Duncan Smith (JRGS 1957-63) recalls a varied career after his schooldays...
Since I left John
Ruskin Grammar School, my life has had many interesting twists and
turns, up and downs, like most of us, I guess. I left in 1963 with five
O-Levels and just one year of Zoology, Botany and Chemistry under my
belt, although I carried on for a short while as an instructor for the
ACF. I found A-Level subjects way over my head and quit after a first
year in the sixth form. Two years working with Legal and General
Insurance saw me nearly go mad, so at 19 years of age I flew over to Dar
es Salaam in Tanzania to stay with my nutty aunt for two years. She had
a small beach hotel 25 miles north of the city and a small island,
called Sinda, off the coast. I met interesting people at her hotel,
working with the World Bank, United Nations or the Food and Agricultural
Organisation, in some aspects of agriculture; this inspired me. I always
wanted a meaningful and purposeful job in life and this seemed to
perfectly fit the bill for me. I eventually wanted to return to Tanzania
I flew back to the UK in 1967 to study agriculture. First to Croydon Technical College to study O-Level maths and biology at evening classes. My maths teacher at Ruskin was Mr. Smith and he put me off maths. He once he called me to the front of the class, grabbed me by the back of my hair and banged my head against the blackboard saying I was “thick”! Happy days. I passed both O-Levels with Grade A.
A prerequisite for going to Harper Adams Agricultural College in Shropshire was to have at least two years of farming experience, which I didn’t have. I worked for Lord Newborough in North Wales - an arrogant tosser - and had a BIG falling out with him after he was very aggressive and rude towards my manager, a lovely gentle, knowledgeable man. I didn’t like that, saw red and told him what I thought of his ancestry. For some reason, he sacked me! I worked for MAFF and also a wonderful mixed farm in Kent.
After two years at Harper Adams Agricultural College, I gained its College Diploma in Agriculture, and was their top student. A few weeks later I took the National Diploma in Agriculture exams at Leeds University and was runner-up for the Queens’ Prize that year. Further studies took me to Wolverhampton Polytechnic for two years, gaining a 2.1 Honours degree in plant pathology. This was a sandwich course, and I worked at the National Institute of Botany in Cambridge for four months. While there, I joined the Cambridge University full-bore rifle club and was awarded a Cambridge Blue for shooting. Finally, I went to Exeter University and gained my Masters, also in plant pathology. I represented this University at rifle shooting and was awarded their Colours. I also submitted a series of 35mm colour slides to The Royal Photographic Society, Bath, in the category “Nature” and they were accepted and I was awarded their Associateship in 1988. [ACF shoots at JRGS]
Sadly, I didn’t return to Tanzania as it had become too dangerous to live there. I remained in the UK and worked for ICI Ltd. at Jeallot’s Hill in Berkshire 18 months, carrying out greenhouse and fields trials on new pesticides. From there I moved to the German chemical giant, Hoechst, for five years, carrying out field trials in Lincolnshire. Later, I was promoted to their UK product development manager looking after their research programme for seven years with a team of nine scientists. It was incredibly stressful.
Farming in New Zealand's North Island
I met a lovely New Zealand “kiwi” girl, Judy, while doing the West Highland Way walk in Scotland, in 1988. We lived together for a while in Castleacre, Norfolk before she decided to return to New Zealand. Shortly after she left I was made redundant from Hoechst on the actual day I was going to hand in my notice! I sold up everything and, in early 1989, with just a backpack and money in the bank, I joined Judy in New Zealand. It felt marvellous! We bought a 23-acre lifestyle block in Gisborne on the east coast of North Island, and got married there in 1989. We raised two wonderful boys, Jack and Tim.
We made sure that everything we grew on our farm would be organic, and quickly became certified as such. We had no idea what would grow there, as this was sheep and cattle country, so we would be “pioneering” in some sense. We wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible, like the BBC TV programme “The Good Life”, and so planted every type of fruit and nut tree we could get our hands on, together with a very large vegetable garden from which we sold our excess produce. We dabbled in organic squash for Japan, but that turned out to be a disaster!
To be self-sufficient in wine, we planted a small vineyard of chardonnay grapes; this was a great success, winning accolades from top wine writers. We extended the vineyard, but to a size that we could still both manage, eventually producing 12 barrels a year. Our wines won gold and silver medals here in NZ, in London and San Francisco. Prince Charles once wrote to us to ask if he could try some of our wine. He did enjoy it, but sadly no big order followed! The Duchess of Bedford popped into our cellar door on our farm to try our wine. She absolutely loved it, so much so that she took two cases back to England with her. We exported to Belgium too. Our wines could be found in the cellars of the World-famous Huka Lodge and many top New Zealand restaurants.
However, we weren’t always successful with our vintages every year - we did have a few disasters. A late frost wiped out one vintage; another year German wasps ate our crop two weeks before harvest ; rain rotted another vintage; and the final nail in our coffin was our winemaker stuffing up the best vintage we’d ever had - we literally tipped 3,600 bottles of wine down the drain. At that time a bottle of our wine was selling at $50/wholesale and $75/retail (£25 and £40/bottle), so our loss was immense and we never recovered from that downfall. The following years we decided to go back to producing one barrel of wine a year for just us, which was our original plan. However, instead of wine we tried our hand at making champagne and it was wonderful!
We also planted 600 olive trees, but lost about one third of them in the first season due to frost. So, being very clever, I put a pile of large river stones around each tree to act as a heat sink. These gave off enough heat during the night to prevent any further frost damage; the trees thrived. Olive trees are a lot of hard work and quite a challenge to keep on top of all the necessary pruning and hand-harvesting, which was very labour intensive. For both the grapes and olives, all our friends, neighbours and relatives came to help us, and we would enjoy wonderful days picking, chatting, laughing and feasting. Fantastic memories.
My wife and I both had to work off-farm to earn enough money to bring up our two boys and pay all our bills, since the farm just didn’t pay for itself. As a consequence, all the jobs on our farm slowly became overwhelming because they could only be done at weekends. Being a research agronomist I easily found work in nearby Gisborne, a large horticultural area. Judy studied wine-making and became a cider-maker. So, instead of being a “lifestyle” block, it became a “life-sentence” block, and we were not enjoying it as we should have.
Below are two images from recent years; click on either thumbnail to view a larger version.
Judy (left), winemaker John
and Duncan, at a Wine Festival in Gisborne.
|Duncan and Judy Smith, with their sons Jack (left) and Tim.|
A Change of Scenery
After 25 years on our farm, Judy and I both decided to sell up and move to Whakatane, beside the Pacific Ocean on the Eastern Bay of Plenty. Her parents and sisters lived there and she wanted to be near them. We were both very sorry to leave the farm but, since both of our sons had moved on and into good careers in Wellington, we felt that the time was right to sell.
I soon joined a group of volunteers looking after kiwi in the three large reserves that surrounded our small town. It is very rewarding work with a great group of like-minded people. I’ve been asked by them to study kiwi for another Master’s degree, and eventually my PhD; it all depends on funding.
I’ve been back to the UK many times, mainly to catch up with old friends and relatives. When there I have taken the opportunity of ticking off some of the amazing long-distance walks, including the Great Glen Way, South Downs Way, Coast to Coast Path, Pennine Way, Peddars Way, West Highland Way and, this July/August, I completed the whole of the 630 miles of the South West Coastal Path. That was a very challenging, seven-week hike during the very hot summer experienced in England this year, 2018.
Whakatane is a wonderful place to live with a great climate, amazing beaches, bush walks, friendly people and relaxed lifestyle. Come and see for yourself one day! Kiaora.
Duncan Smith, Whakatane, New Zealand; November 2018 Email