The Tractor Run

“I don’t trust this cunt. He looks like a terrorist,” David says after being told I will be joining him on the tractor run tomorrow morning.

I can’t blame him. I was holding a thick 60 ml syringe full of penicillin and wearing my bright blue overalls, wool cap and my beard. But, still, there are probably better words to hear when meeting someone.

The wealthy businessman, Bob, who owns the 230-cow dairy farm I work on also owns a 1200-goat dairy farm and a farming equipment shop. He likes to keep his costs low, so he uses grass and leftover meal from the goat farm to feed the cows.  That means every morning someone has to drive the tractor with the massive muck spreader 18 kilometers down the main highway to pick up the cow feed from the goat farm. Starting tomorrow, that someone is going to be me.

The monster.
Full of grass and maize ready to feed the cows.

I wake up early the next morning and defrost the wind screen on the impressively sized McCormick tractor. Digger, the 21-year-old contract milker I work for, briefly taught me how to drive this machine last night. I’m confident driving the smaller Deutz tractor for simple lifting jobs around the farm, but this one was much more complex. Each gear has four clicks, for a total of 16 gears. And driving on the highway means more chances to embarrass myself or cause an accident. I’m terrified of stalling out or getting my gears jammed in the middle of the intersection of 27 and 29 with trucks, cars, workers, farmers, and tourists all laughing at me.

Once the frost clears enough, I slowly and cautiously drive the McCormick down the road to Bob’s warehouse where his collection of tractors, trailers and farm machines reside. David arrives a few minutes later and he gets in the driver’s seat and I sit in the child-sized folding seat next to him.

David usually works in the office at the farm equipment shop, but he always has his work boots and overalls ready to do call outs or deliveries. He is a short man in his 50s and has silky white hair. You can tell he has spent years working on farms by the way he easily dishes out witty banter to everyone around him. The fast New Zealand accent, farm slang and my quiet personality make it difficult for me to keep up with the boys.

“You’ll see every fuckwit in the world driving this thing,” he says as we get on State Highway 27 toward Tirau.

He tells me the story of a guy on a push bike who merged onto the highway right in front of the tractor. David tried to swerve to the right to avoid hitting the biker, but he saw a car trying to pass him so he had to come to a stop to avoid causing an accident.

I was about to have a go at the cunt.”

I love New Zealand. The vocabulary is so colorful.

The drive on the highway is pretty simple. Just watch your mirrors and try to pull to the side for trucks because they are trying to make money just like you. Cars can go fuck themselves. The only tricky spot is on the side road to the goat farm. There is a one lane bridge at the bottom of a hill. David explains how it’s important to slow down so you don’t break anything but make sure you still have enough speed to get up the hill. Stalling going up a hill, especially with a heavy load, is the worst thing that can happen. And if there is a car, truck or ute coming make a quick decision of whether to let them pass first or see if they are going to stop.

As we drive up the goat farm there is a man driving a front loader full of wet grass and feed ready to load us up. David and I get out and he tells me we are going to help feed some baby goats while we wait.

Getting loaded.
Getting loaded.

This is my first time here and I’m surprised by the size of this operation. It’s a huge sheet-metal shed with most of the area sectioned off to hold the 1200 adult milking goats. All along the right side of the shed are pens holding hundreds of baby goats.

There are some impressive beards in that shed.
There are some impressive beards in that shed.

They are fluffy miniature animals, some born yesterday, who lumber around and fall on top of each other. They barely come up to the top of my gumboots and they vary in color from pure white to light brown to grey to black. There are at least five workers, all foreign, sitting on buckets with a kid in their arms sucking on the rubber nipple attached to a water bottle full of milk. The South African woman in the pen we jump into asks me if I’m Canadian. I ask her if there is a secret to this as I try to put the nipple in my kid’s mouth. She says to just open their mouth a little bit. I give up on this reluctant drinker and grab a cute little brown one and he starts sucking immediately.

Lil' cuties.
Lil’ cuties.

It’s just like trying to get the calves to drink back at the cow farm. Some are little angels who will suck on your finger and then move to the rubber udder you slide into their mouth. Some are the dumbest little cunts I’ve ever dealt with. I’ll try the finger sucking trick and they resist and pull back. So I try to grab the top and bottom of their dumb little mouths and put it on the udder and they turn their dumb little heads sideways and their dumb little eyes roll back. Then I will finally get them to suck on the udder for a couple of seconds and think I’ve done it. I turn around and when I look back she is looking for an udder under the calf next to her. Whatever.

David’s kid is a screamer. Why do baby goats sound just like baby humans? It’s unsettling. After about 10 minutes and three kids each we head back to the tractor. My time to drive.

Everything is smooth. I masterfully take on the one lane bridge and the hill and I make it to the intersection of the highway. I downshift and the gear box jams up. This kept happening last night when Digger was teaching me to drive. He showed me how to reach underneath the tractor and jiggle the gears to free it up. I try the technique and I’m surprised that it actually works. I jump back in and we cruise down the highway toward Matamata.

We approach a slight bend as David is bragging about his daughter. She has the highest marks at Waikato University and is a professional singer and self-taught guitar player. She wants to enter into New Zealand’s Got Talent and The Voice. He interrupts himself to tell me I should have slowed down around that bend. Better safe than sorry.

At one point the road narrows goes through a ravine and the safety of having a shoulder disappears. When David was driving through here earlier, he slowed because a truck was coming. I slow down as we get closer, following his advice, but this time there isn’t anyone around.

Fuck that, take it fast,” he says as I push the throttle forward.

The cockpit.
Country roads.

We make it back to town and I drop David off at the shop and head back to the cow farm. As I drive by the college, a group of school boys give me the pull-the-cord motion signaling me to honk the horn. I just shake my head because I’m too focused on actually trying to drive this machine through town. I also have no idea where the horn is located. Give me some time, boys, and I’ll figure it out.



I met him the second night I worked on Digger’s farm. He drives up in his tray back ute, well-used mud tires and a beer in his hand.

“How ya’ goin’?” He says through his nose.

He says his name and sticks out his hand and when I go to shake it I notice he is missing half of his index finger. I expect him to be a blind drunk bogan but when we start talking around the bonfire I take note that I should never trust a first impression.

Rian is 26, divorced, splitting custody of a seven-year-old son and two-year-old daughter, which explains the mini 4-wheeler in the garage, child car seat and pink rain coat hanging on the wall. He is the owner of a 450-cow dairy farm and a 5-bedroom home with stunning views of overlapping gumdrop shaped grassy knolls. This is about a 3-minute drive to the Hobbiton movie set. Peter Jackson flew over Rian’s farm and thought, yeah, let’s make a movie here.

He’s of Dutch descent made apparent by his wild blonde hair, piercing blue eyes and thick well-kempt beard. But his accent is true kiwi. He wears the same outfit everyday. Mud stained blue overalls tucked into gumboots with a red flannel shirt barely visible underneath a wool sweater perpetually covered in what appears to be sawdust.

Digger used to work for Rian so he stops by the farm to check in whenever he goes into town. They are talking in Farmese so I’m listening but I don’t have much to contribute. He tells Digger he needs to put urea on his front paddocks.

“Why’s that?” Perfect question to ask a farmer who knows and loves his trade.

“Well,” he takes a drag from his Pall Mall held in his just-long-enough stub of an index finger. “The grass is a bit yellow and you never want that especially with the paddocks by the road. They need extra nitrogen…” He goes on and I understand a few words here and there.

Rian is every journalist’s dream. Give him a simple question about farming and he returns with a concise scientific explanation and somehow manages to sneak in life lessons. He mentions nonchalantly that most dairy farms in New Zealand aren’t going to turn a profit this year. Just last night the outlook for New Zealand milk dropped another 10 percent. Banks are foreclosing on the “sloppy farmers” who are in debt and can’t turn a profit.

As he’s leaving he tells me I’m coming to his farm this afternoon to milk cows.

“You’ve never milked a cow, right?” He asks. “OK, then you’re coming. And I’m not paying you.”

I grab my raincoat and jump in his truck. Once we start driving, I ask him to elaborate on why dairy farms aren’t going to make any money.

The last few summers have brought terrible droughts and the EU has recently decided not to sell produce and dairy to Russia, there’s similar conflict with China, and New Zealand has morals so they are sticking with Europe, meaning high supply and low demand.

“Don’t you get stressed out knowing you aren’t going to make any money this year?” I ask.

“It’s like the weather,” he says as we drive through a patch of rain and fog.

Sometimes it rains, sometimes it’s sunny. There’s no use in stressing about it.”

He explains how farmers are used to this routine. You live most of your life poor and in debt but you die rich. You pass on your land, wealth and assets to your children.

“If you buy 100 hectares and just sit on it for 50 years, you will make money. Milking is just a way to pay the mortgage, pay my staff, pay for maintenance. It’s about a 5% profit margin.”

Farmers make money other ways. Buying and selling stock is where most of Rian’s cash flow comes from. He has a reliable worker, Chad, living on the house on the farm and a young jumped up worker, Jack (“He thinks he is God’s gift to farming”), living with him at his house next door. With good staff, he has a lot of freedom to plan his day how he wants.

“All I have to do everyday is feed my animals and milk my cows,” Rian says. “Beyond that, I can do whatever I want.”

He says you have to do find ways to keep busy. He constantly makes improvements on his land to increase the value. He points to his shed. It costs him about $25,000 to build it and install electricity, lighting. Down the line it will be worth $30,0000.

“Some guys make 50 grand a year and have a great time but at the end of the year, they have nothing to show for it.”

For someone as young as 26, this guy really has his shit figured out. Rian is a long-term thinker. A year can bring profit or loss. It doesn’t matter. He says if you work hard everyday, everything will be fine.

I tell him on my first day on Digger’s farm I asked him, looking around at the green fields and Kaimai ranges in the distance, “Do you ever stop and realize how awesome your life is?”

“I’m living the dream,” Rian says. “When you’re a kid you play with toy tractors and trucks. That’s what I do.”

Jump On

It was getting darker by the minute and the Milky Way was almost visible. I just finished leveling out the just-add-water cement I poured over the eroded drainage area under the milk vat in the pump room. I thought it was about time to call it a night.

“Jump on, we have some fencing to do,” Digger says with desperation as he pulls up the two-wheeler, leaving it in neutral.

He runs to his truck and speeds toward the lane. I whip the Chinese knock off around and ride down the bumpy track to the paddock where the cows are supposed to be.

One-hundred-and-forty-two cows had broken down a fence and stampeded into the next paddock full of delicious, untouched grass. They ruined the farmer’s night and gorged on fresh grass. Mission accomplished.

Earlier in the day the bored inmates dug up the hose leading to the water trough in their paddock. A cow can drink up to 60 liters a day so they freak out as soon as their water stops refilling. Digger screwed the hose back together and got the water flowing again.

“That will be disconnected by the morning.”

Just as he walked away to check the trough a cow steps up from the gang, puts her hoof right on the hose and looks me dead in the eye. She takes a step forward and releases the contents of her bowels, a nice dark liquid, all over the hose he just fixed. She makes it clear who is boss.

This all could have been prevented. The hoses are usually underground but Digger had decided to save time by covering this one with sand. The kind of mistake you would expect from a 21-year-old contract milker who has had a total of 43 days of experience running his own farm.

I’m still learning everyday, man.”

A few hours later they had broken it again and their water trough was not refilling. Panic among the ranks. What to we do? I’m thirsty. I don’t like this one bit. My mouth is dry. Should we go somewhere else? That paddock over there looks good. Lets break out of here! What? Riot? Riot!!! RIOT!!!! WOOOOO FUCK YEAH!!! I assume that’s how they talk to each other.

Crazy bitches.

There was a mudslide forming from the hose streaming water into the paddock. The cows take advantage of this by running down the small hill, easily barreling through the wire fence and making thick muck that sucks my gumboots down like quick sand.

We arrive on the scene and point the headlights on the post where they broke through. The top row is still intact but the bottom two wires have been ripped off clean. It’s amazing how much damage a meddling mob of cows can do to a fence.

Digger grabs the chain tensioner and crimps the top wire back together. I walk down the fence line to untangle and prepare the other two wires for repair.

We make quick work of the busted fence, but the cows are on the wrong side. Digger takes the two-wheeler and makes sweeping passes across the back of the mob to try to herd them through the gate. My job is to park the truck in a way to convince them to make a hairpin turn up the hill into their paddock and not straight through the gate down the lane.

I’m leaning against the Jurassic Park-esque 1990 Suzuki Sierra listening to Cat Stevens and enjoying the stars while Digger is honking the squeaky, high-pitched horn and yelling at the beasts.

“Here we go, girls,” he starts out politely.

“Come on, ladies,” Honk Honk.

“I appreciate how much effort you are putting into not going into your paddock.”

“… What are you bitches after? …. Sluts…. Cunts… I’ve seen the devil… HAARRR,” I make out bits and pieces of the frustrated incomprehensible Kiwi babble.

I don’t care how much you weigh, I will fuck you up. You want 70 kilos of me up your arsehole?”

I hear the cows slowly walking toward me in the pitch black. They are like zombies but they don’t care about brains they just want that sweet green grass. I see big black blobs move closer and hear them ripping and tearing bunches from the earth. They are reluctant to leave this bounty behind for their old feces-covered field.

A couple of cows meander through the gate and I feel like a guard from Orange is the New Black.

“Keep moving, ladies. Up the hill.”

“What are you looking at? Are you eye fucking me? Eyeballs on the ground, inmate. That’s right.”

Digger rides up to me. I thought he might be giving up.

“Move the truck back a few meters. They won’t go up if you are right there,” he says with little patience.

I had the jeep positioned to stop them from running down the lane but I was too enthusiastic and parked way too close to their exit.

“They look for any excuse not to go where you want them to go,” he tells me.

A minute later the group mentality kicks in and they rush through the gate. They make a wide sweeping turn up the hill. I stand back to give them plenty of room and make some guttural noises to keep them in line and to let them know they can’t escape the tyranny of the farmer. There is no escape.

A lone Jersey girl remains and Digger tells her what’s on his mind.

“One hundred and forty one cows made it into that paddock what the fuck is wrong with you?”

She makes her way toward the gate but gets trapped in the corner instead. He chases after her into the darkness and I hear a sharp ripple through the wire fence.

“If you break that fence I will fucking kill you,” he yells as she jumps over, giving up on the gate.

When everything is sorted out, we get back to the house and I ask if there is ever a day when everything goes according to plan?

Fuck no,” Digger shoots back.

This is life on the farm. An easy night can become a crisis at any time. It’s common sense and problem solving, improvisation and anticipation. It doesn’t feel like work. Work is getting up in the morning and driving to “work” and doing some sort of activity that may or may not make you feel like a useless blood sack and then knocking off and leaving “work.” Farming is a lifestyle. You live here and you can never really knock off. You are an inmate too, just like the cows.

I’ve Found Something

I can’t get the smell of cow piss and shit off my hands.

I worked on a 230-cow dairy farm for the first time today. It is about 5 minutes from the Hobbiton movie set and fuck me if it isn’t one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Rolling green hills sit next to the Kaimai ranges with long white clouds above which part only for a minute to reveal golden sunshine that blankets the fields. Light rain falls intermittently but I am too covered in cow excrement to care. I keep looking for sneaky barefooted Hobbitses but I haven’t found any yet.

Grassy fields forever.

I met the farmer last night. Digger, 21, works the entire farm by himself for most of the year besides calving and milking season which starts in about two weeks. What a badass life. He said his budget is really tight, so he won’t be able to pay me much but I don’t mind. I have been applying for WWOOFing. It stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or Willing Workers on Organic Farms, where volunteers work on a farm for 4-6 hours a day in exchange for food and accommodation. I just want to get on a farm so I’ll pretty much do anything at this point.

I’m not sure where I found this urge to learn farming. I was about halfway through my working holiday in Australia when I realized I didn’t want to go back to the states. Americans only have working holiday agreements with 5 countries — Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Korea and Singapore — so the next logical step was to go to New Zealand. Only a three hour flight from Australia and they have many cultural similarities. I was growing tired of pulling beers, waiting tables and pretending to be nice to people so I knew I wanted to try something new. Where Australia has grown rich from its mineral exports, New Zealand is an agrarian country so I figured that would be the best place to find a job.

A quick vocabulary lesson:

  • Paddock: A sectioned off field. Cows are moved from paddock to paddock on the farm depending on how much grass has grown and which spot is most convenient for the farmer.
  • Heifers: Young female cows that haven’t had their first calf yet. They are crazy cunts and they aren’t comfortable being in the milking shed.
  • Yard: The concrete area where the cows are pushed into where they congregate and shit and piss on each other before they are ready to be pushed into the milking shed.
  • Milking Shed: This farm has a herringbone layout which means there is a pit about a meter deep with two rows of cows on either side. The milker stands in the pit to put the milking suction cups on the utters on the cows that have their asses right in your face on either side so you are in a constant danger of being covered in projectile liquid shit and high powered piss.
“Where the money is made.”
  • Lane: The bumpy road that connects the paddocks to the yard. Once you open a gate of a paddock, the cows will slowly but surely follow each other down the road. At first a walk, then a slow trot then sometimes a full on stampede.
  • Draft: Separating and sorting the cows that are calving soon from those that aren’t.
  • Gumboots: The almost-knee-high waterproof rubber boots worn by most farmers.

After one day on a farm, I’m in love. It’s even better than I expected. I helped Digger draft his cows today. He picked me up in his mud and shit covered 1990 4WD Sierra jeep and took me to his farm. We went straight to the paddock with his heifers. The two-wheeler farm bike was parked next to it. First task of the day was teaching the greenhorn how to ride. Digger basically just told me how to change gears and where the clutch, gas and breaks are.

Try not to break anything.

“Awright, give it a go.”

I didn’t really look where I was going as I was too focused on trying to go forward. I nearly took out an electrified wire fence which was about 10 meters in front of me but I was able to stop the bike and not fall off. A miracle. There’s something special about riding an offroad bike around a muddy farm in New Zealand. Probably one of the most badass things I’ve ever done. After I got a hang of the bike, we had to make sure the gates in the yard and milking shed were opened and closed accordingly before the cows are let into the lane.

My job was to drive the bike up the end of the lane and make sure the cows go into the yard while Digger took up the rear with his truck. The only experience I’ve had with cows by this point in my 24 years is doing solo day hikes around Ireland and coming face to face with gangs of cows that gave me pretty fearsome stare downs. Honestly, I was kind of terrified of them. And now I have over 100 cows running straight for me and I’m supposed to tell them where to go and the only other person on the farm is on the other side of these cows. I see them start to run toward me and I’m trying desperately to pull the motorbike out of the way but it fell over and now I have to pick it up and damn it is heavy and here they come now.

They see me and they stop dead in their tracks. I have no idea what I’m doing. I clap. I yell. I bend at the knees and pat my hands on my thighs like I’m beckoning a dog. I do the third-base-coach-turn-into-home motion but they don’t play baseball. I start walking and skipping up to the yard. Eventually the cows get the idea and they run up into the yard. Except for about 10 stragglers.

I thought I was the king of the cows but they all of the sudden they all turn around and stampede back down the lane and now I bet Digger thinks I’m the worst farmhand ever because I can’t keep the cows in one place but then he drives up and honks his horn and they come back. Phew. These are heifers, Digger explains, so they have never been in the milking shed before so be careful, they are unpredictable. It’s a constant struggle but he manages to get the first lot into their neat little rows with all their asses hanging off the railing and all their piss and shit flops down into the pit right where I’m supposed to stand and pull the shit covered lever which opens the gate to let through a few cows at a time so Digger has time to sort out the ones he has spray painted which means they have big utters which means they will drop their little baby cows soon and they want to all run out at the same time so it’s difficult to close the gate but Digger says you just have to shut it real quick right in front of their big dumb heads and that will scare them and they will jump back and he was right.

We get one mob through and then Digger has to get in the yard and push them all forward. I’m standing in front of the milking shed and Digger tells me to stand off to the side so that I don’t scare them because they don’t like Americans. One of the cows gets spooked and shoves her head through the gate and manages to fit her whole body through and she bends the lever that brings it up and down. That cow is a fucking gay slut cunt because Digger just fixed that gate two days ago and now he has to fix it again. Now the gate is broken so all the cows run through and I’m told to let them go because they might break something else. Fucking heifers.

Next we bring in the old veterans. I take the truck and he takes the bike and we drive down and open up the gate and let them walk up to the yard. I take up the rear and by the time the last cow is in the yard the rest are all ready neatly lined up in the cow shed. These old ladies know this game. They listen to the guy who has been feeding them and milking them and taking care of them.

After all the cows have been drafted and are happy and in their appropriate paddocks it’s time to hose down the yard. I can’t believe how much water is used to clear out the extreme amount of delicious pies and soups the cows left for us. And during milking season this is done twice a day. What a terrible waste of water. Oh well this is how it’s done. I’m a greenhorn so I shouldn’t question anything.

We’ve been working for about 5 hours now and since I’m not really getting paid it’s time to go for a feed. We get a big bucket of KFC and then Digger says he will buy me a new pair of Gumboots to cover my wages for the day and I think that sounds great because I actually had a lot of fun today and I learned a lot. I don’t want to leave. I want to live on the farm. I want to walk outside and be among the cows and shit and piss and hills and clean air. But he can’t pay me until milking starts because the farm owner is a tight ass even though he is a millionaire who own this dairy farm, a goat farm, a farm supply store in town and a bunch of other shit.

Today was more fulfilling and satisfying than any day I have ever worked in a god damn office job. Answering emails and attending office meetings is the most depressing thing I’ve ever done compared to moving two groups of cows through a milking shed and sorting them and chasing cows on a farm bike and nearly falling face first into a bit slippery pile of muddy shit. This is what I want to do and if you told me that two years ago when I was a little kid graduating from James Madison University I would tell you to go get fucked.

View from the office.