Farm Frustration

There are bright, sunny days where everything is smooth and I let the cows over the road crossing and drop the tape gate in perfect time for Digger to ride through on the two-wheeler with his aviator sunglasses and we feel like badass, bearded lords of the cows.

Then there are days like today when I lose count of how many times I yell fuck.

It started going downhill once I maneuvered the tractor down a hill into the paddock with the milking cows, ready to feed out the load of grass and maize. As I start the routine, I realize that everything is wrong.

One of the farm owner’s lackeys took the tractor into town yesterday and attached all of the hydraulic plugs into the wrong sockets when he brought it back. I’m no expert when it comes to farm machinery, in fact I’m pretty useless. I do what I can and use trial and error to get the door to raise, the chains to move and the blades to rotate, but I can’t figure out the latter.

I ring Digger and he tells me to drive the tractor to the cow shed and he will take a look at it. Really, man? I know you’re my boss but that is no simple task. I have to squeeze through three narrow gates — jumping out before and after to open and close — and up three hills.

I forgot I was in third gear and I stalled out going up the hill in the paddock. I back up and try again, but then I’m too close to the gate to make the sharp turn. Then I bumped the fence post and pushed the heavy gate off of its hinges, which I would later spend five minutes and five expletives trying, and failing, to lift back in place. I reverse and make a wide loop to approach the turn at a more favorable angle. Then I make the same mistake and underestimate a smaller hill and stall out and roll back down and nearly take out an entire fence.

Oh yeah, and this is the paddock by the road so everyone driving by — mostly farmers — are making fun of the idiot who doesn’t know how to drive a tractor.

I finally make it to Digger and he fixes the problem in a matter of seconds. He tells me to make sure I spread out the feed evenly this time. You always do it too thick, he says. Great. Now I have to drive back down to that paddock and open the gates and close the gates. Then spread the feed. Then drive back to the shed and open the gates and close the gates.

Eventually I make it back and have to feed the calves. Digger still hasn’t set up the big calf feeder with the trailer — it’s been “on the To-Do list” for two weeks now — so I have to carry 12 twenty-liter buckets of milk over to the calf pens everyday and try not to spill much on my overalls or on the ground. There is one calf feeder that is too fast and one that is too slow and the calves — growing stronger and fatter everyday with the massive servings of protein — constantly push and shove, jockeying for position. It’s an impossible task to get them all to drink the same amount and if I mess something up, they could die.

And he hasn’t given me any Colostrum milk — the “liquid gold” produced just after birth that is essential for new-born calves — in over 24 hours so I feed the babies the regular calf milk, which apparently makes him liable for a $200,000 fine, because it contains penicillin, if they are collected by the bobby truck. They are randomly tested for antibiotics and he decides he will take the odds. Strange, I didn’t take him for a gambling man.

Eventually we meet up for a team huddle and I tell Digger that everything went wrong this morning. He said he’s had a good one too. The heifers escaped and scattered all over the farm. He had to collect them and walk them back in groups of two.

Digger always seems to handle problems calmly. I’ll be sweating bullets and yelling fuck because the cows jumped a fence and I’m trying to keep them off the road and George rocks up and says, “Ahh, yeah, did they pull a sneaky on you? I bet it was number 12.”

He’s used to this and I’m not. He says farming will give you a whole new level of patience. You just have to accept that shit happens. You have to bottle it up and let it go. That’s why he smokes.

His response reminded me of the interviews with inmates in solitary confinement I watched last night during a New York Times video binge.

George Franco — who spent 20 years in the shoe in Pelican Bay State Prison — said if you have anger or frustration, “What do you gotta do? Just hold everything inside.”

Farming and owning land is the ultimate freedom, but it’s also the ultimate responsibility. Having all of these living things under your name. You can’t just leave them.

After my morning duties are finished, I walk back to the house for breakfast. I decide to do some yoga in my sun room — one of the four empty bedrooms — to stretch, relax and decompress. As I’m sitting there focusing on my breathing, I start to laugh uncontrollably thinking about how awesome it is that my biggest frustration in life is that the hydraulic plugs were attached to the wrong sockets on a tractor on a dairy farm in New Zealand.

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The Country Wave

The school boy rides his bike down the country road, flanked by dewy green paddocks, to the sheet metal bus stop. He stares at me in the cockpit of my tractor, transfixed. He waves admirably. He can’t wait until his Dad reckons he’s old enough to drive one of these awesome machines.

I continue on to the goat farm and meet the familiar face of the ancient farmer standing by his ancient tractor. He momentarily stops cutting the twine off the bale of hay, faces me and waves his blue-handled knife with a gap-toothed grin.

The local butcher shoots me a wave as we meet on the rural highway. He is making his morning deliveries and I am picking up silage to feed the cows. We both have places to be.

The bobby-truck driver — who takes the 4-day-old male calves to the slaughter — and the milk-tanker driver salute with solidarity as they make their rounds. They started out as farmers but now they have auxiliary roles, less responsibility and less excitement.

It’s a slow and dangerous game when we cross paths on opposite sides of a one lane bridge. He is faster and more experienced, so I stop to let him go first. He flashes his brights to say thanks for waiting.

If I catch a wave from someone in a car, ute, van or SUV, I know they are farmers. Ever eager to return to their animals and paddocks and fresh air.

I am an alien in this small town in this small foreign country but when I don my overalls and gum boots, I’m one of them. I’m only a visitor, a pretender trying to gain insight into this life, but the country wave makes me feel like I’ve lived here my whole life.

I’ve seen another side of the country wave with some casual work for the local furniture moving company. They ring me when they have a big day and need an extra set of hands. I love sitting in the middle seat and watching the interactions between the truck drivers. There’s another world above the cars.

Gary, the business owner, is a short man with a grey goatee. His beer gut is just a ruse to hide his old-school Dad strength enhanced by 15 years of lifting furniture. He loves to give me advice. It’s not about being strong, it’s about technique.

Nah, nah, nah, mate,” he says as I awkwardly lift a mattress. “Hold it above your nuts so you’re not waddling around like a penguin.”

On a Saturday morning — after driving 14 hours from the South Island the day before — he shows up to the yard with bags under his eyes.

“Fuckin’ Nic rang in sick,” he says. “Useless cunt.”

If he finds out he was on the piss last night, he will tear him a new arsehole.

Gary has been waving to other truck drivers for years and he is a no frills type of guy, especially today. He gives a dutiful raise of the hand straight up and then straight down. If he recognizes a driver, he will give a little extra motion to signal he’s a friend. As we cruise by his mechanic’s shop or another friendly business, he gives a toot of the horn.

The personality of the driver is reflected in their wave. The young gun, Noodle, a well-built 20-year-old with sleeve tattoos, gauges and an undercut throws up an over-the-top “west-side” style wave in front of the steering wheel. It mostly annoys the more mature drivers but there are always a few who match his enthusiasm.

On a sunny day, driving through the town centre is exciting. Everyone in town knows the furniture boys and people stop to wave. Gary lets out a quick double tap on the horn to greet his mates. It’s comfortable here.

I will always be grateful to the those generous souls in small town New Zealand who taught me how to farm and move furniture and be a man and to those who were simply friendly enough to recognize my existence with a wave and a smile. The country wave is a way of life. It says, You’re my neighbor and I will always have your back. We’re in this together.

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.