Sunday, January 01, 2012

A proud heritage behind the 'last man weeding'

William Young is the beneficiary of a legacy created by the uncomplaining hard work of the generations before him.

His grandfather, Young Jong Loo, came to New Zealand from China in 1919 and grew vegetables on leased land in Horowhenua and Hawke's Bay before settling in Palmerston North.

Later he brought his two sons out from China and Mun Hor (he was told to choose an English name at school and picked Arthur) inherited the small business.

William is the third generation and "last man weeding" on the land. His brother, Gerald, is a doctor in Auckland, elder sister Sandy runs a company supplying shop fittings in Auckland and younger sister Jenny is head of marketing for Telstra Australia in Sydney.

For the grower of cabbages, leeks, celery, broccoflowers and maize on 28 hectares, life could have taken a similar direction. He had high marks at school and earned an accredited university entrance pass, but his love of the land won out.

In his late 40s, but looking 10 years younger, he could still be mistaken for an upwardly mobile young professional.

He is smartly dressed, even in the field, his hair is in a fashionable cut and he sports designer spectacles. He talks animatedly and a smile as wide as his 20-disc harrow is never far away.

His mother, Chue King, who came out from China in 1955 to marry his father, is a living reminder of the debt his generation owes.

At 75, bent as a staple and with fingers askew with arthritis, she refuses to stay in the warmth of her home. She joins her son in the fields, weeding, picking and sowing, hunched over on her heels, as she has always done.

Arthur, now 80, his balance robbed by a stroke, is, to evident frustration, forced to stay close to home.

William lives with his parents and marvels at what they and his grandfather had to endure. "Each generation worked for the next, to give them a better future.

The payback is that you carry on the legacy, provide a platform for the next to spring off. The torch gets passed on and you can't let them down."

It wasn't just the backbreaking hard work; they were the victims of racist policies that financially penalised them.

It was a hidden shame of New Zealand history that was recognised only in 2002 with an apology by prime minister Helen Clark.

Jong Loo had to find [PndStlg]100 (almost $10,000 today) for a poll tax at a time when the average yearly wage was [PndStlg]3 17s before he was allowed into the country.
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He could not bring his wife, could not become a citizen and was barred from owning land.

The last of these restrictions was not lifted till the 1950s, but racial prejudice remained. William remembers being told of Chinese who were stopped from sitting upstairs at the movies and were refused a haircut by some barbers.

A regime of long hours of hard work permeated his childhood. "We would come home from school and go straight into the field.

Then, after tea, we would be back out there, weeding and planting, picking and packing. We worked all weekend.

There was no time off for sports and we still had to do our homework."

His brother, Gerald, was the only one brave enough to rebel and insist on playing rugby for a school team. "He was a smart cookie," William says wistfully.

In 1978, he made the decision to not go to university but stay on the farm with his parents. "I had - still have - a love for the soil and in those days, vegetable growing was a promising career. Returns were good and so was the lifestyle."

Weekly auctions could be relied on to accurately reflect the market dynamics of supply and demand and their dependability allowed him to savour the rare treat of leisure time.

Thirty years on, a lot has changed. The auctions are no longer held and he deals with wholesalers who sell to supermarket chains and independent retailers.

He has to meet a fluctuating demand seven days a week.

He misses the auctions and their ability to be a "visual barometer".

"We didn't mind a kick in the pants when there was a sea of one vegetable to be sold because on another day we would be the only one who had the celery or cabbage everyone wanted to buy. But now, who sets those prices? No-one knows."

An option is to sell at farmers' markets but it would be too restrictive.

"One year, celery was in so much demand I sold 1500 crates in one week. You can't do that at a farmers' market."

He has also seen a big rise in working expenses - fuel, fertiliser, fungicides and pesticides and local government compliance costs.

"I've got no-one to pass those on to. I'm still passionate about growing, but it would be nice to make some money along the way."

And, ironically, better fertiliser, sprays and vegetable varieties and cell transplant technology have contributed to a bigger problem - that of over-supply.

This autumn the weather has made things worse.

"It's been too nice," he says with a grin. "It's been fine and warm and yields have been high, too high, and the market has been flooded with vegetables. Added to that, when it's warm people don't eat so much."

Usually, May can be relied on for regular frosts, nature's weeder, but they didn't arrive. He shrugs his shoulders.

"It's part of farming. When you plant, you don't know what the weather will be like at harvest."

He describes the small farm as "the old one-man-band scenario", but then is quick to acknowledge the work his mother still contributes.

"She's a good team player, truly awe-inspiring. She doesn't get the recognition she deserves, but then she doesn't ask for it. She's humble - that's the Chinese way."

He could expand, use some or all of the 18ha planted in maize, but that would mean he would have to employ extra workers.

"I'm not sure I want the added hassle," he says. "I manage because the maize operation is so mechanised. I sign a contract with the chicken factory and I know what return I'm going to get."

Another option is to form a co- operative. "They seem to be making it work up north with kumara, and if we get the numbers right, it could be quite profitable," he muses.

"There's been talk, it's been bandied about, but people are hesitant." His grin returns. "So far, it's all hui and no doey."

He has not been afraid to get involved in industry politics and is chairman of Horticulture New Zealand's brassica crop advisory group.

He says it is his way of giving something back to the industry. "It's a chance to learn and participate. You get to know people, a lot of people, and they get to know you.

You are close to where the action is and where big decisions are being made. And, hopefully, you are in a place to really make a difference."

On the worst days, when it's pouring with rain and he's out in the mud battling wind and the cold, he wonders if he did the right thing all those years ago. "I do think about it, I do, but it passes. The sun comes out and I'm glad I'm not stuck in an office in a big city. We all have our niches and this is mine."

The small Chinese family vegetable businesses are disappearing as younger generations move away.

There's a tinge of regret that when his time comes, he won't have anyone to pass the farm on to. He doubts his nieces or nephews will be interested.

"The biggest shortcoming of the Chinese community is that they educate their kids too well. No-one wants to be a grower. They want to work out of the weather, have their weekends off and go on overseas trips. I don't see anyone saying, 'I don't want to be a doctor, I'll go back to growing.' " He grins again. "Like that's going to happen - yeah, right."

However, there's a pride, also, in knowing that from these many small businesses have come so many highly educated, successful professionals who make a positive contribution to New Zealand society.

But hanging over this is a dark shadow.

He is disgusted that the hard-won high reputation of the early Chinese immigrants is being undone by more recent arrivals.

"Our forefathers came here and worked in the soil on their hands and knees through all the daylight hours, seven days a week. They didn't want a handout when times got tough and were scrupulously law-abiding. They just wanted to make a better life for their children.

"Modern Asian criminals are making a mockery of that. They're giving us a bad name and European New Zealanders can't differentiate between us. It is difficult to take."

- © Fairfax NZ News

Last updated 20:20 10/06/2010

Growing pains: William Young in his celery field.

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