail 17 June 2006
It is hard to believe Harry Richards will turn 80 in December. The rangy character with the boyish grin admits he is slowing down and getting a bit deaf, but he brims with enthusiasm and schemes. “My latest project is trying to control stoats. I have bought traps and am trying to reduce the numbers so the native birds can flourish. I am also killing the rats and have almost wiped them out in the Turimawiwi Valley.”
Paturau in north west Nelson has been farmed by five generations of Richards, since John Henry Richards bought 500 acres of virgin bush for £1/acre in 1898. Bordered by the North West Nelson Forest Park; sand dunes and weathered limestone bluffs meet raupo swamps, cattle and sheep graze while fantails fly among native trees dripping with ephiphytes.
The Paturau, Anatori and Turimawiwi – all volatile rivers – dissect the land. River bank protection is another project of Harry’s: “Over the past 25-30 years we have done a lot of protection work at the Paturau and Turimawiwi Rivers placing about 300 cubic metres of rock a year to protect the banks from erosion,” he says.
Harry still stays in his childhood home at the mouth of the Paturau River. His father Edwin, and his Uncle Jack settled on either side of the river mouth where they cleared their father John Henry’s land, as well as purchasing their own blocks further South between the Turimawiwi River and Kahurangi Point. “They had very little money. They would buy a couple of hundred acres, clear and grass it, then buy some more. Initially they bought some poor quality calves but once they had bought two or three blocks, they were on their way. From the 1920s to 1940s, about six men were employed to clear the bush. They would fell 100 foot rimu trees and set a fire at one end which would burn for a week leaving a long streak of ash which fertilized the ground.”
Meanwhile, Harry and his three siblings were growing up at Paturau: “We went to school in a whare across the river three days a week from Thursday to Saturday – there were between five and eight of us. The rest of the time we’d go eeling, whitebaiting and catch crayfish.
“One day we put the net out at the entrance of the Westhaven Inlet and got 50 snapper in one hit – it nearly broke the net. There were no legal limits in those days and sometimes the boat would be so full, there was just one plank of free board.”
In the 1940s, Edwin and Jack leased Farewell Spit for grazing. Harry remembers going there once a year and staying at the lighthouse. ” Ohakea Airbase is not that far away and one time the planes buzzed us – the horses didn’t like it at all!”
The Richards have always finished cattle. Seven times a year, from 1910 until the 1960s, they took mobs over the Takaka Hill to the Annesbrook abbatoir and Hardy Street butcher Alec Thompson. In the early days, roads were primitive and traffic volumes low and the regular droves which took up to seven days, were well known, traffic-stopping events.
“We’d bring the cattle up from Rata Creek to Paturau and then leave at moonlight, walk along the mudflats at Westhaven and through the Pakawau bush. That was a long day but the first part of the trip was more leisurely because we owned land at Ferntown and Takaka. We’d rent paddocks for the rest of the drove.”
Before the advent of farm bikes, horses were essential at Paturau. Harry only stopped riding last year as he was worried a broken bone could be hard to heal at his age, but an early experience could have deterred him altogether. “When I was about six, my Dad put me on a draughthorse which was dragging logs at the Golden Blocks Mine; the chain broke, the horses bolted and I got thrown onto a jagged manuka stump and was badly injured in the groin. They took me back to the house and my mother who was a tough old bird, took one look and fainted.”
Harry’s mother, Myrtle, was a well- known character who ran the Post Office and a tiny telephone exchange from the house. “One time she was fed up with some whitebaiters. Driving in her VW, she took up more of the road than she should have so their car and caravan were rubbing along the fence as they went past – she couldn’t care less if they were upset.”
The communities beyond the Westhaven Inlet were isolated, but the social life was lively with a rugby team, the Paturau Pirates, and regular card nights and dances at Paturau or Mangarakau. “People would come from as far as Collingwood – they liked our hospitality. People working at the timber mill and coal mine at Mangarakau earned good money and we were able to afford the simple things: two to three 18 gallon kegs of beer, a case or two of Rochdale cider for the ladies and saveloys. Somebody played the piano for dancing or singing.”
After three years at Fielding Agricultural College, Harry returned to the South Island to shear for ten seasons, working for the remainder of each year at Mangarakau and West Coast coal mines. In 1958, newly married to Shirley, a young widow, he bought land at Redwoods Valley to be closer to schools for their growing family of five children.
In 1968, at the age of 84, while fixing a fence at the Paturau Hall, Edwin had a stroke and died a few months later. His half of the farm was left to Harry and his brother Laurence, who later moved to the North Island. “The place had got a bit rundown and there was a slow decline in the fertility of the property because the ash supply from the burn offs had been exhausted. There was not much stock on the property and we initially had to buy poorer cattle not suited to this country.”
Harry and Laurence had been involved in the post WW2 pioneering days of aerial top dressing. “We bought some fertilizer for a property at Kaihoka we were developing and thought the plane would be able to land on the beach but it couldn’t. It took us a year to construct an airstrip and in the meantime the sacks of phosphate had become like concrete.” With a road built through to Turimawiwi in 1962, fertilizer trucks could get through, an airstrip was built at Rata Creek and super phosphate, lime and potash spread, boosting the productivity of the farm.
In 1984, with a Batchelor of Agricultural Science from Lincoln, Harry and Shirley’s son, David joined his father. Together they run about 3000 sheep and 600 cattle on approximately 900 hectares at Paturau and Redwoods Valley. They breed Angus and Hereford calves and buy in weaner calves which are sent to the Works at about three years of age. Texel Rams were bought when they were first introduced to New Zealand in the early 1990s and a Romney/Texel flock suitable for meat and wool production is now farmed.
The Paturau and Redwoods Valley farming operations are closely integrated. Stock is moved between the two properties to maximize performance as Paturau experiences a cold early spring and Redwoods Valley dries out over the summer – both characteristics limiting grass growth.
David and wife Heather’s son, Brendan, has just completed a Master of Applied Science and Commerce degree from Lincoln University and will soon begin his first job at Rockville. His knowledge is also valued by the family business. “David and Brendan have a lot more technical knowledge which is important in this day and age,” says Harry.
A few more backpackers and absentee landowners pass through Paturau nowadays but for the Richards family, the roots are deep and they are proud of their pioneering farming history. Harry has his gumbooted feet firmly planted in the present and is confident the family will continue to look after Paturau into the future. “This business is about investing in the whole family. There is a sense of continuation – some of the granddaughters are interested as well. None of them want any land sold,” he says happily.