There are people who are ready to retire at 50, and there are others who are never going to get round to it. One such is Harold Woolford of Newstead Orchard, who recently turned 80, still works a 7 day week, and enjoys life to the full. When he resat his drivers licence just after his birthday, we danced a jig in the packing room when he passed first try.
I can well remember buying Kleensaks of apples every week from Harold all through the 1970s, when I detoured to Silverdale Road after dropping my spouse off at the University. These days, of course, they come in plastic bags, because the paper ones got too expensive.
Fifty years ago Harold gave up being a printer on the Northern Advocate and moved to Hamilton to take up fruit growing. Previous to that he’d been a would-be carpenter who spent his days rounding off the corners of the base pieces of kahikatea butterboxes, so the wharfies wouldn’t hurt their hands when they lifted them. Fortunately, the War intervened and apprenticeships ceased, which may well have been a relief for the remaining stands of kahikatea in Northland!
Harold went to work for Mr McMiken, who had originally bought 18 acres of land on Silverdale Road below the junction with Hillcrest Road. Mr McMiken had gradually bought more land and it was all planted in fruit trees, mainly apples with some stonefruit. The crop was all sold from a shop on the property, with any excess sent to auction.
Innovation was the name of the game even then, and in 1953 they took delivery of the first air blast sprayer to be built in the Waikato. Although a large and cumbersome thing, it must have been welcomed by those who had formerly had to use hand pumped equipment. Spraying was a frequent operation, particularly for red mite, in the days before biocontrol with mite predators, and these days sprays are less fierce on the environment, and spraying is done only when needed.
For many years there were only four significant orchards around Hamilton, and they all grew for local supply. McMiken’s became known as Sunnyside Orchard, and its produce was all sold locally until 1976, when they first supplied Granny Smith apples through the Apple & Pear Board for the export market, followed later by both Red and Golden Delicious, the only export varieties available then.
Other varieties, such as Sturmer were tried as exports, but some didn’t last the trip when packed in wooden boxes. Harold gleefully recalled tales of square Sturmers being unloaded in the UK, no longer quite apple shaped!
Mr McMiken had four daughters and no sons, so when Harold married Peggy, the second eldest, it kept the business in the family, although the McMiken name has been carried on for the business title.
In the early days picking was done into a trailer pulled by a horse, and packing into wooden boxes was a skilled and time consuming job, with 100 boxes a day per packer considered a good day. More recent use of wooden bins, cardboard cartons and plastic bags has seen it speed up to 300 boxes/person/day.
I had always wondered how the apples were transferred from the bins to the sorting tables. It turned out to be a wonderful system Harold called a water dumper. The bins are lowered in a cradle into a deep vat of water, and the apples then all float to the top. The water is pumped towards the transporting brushes and rollers and the apples magically arrive where they are supposed to, untouched by human hand apart from being picked.
In 1963, with the commencement of the development of the University, Harold bought 20 acres on the Morrinsville Road at Newstead, and this was planted up over the next 3 years and pruned using a four-leader system and dwarfing rootstock. Later a further 10 acres was acquired and this was planted and trained on a three-wire espalier system, which was very successful for early cropping. Fruit from Newstead was sold through the Silverdale Road shop until the University finally needed that land for its Management School and student housing, when all operations were shifted to Newstead.
The development of so many new varieties over the years has meant that new plantings, to replace those become unfashionable, has been regularly needed. However, to my delight Harold has kept the odd tree of such old favourites as Cox’s Orange, Sturmer, and Gravenstein. He sells several different varieties of plums, and the Golden Queen peach crop is still eagerly pre-ordered by those whose summer chores include bottling peaches for winter desserts.
The lowering profitability of the apple export market has seen Newstead Orchards revert to selling all their crop from the orchard shop. They employ few outside pickers, and Harold still sallies forth with his picking apron on each morning to gather the latest crop with swift hands which must have picked many tonnes of fruit over 50 years.
As I buy my apples these days we always make time to swap stories of funny farming or orcharding incidents. My favourite remains the one about the dog which stole the possum caught in a yellow Timms trap, and buried both. The remains were not discovered for years, until an area was being replanted and one tree hole was found to be already fully occupied!
As an example of someone who is still busily getting a kick out of life, Harold Woolford is my favourite octogenarian.
BY SUE EDMONDS
For publication in Waikato Farmer, September 2005