Farming’s Big Day Out

At Mystery Creek, agribusiness comes out to play…

by Sarah Robson

Living in the city, it’s easy to forget that farming and land-based industries are the backbone of our country’s economy – agriculture-related industries aren’t our sexiest export earner, but they are still our biggest. This goes some way to explaining why more than 100,000 people still bother to brave the cold and rain to show up to the four-day agricultural glamour event of the year: the National Agricultural Fieldays at Mystery Creek.

You’re probably thinking, what interest would a 23-year-old female, recently moved to Auckland after spending five years in the capital, have in going to the Fieldays? Other than, say, setting out to snare herself a good Kiwi bloke? I’m from Feilding, that town just north of Palmerston North. I didn’t grow up on a farm – contrary to popular belief, Feilding has a relatively extensive urban area – but something was bound to rub off after spending 17 years of my life there.

Getting up at 5.30 in the morning to get to a rural glamour event isn’t all that glamourous. Being stuck in a traffic jam on a Waikato back road at 8.30 in the morning, with sun blaring through the back windscreen and a caffeine craving, isn’t glamourous either. Stuck between a Toyota Hilux and some sort of mud-splattered four wheel drive, I felt inadequate behind the wheel of my blue Toyota Corolla. The black frame around my number plate, announcing my car was purchased from TRC Toyota in Feilding, I hoped, would give me a bit of Fieldays carpark cred.

With a newly purchased a pair of shiny red gumboots from The Warehouse on the backseat, I kept an eye out for other Fieldays visitors wearing gumboots. There weren’t many as I drove across the bumpy paddocks that doubled as a makeshift event carpark. Farmers, it turns out, do not always wear gumboots. They’ve all got a secret stash somewhere of thickly soled brown lace-up dress shoes and black leather pull-on boots. But they do still wear swandris and checked shirts. The gumboots stayed in the car, in favour of well-worn black Chuck Taylors.

Farmers go to Fieldays to buy new stuff, whether it be a drive through electric fence system, or a brand spanking new tractor. Farmers usually show up on the first day, Wednesday, to have a look around and scope out potential purchases. On Thursday, they’ll come back and write out the cheques. Walking towards the main entrance, farmers were discussing, in some detail, the weather and the fancy new contraptions they’d seen the day before. They were tossing up whether or not that new irrigator, or that new effluent management system, was really worth the investment. Their wives were carrying empty re-usable shopping bags. Some farmers, though, had splurged on day one, their cheque books heartened by rising dairy payouts and indications the wool sector is on the brink of a boom.

With media pass around my neck, I wandered through the gates and was immediately confronted by a lot of unfamiliar farm equipment. Things to accessorise your dairy shed. Things to hold your sheep still while they’re being drenched. Things for the flat deck of your ute to put your dog in when you take it into town to the vet. Things to milk your cows with. Walkways fashioned from metal grating. Tractors. Trailers. Donuts. A man holding a sign pointing towards the donuts. Pleasantries were exchanged between exhibitors and passers-by about the chill morning breeze. “Bit blimin’ cold this morning, don’t you think?” “Yeah, I’m from Auckland, I’m not used to this!” was my standard response, which raised some eyebrows. Everyone was in search of hot beverages: a cup of tea for mum, and hot chocolates all round for the kids. But there were no farm animals, and subsequently, no cow pats.
Disheartened by the lack of animals to oogle over, I headed in the direction of the media centre and, hopefully, free coffee. I was late to some sort of important-seeming press conference being given by four men, whose hair ranged in hue from grey to white. The press conference was announcing the theme of next year’s Fieldays: ‘The changing face of farming’. To illustrate this theme, one grey haired man commented that “We have women in farming now”. I choked a little on the instant coffee I had made myself. While some at the press conference were having a hard time hearing questions posed by journalists, I was distracted by the large number of children wandering around below wielding yellow spades. I wrote myself a reminder to acquire a spade for my own personal use.

With every second child swinging a spade around in close proximity to other Fieldays visitors, it was not long before I caught a glimpse of a Sovereign sticker on the handle of one of the sought-after freebies. To pinpoint the exact location of the source of the spades, I rummaged around in my bag and found my Fieldays programme, somewhere in amongst the three notebooks, the map of Hamilton and surrounds, and museli bars taken from the media centre. I looked up Sovereign in the exhibitor’s listings, found their map reference and realised that I’d walked past their stand at least three times in the space of half an hour. The problem: you couldn’t see past the small army of checked shirt wearing mums, dads and grandparents huddled around the four people given the task of handing out the spades. “These are the last three,” the woman who handed me my spade called to her colleague. She looked somewhat exasperated. “Thanks,” I mumbled, dodging several small children as I escaped the crowd. My second task of the day was to be photographed with the man dressed up in a cow suit, accompanied by two bovine security guards.

If you’re not a farmer, there is plenty else to keep you amused at Fieldays. Non-farming related entertainment options range from demonstrations involving a man setting his merino t-shirt on fire, to tractor pull competitions – which, much to my dismay, do not involve strong men pulling tractors, rather strong men driving tractors pulling things. While admiring some miniature horses, I had the (dis)pleasure of happening across a troupe of cheerleaders, dancing to the latest mainstream dance tracks played at full volume. The minder of the miniature horses, now used to the commotion caused by the cheerleading young females, warned us that his charges would likely be disturbed by the loud noise. Right on cue, the music started and the miniature horses promptly bolted and hid behind their minder, huddled in a corner of their pen. Meanwhile, a predominantly male audience, ranging in age from about four to seventy, cheered on the cheerleaders. At some point I saw someone lifted into the air. One girl in a pink beanie and gumboots, uninterested in the cheerleaders, spotted the miniature horses in the corner of their pen and screamed “Oh my god!” In another burst of loud noise, she yelled at her friend to “Come quick! Look!” while pointing at the already scared ponies. I went off in search of more animals.

As a rule, if you see a large crowd of people at Fieldays, you can be assured there must be animals involved in whatever it is they are watching. Edging my way closer to one such congregation, I saw a woman with a script and a microphone who appeared to be commentating a dog show. It wasn’t any ordinary dog show – it was dog show where the doggy stars modeled doggy jackets while simultaneously performing doggy tricks. Despite the bad puns – take for instance the ‘puff doggy’ and ‘sub woofer’ jackets – I was compelled to keep watching. The kids at the front of the crowd “oohed and aahed” as each trick was performed. A dog riding a boogie board being dragged across the grass. A dog riding a skateboard. A dog playing dead to teach the audience a lesson about why you should kit out your dog in a puff doggy jacket during spells of cold weather. “The dogs don’t work because they have to,” the commentator told us, “they work because they get rewarded with fun and toys.”

Proving correct the above theory about crowd sizes correlating with the presence of animals, Bob McDavitt from the MetService attracted a much smaller, more serious audience. McDavitt stood on his soapbox three times a day – at 10am, 12 noon and 2pm – to talk about the weather prospects for the impending winter. Orchestras were his metaphor of choice to explain the meteorological outlook, which, he says, will be a lot like jazz – an orchestra without a conductor, where each group of instruments gets to have a turn playing. What that means for the weather is this: it’ll be cold for three weeks, wet for three weeks, warm for three weeks, cold for three weeks – and then repeat that cycle throughout the winter months. As McDavitt spoke, the farmers listening wore grave expressions, they elbowed each other and nodded in agreement. Jazz weather can’t be good news for farmers.

People build things in their back sheds and they bring them to Fieldays to show them off in the Innovation Centre. It’s a useful testing ground to see whether or not your grand invention, fashioned from number eight wire and other things your found on the floor of your shed, will fly with fellow farmers. I thought I might find farming’s next big thing. The Irrisafe controls the speed of your effluent irrigator, which prevents ponding and increases pasture productivity. It’s also good for the environment. There were removable covers to keep your stock secure in stock crates. There were ride over gates, which are built to allow vehicles to drive over a fencing line. You can turn the foldaway concertina crates into smaller stock crates, to make way for other stuff on the back of your ute. While I’m definitely not the intended user of the said inventions – nor do I really grasp their potential benefits – the cross-armed farmers nodding and grunting in conversation with the back shed inventors seemed keen.

If the latest cutting edge farming inventions weren’t your cup of tea, perhaps the latest in revolutionary homewares and domestic implements would entice the wallet from your handbag, or back pocket. The rural living area was filled with product demonstrators with headset microphones, showing you how you can save time – and money – in just a few easy steps. Here’s where the farmer’s wives were filling up their re-usable shopping bags. There were at least two stalls selling vacuum sealers that sealed up your packets of leftovers, sucking out any excess oxygen, keeping them fresher for longer. There were complex looking devices that sliced, diced and chopped your fruit and vegetables faster than if you did it with an ordinary old knife. There were non-stick frying pans, vegetable steamers, walk in baths, knives that never need sharpening and ‘Citrus Hand Job’ handwash.

The demonstrator of the ‘Miracle Shammy’, who looked about 15 years old, told his captive audience of two middle-aged men that it could mop up anything from “stale beer to puppy pee”. The woman at a stall selling some sort of pain-free hair removal product told passers-by “it takes out your hair and it is honestly pain free!” Despite all the promised improvements to my domestic life, my cash remained safely stashed somewhere in my bag.

Though parts of the Fieldays seem a lot like a real life infomercial, this is just a side show to the main event: the showcase of new farming technology, new machinery and new solutions to age old agricultural problems. Fieldays is an institution that has been around for more than forty years now – a sign that the event has not lost any relevance with the huge rural community it informs and entertains. People go back year after year: the farmers in the tweed hats, the farmers in the shorts and singlets, not to mention their wives, their kids, their grandkids.

This year attendance at Mystery Creek was reportedly down – but spending was up. Things change : the Te Awamutu Lions Club has eftpos at its food stand, farmers these days are more conscious of the impact of their profession on the environment, and are seeking new ways to mitigate that. I realised while driving back to Auckland – in bumper to bumper traffic from Hamilton to Huntly – that farming’s no dying profession in this country. While I’d traded in an alternative future as a farmer’s wife for a university degree and a life in the big city, here I was, covering the biggest event on the agriculture calendar. As it turns out, there’s no avoiding your roots. There’s no avoiding the fact that the world sees New Zealand as one giant farm. There’s no avoiding the fact that farming is the lifeblood of our tiny island nation. The sooner we face up to that and acknowledge it – us city slickers, especially – the better.