Monday, 19 March 2018

Tobacco picking

I left school in December 1962.  I was going to university in Wellington but the term did not start until the beginning of March so we all wanted to find holiday jobs.  I had previously worked in my father’s office, mainly as a filing clerk, but the time we had available meant something more adventurous was called for.  After all, once Christmas and the main holiday season was over, there was the whole of February to fill!  We also wanted money.  We were home-based students which meant our families continued to support us financially but it was expected that we would work in order to pay for clothes, holidays and entertainment as well as contributing by paying for our own textbooks where possible.

The range of holiday jobs for women was limited.  Tradition had it that men could work in unskilled agricultural jobs but women were largely confined to office or shop work or working as domestics in hotels.  There was, however, a long tradition of vacation jobs in agriculture, particularly fruit picking.  Several girls from our year at school sorted out jobs picking soft fruit in Nelson at the top of the South Island, but I was too late for this and all the jobs had gone.  I had no intention of returning to my father’s office but had not given the alternatives much thought.  Then one of my classmates asked me if I would like to join her and a friend of hers from primary school who were planning to pick tobacco.  Unlike raspberry picking, this was a job that was generally done by full-time seasonal workers rather than students as the picking season ran from late January through to May.  Contracts were all organised through the Department of Labour. I cannot really remember how the arrangements were made. I did not do any of it.  I have two memories of the recruitment process.  The first was that the Department of Labour would not allow you to work for them unless you were over eighteen.  I was only seventeen, with my eighteenth birthday coming up in April.  My school friend’s birthday was in May.   We found out that we could take the work if our parents gave permission but I knew that mine never would.  They were the kind of people who made us pay full fare on the bus the minute we turned fourteen, and would not allow us to go to films that were recommended for older age groups.  So I decided not to tell them about the age restriction.  My second memory is that our next door neighbour, who was an older person with adult children, was very against the idea.  Later I realised why she held these views. ‘Nice’ girls like us who had been to a fee-paying school, did not do unskilled agricultural work!  We went for the month of February, although the other workers were on contracts for much longer.  It was very valuable experience in rubbing off a few corners from our sheltered existence.
I have vivid memories of some of the experiences we had but cannot recall a lot of it at all.  I knew that the area where we were going was where one of my great-grandmothers had grown up and that my grandmother had gone there often on holiday but I never thought to ask my grandmother about it.  It is only recently that I have learnt about the history of the area.  Obviously it was agricultural.  The main town was Motueka and the farm we lived on was about two miles from there, at a place called Riwaka.  I cannot remember anything about our journey to get there. I know we must have gone on the ferry boat which ran from Wellington to Picton and then taken a Newman’s bus (coach) from Picton to Nelson and I assume on to Motueka.  The farmer picked us up there and drove us to Riwaka and our ‘digs’ which was a hop pickers’ hut.  Hop picking did not start until March so, although there were two or three of these huts in a paddock (field) none of them was occupied until we arrived and we were the only people on that part of the farm for our entire stay.  The main part of the farm was some distance away and each morning we were driven there.  The small part where we stayed consisted of a field of hops and one of tobacco.  If you walked through both fields you came to the Motueka river, a place we came to know well.  The farmer had acquired this farm as additional land and his younger son and wife lived there.  Everyone else, including the other workers, lived on the main farm.
It is only in doing a little on-line research in order to write this, that I have learnt about the tobacco industry in Nelson at that time (the mid-sixties).  Apparently tobacco was a popular crop because you needed only a relatively small piece of land.  I knew that Nelson was extremely sunny and that was one reason for the crops that grew there.  The industry had expanded considerably after the second world war and it was a major employer of seasonal labour in the nineteen fifties and sixties.  We were obviously there when the industry was at its height as by the mid-sixties there was a surplus of tobacco and in the two years after the 1964-65 season the number of farmers fell by 200 to 529.  What I do remember is that there was a lot of talk about mechanisation.  Everything on our farm was done by hand but people talked about someone who had bought a machine which went through the field with men (and they were men) who stood underneath and tied the tobacco as it was picked.  I remember someone saying that our farm acquired a tying machine the following year.  Of course, everyone smoked at this time and I can remember imported tobacco from Greece being stacked in the wharf sheds in Wellington.  The industry died out in the 1970s, probably because of initiatives to stop people smoking.   The farmers sold their crops in advance to one of the main tobacco/cigarette manufacturers.
In addition to the two parts of ‘our’ farm, another farmer with a very small property employed three workers who worked with us for most of the week.  These women were ‘pommy migrants’, i.e. English immigrants who had come to New Zealand on assisted passages.  They were psychiatric nurses and were only supposed to work as such so they had ‘run away’ from their employers.  No-one seemed bothered about this.  . I cannot remember this second farmer having any male employees of this own but on the fifth day he was ‘lent’ men by our farmer.  Our farmer grew for Rothmans and the other one grew for Wills.
There was a clear delineation in work between the sexes.  The men picked the tobacco and the women ‘tied’ it.  This task meant tying bunches of leaves onto manuka poles which were then put into the kiln and dried for a week.  I remember that when we arrived, we were told that as we were only working part of the season, we would not be taught to tie but would be confined to passing bunches of leaves to the women who stood next to the poles and tied the bunches on.  The poles were laid horizontally and stretched between two trestles.  The picked tobacco was brought from the fields on open-topped trailers and we workers stood alongside them.  As soon as a pole was full of tied bunches of leaves, a male worker would remove the filled pole and put it on a trailer to go to the kiln.  Although we were not supposed to learn to tie, our fellow-workers took pity on us and taught us in the lunch-hour.  I took to tying like a duck to water and can still remember how to do it!  I remember that when I returned to Wellington I had quite a swollen wrist.  I guess these days we would say I had a repetitive strain injury.
The working day
As I remember it, we worked at harvesting approximately three days a week.  On the other days we did ‘lateralling’ which meant working our way along the lines of plants and pulling off the side shoots so that the main leaves would grow stronger.  I think we worked an ordinary 8 am to 4.30 pm day, five days a week.  I seem to remember that our weekends were free although we needed this time for our domestic chores.  There was one famous week when the weather was very humid and it rained so much that we could only work three and a half days.  As we were motivated by the desire to make money, when I read on the notice board that overtime was paid at time and a half, we volunteered to work on Saturday.  It was very steamy and hard work that day but we thought of the money we were going to earn.  Little did we realise that because we had not worked a full week, we were only paid at the normal rate!  The farmer must have thought we were mad to work in such conditions since no-one had told us we had to.
The working day was broken up by ‘smokos’ and I seem to remember we had a proper lunch break although I cannot remember what we had for lunch.   I think we must have had packed lunches.  At the end of the day, we were driven back to our bit of the farm.  We generally then went for a swim in the river.  We walked through the hop field and the tobacco field until we came to the bank of the river.  One week there were sheep in the hop field, eating down the grass.  That was the week I trod on an old nail which went right into my heel.  I was very glad my tetanus injections were up to date.  The farmer’s wife, who had been a nurse, said I would be all right which was true but in NZ you had to be very careful about the risk of tetanus.
There were swimming holes in the river so it was quite safe.  We used to pretend to be Shakespeare’s Ophelia and coast downstream on the current quoting Shakespeare.  This was because we had studied Hamlet the previous year and learnt a lot of the main speeches by heart.  The water was pretty cold but you expect that in rivers and there were really no facilities for overall washing in our hut.  We did not expect there to be as most people at that time relied on swimming to keep clean when on holiday.
After our swim, we walked back to our hut and prepared dinner.  The hut consisted of two rooms: a bedroom and a living room with a very small wood-burning range on which we had to learn to cook.  This was occasionally a problem.  I can remember on one occasion we came back to very over-cooked sausages.  On another quite famous occasion we thought we had set the place on fire.  Smoke was pouring out the roof and we had to ask the farmer’s wife to come over and help us.  There was much laughter as we, being city girls, knew nothing about ranges.  We had failed to pull out the dampers so the chimney was blocked and all the smoke poured into the living room.  After our evening meal, we would wash our smalls and drape them round the bedroom to dry.  There was no TV in New Zealand in those days and I cannot remember if we had a radio, probably not.  For entertainment, we would read. I had taken several set books for the English course I was planning to do at university and was glad to have read them in advance, only to find when I enrolled at university, that I had to do a different English course because I was not ‘majoring’ in English but doing it as a subsidiary subject.
At that time in New Zealand, shops were not open at the weekend, but stayed open until 9 pm on Friday evenings.  We were usually able to go into Motueka on Friday evenings for late night shopping.  I remember buying two pairs of shoes: one pair of red ones with flat soles and another pair in white that had ‘baby Louis’ heels.  As I was quite tall, I never wore stilettos which were just coming into fashion.  I was afraid high heels would make me taller than the boys and women were supposed to be smaller than men so being tall could be a problem.  There were plenty of other people my height among my friends and I now know that one of my father’s aunts, born in the 1870s, was six foot tall. 
Farm life
There were also a number of incidents which showed us city girls that we were now in the country.  One was when the farmer killed a chicken by cutting off its head and then leaving it to run round in the field that was immediately outside our hut.  Another was at the main farm when it was time for the family to get some meat.  I already knew that farmers killed their own lifestock and then hung it up to ‘season’ but despite having spent my early childhood in a fairly rural community, I had never seen this happen.  Now I did.  One morning there was an announcement that they would kill a sheep for meat.  I do not think we witnessed the actual slaughter but I remember that at the morning ‘smoko’ there was a sheep, dangling on a hook near us.
As I have already said, one week a small flock of sheep were brought in and put outside our hut with the aim of getting them to chew the grass and keep it short.  Fine, but no-one warned up that this would bring the flies.  That week was not good as the flies were everywhere and we had to be very careful to cover up all our food.  We were rather glad when someone arrived and took them away again.
Free time
Obviously if we only worked five days a week, we had free time at weekends.   One weekend we went to the beach with ‘our’ farmer and his young family.  We went to Kaiteriteri, a beach that was famous for its yellow/white sand.  Most beaches in New Zealand had grey sand so this was thought to be very superior.  I see from the map that Kaiteriteri is very near Motueka although it involved a car journey so seemed to be some distance away.  I also have a faint memory of a trip that involved going over the Takaka Hill.  I see this would have been a journey over the hill to Takaka and the moth of the Takaka river but I can only remember being in a car and nothing of our destination.  Otherwise I do not know what we did at weekends although I think we may have gone out with the other workers, all of whom were older than us and several of whom had cars.

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