After emerging from the isolated Urewera forest to start school at aged nine, Bill Hughes had an early determination to succeed in life. In his teens, during the 50s, he modernised his father’s farm with free range pigs. In his twenties, he up-skilled and worked three jobs to buy his first farm. After fighting for the rights of settlers and raising a family in Tapora for five decades, the 78-year-old is going back to his roots in Whakatane. Bill tells Cathy Aronson about his Welsh determination, how he overcame asthma with activity, and returning home to climb the Urewera ….
My mother’s parents were Whakatohea/Ngati Porou and Scottish/Tuhoe. My father was Welsh and Irish. Our family is like the United Nations. My grandfather Hughes was a tough old Welshman, but a very successful farmer. My determination and independence comes from that side of the family. I’d argue the point with anyone. If I think I’m right, I’ll go to the end of the earth to make sure I get my way. I’ve lost too many arguments with the Auckland Council, so I’m leaving Tapora.
When I told my daughter in Australia “I’m selling up”, I gave her three reasons – ‘I’m sick of dusty and muddy roads, I don’t like the Auckland Supercity and you don’t get a view in a coffin’. So she accepted that. I’m moving back to Whakatane to join my family. I grew up in the Urewera. We lived in a hut with punga sides and a dirt floor and bathed in a cowshed tub. My mother cooked in a chimney, like the Saltbush Bill cartoons. We didn’t see many people, just the occasional fisherman. My mother had a tough life. She was our teacher but was busy with kids and milking cows. My father was always away playing soldiers getting ready for guerilla warfare in World War II.
We came out of the bush when I was nine. I started school in Taneatua on the same day as my younger brother and sister. I enjoyed school but left when I was 15 because my father was ill. I was the eldest of 10 by then, it was my duty. I worked on my father’s farm until we parted ways when I was 21. He didn’t like modernisation, he was still in the horse and trace system. I went to young farmers and did an AB (Artificial Breeding) technician course when I was 19 and had new ideas. I got paid three pounds a week, then he offered me 50 per cent profit to manage the pigs. I got rid of the old sows and started free range farming. After 18 months my father put me back on wages because I was making too much money. So I bought a car and hit the big city, Whakatane, and that was it.
I moved to Tapora in 1966, with my wife and two-year-old daughter, when I was 29. It was a great place to raise a family, but I didn’t want to come here at first. I enjoyed what I was doing. I had three jobs and making plenty of money. But my wife said ‘it’s time you got a real job’. I’d saved $5000 and wanted to farm an area I was familiar with, but when a ballot came up for a 131 acre farm in Tapora my uncle put my name in. It was a mission at first. I had dealt with farmers as an AB technician but hadn’t run a dairy farm. My father’s farm was cream supply, whole milk was totally different. The machines had no instruction manual, so I took it apart to figure out how it worked. Within a week of settling in, the school committee chair came around and asked me to join. I got inaugurated from there. My wife said to me after a few years, ’I don’t like it here’. I said ‘we’ll stay for five years and then go’. After five years I said ‘we’re moving’ but the kids cried, we had three daughters by then, and said ‘we don’t want to go’. So I said, ‘that’s it, we are not going at all’. For years after that they tried to get me to move, but I wouldn’t. Tapora was a settlement area, in its infancy. We were getting a raw deal out here so we set up the Tapora Settlers Committee. The phones were party lines with only one toll line to Wellsford. Eventually the tolls were dropped and we became part of the Wellsford/Warkworth exchange.
I was probably an activist. I didn’t like the injustice. I had seen farmers fight for their rights in the East Coast, which was more developed. The roads in Tapora were dreadful; it hasn’t improved a lot. But in the 70s we managed to do a deal with the council to voluntarily increase rates to fix them. We straightened out the corners and got the road to sealing quality. They never did seal them but it cut the drive time to Wellsford from 90 minutes to 40 minutes. The state was trying to hand over the water supply to the council in 1974, with more costs and bureaucracy. We negotiated until 1979 when the state walked away, so the settlers and farmers took charge of it. Then the power bills started coming to me. We had to set up a company. The first thing we did was automate the pumps, and over the years spent a quarter of a million dollars upgrading it.
I was a director at Mid-Northland Dairy Company from 1979-82. I got to see the inside of big business, with a turnover of $350 million. I tried to change everything, but dealing with 12 men, it’s a bit difficult. I joined because we needed a voice for this area. Tapora had a large turnover of $16-17 million a year but were getting little back in return. We had some hard years in the early 70s after the drought, but that was life with farming. It took a long time to recover, but started to change how we did things. As the farms amalgamated, from 45 farms to six, there were less single people. Before the 80s it was hard to get a bank loan to expand the farm, because I had daughters. Roger Douglas gets a lot of slack, but he helped change that. We sent the girls to Whangarei Girls, so they could get used to the city. I wanted them to have a profession to always fall back on it. They became a chef, teacher and nurse.
Things changed by the time my three daughters left home. In 1986 my wife was doing pottery in the new pottery shed, and I came home for breakfast. She said ‘we should sell the farm and go to Auckland’ and I said ‘I’m not going but you can if you want to go back to work’. She was gone by lunchtime. There was a note on the table ‘I’ve gone to Auckland’. It sounds funny, but that happened for a lot of farmers, things were changing. Change is good though, you have to accept it and evolve. I spent a lot of time on the golf course once the family left home, and ended up becoming the president from 1995 to 2000. I’d always enjoyed sport. I played rugby and bowls and enjoyed surfing, water skiing and sailing. In 1982 I sailed to Suva with my brother-in-law. As a kid I was an asthmatic, in and out of hospital. So in high school I decided to do something about it and took up running, and my asthma disappeared. Later in life I did harrier running, I came fourth in the Mount Edgecombe mountain race. I’d like to walk it again.
When I move back to Whakatane, I’ll be tramping the Urewera with my younger sister. I’ve only been back once when the children were young. I always give everything I do 100 per cent; I don’t do things in halves. It’s just in my genes to succeed. You have to be true to yourself, your race or gender doesn’t matter, if you want to get on with life you have to take the bull by the horns and go for it.