A quite atypical farm, Tom Brooking

Imperial Patriot: Charles Alma Baker and the History of Limestone Downs
Barrie Macdonald,
Bridget Williams Books, $59.95

One of the strangest features of New Zealand’s written history is that the rural sector has been relatively neglected. Even though farming, apart from a few years in the 1860s, has earned the bulk of our national income, the coverage of the history of farming is patchy and uneven. Unlike England, Scotland, most European countries, the United States, Canada and Australia, we do not have a comprehensive overview of the development of either farming or rural society.

Instead, there is a collection of apparently unrelated family and local histories, scattered articles in the Journal of Agriculture and theses locked up in university libraries. Even within the university system the various disciplines engaged in researching our rural past (history, sociology, anthropology, education and Maori studies) have little idea of what each other is doing. The publication of a biography of an agricultural innovator which includes a detailed study of the two farms he established is, therefore, most welcome.

Barrie Macdonald has written an accomplished account of Charles Alma Baker and the two farms he began in the area southwest of Tuakau (not far from the steel mill, for South island readers) in the 1920s: Te Karaka and Limestone Downs. Baker was born in Dunedin in 1857. The timing of his birth explains his unusual second name which is normally only given to women. In this case it celebrates one of the British army’s few good moments in the disastrous Crimean campaign. Baker was very proud of it and always insisted that he was addressed as Charles Alma rather than simply as Charles. It was most appropriate that he remained an ardent patriot throughout his long life.

Baker’s parents were reasonably well-off small merchants but he went on to become a very wealthy man because of genuine entrepreneurial flair and a fortunate marriage to the daughter of one of Auckland’s leading merchant princes, Sir Frederick Whitaker. After training as a surveyor in New Zealand Baker moved to Malaya where he made a small fortune in surveying jungle areas for tin mining companies. He then invested in mining himself and later became a rubber plantation owner. These endeavours earned him so much money that he was able to live an opulent lifestyle spending much of his time travelling the world on luxury steamers.

He was also able to prove his intense loyalty to Empire during the First World War by raising funds for a Malayan air squadron. Such patriotism reaped its predictable reward and he was awarded the CBE in 1919. Even though resident in Malaya he still remained interested in New Zealand, however, partly because he was able to indulge his passion for big game fishing in the Bay of Islands. His friendship with the popular American novelist, Zane Grey, won much attention and helped put the Bay of Islands on the international tourist map in the 1920s.

During these visits Baker became increasingly interested in going into pastoral farming, especially once rubber prices crashed in the early 1920s. In 1926 he finally purchased the 2300-acre Te Karaka to be run by his nephew, Eric, and the bush-clad 12,000-acre Limestone Downs to be supervised by a manager. In practice it was the Auckland lawyer, Alexander Warnock, a hard-headed businessman, who controlled the farming operations.

Baker poured money into both properties to bring them into production, only to have his endeavour somewhat disrupted by the arrival of the 1930s depression. Even virtually unlimited capital resources and the use of all the latest machinery and farming methods struggled to produce a profit when wool prices collapsed in 1930. Baker did not help himself by insisting that the little-known Ryeland sheep be crossed with the more proven Corriedales and Romneys. As a consequence, the quality of wool produced on the properties never reached great heights. He did a little better with his polled Angus beef cattle but prices were down for beef, too, and the high debts associated with the properties caused Baker concern down to the late 1930s.

As the depression drifted on and Baker grew older he also turned increasingly to the ideas of Rudolph Steiner and what is now called biodynamic farming. His thinking on these matters seemed to be a mixture of genuine concern to produce healthier food and to take less out of the environment and plain dottiness. Greater use of natural compost proved more difficult in New Zealand than amongst the rubber trees, however, and Baker had little opportunity to prove his decidedly eccentric theories to sceptical New Zealand farmers. In the end rising prices and superphosphate proved more vital in restoring profits than cosmic forces.

When Baker died in 1941 the farms were still running at a loss and the stock was in bad condition. Matters were not helped by a generous donation to help the Malayan Air Force. But Baker insisted in his will that the farms be retained to support his widowed daughter Judy whose English husband was yet another victim of the long-term problems caused by the horror of the western front. Te Karaka was eventually transferred to Eric Baker in 1951 but Limestone Downs continued under various managers until Judy’s death. The stock had already been culled during the war and with the Korean wool boom expansion and profitability became possible again, aerial topdressing helping far more than other help from above and Dan O’Connell providing skilled management.

After Judy’s death in 1976, control of Limestone Downs eventually passed from the English executors to a New Zealand-based committee in 1981. This committee was instructed to direct profits to charitable purposes and they handed control over to Massey University to ensure that the latest management and farming techniques would be used to maximise profits; so a new era of innovation began. A more experimental approach was adopted and carrying capacity, especially of top quality beef cattle, was increased in spectacular fashion.

Efficiency triumphed over the disruptions caused by Rogernomics and profits available for agricultural research and scholarships climbed to nearly $2 million. Net return on capital seems to be about double what it would be under more conventional management and the story has ended on a note of which Baker would have approved, or as Macdonald notes approvingly the farm is “a fitting memorial to a remarkable man”.

Macdonald must be congratulated for his even-handed treatment of a man who was not an altogether likeable character. Baker comes over as a cold man whose conduct sometimes seemed questionable. Even when allowance is made for differences in social mores, his refusal to acknowledge his Maori son, Pita Heretaunga Baker (coincidentally the father of the Maori novelist Pat Heretaunga Baker), seems mean-spirited and cowardly. His lifestyle also seemed to reflect some of the typical excesses of the nouveau riche but Macdonald avoids making judgments.

Indeed the author’s objectivity and professionalism enables him to set his character in context commenting sensibly on developments in the industries of empire as the story proceeds. Macdonald is disarmingly honest in portraying Baker as one of the obvious winners of British imperialism. The story is told in clear, no-nonsense prose and the text is lightened by an excellent selection of photographs. Yet again Bridget Williams Books has produced another handsome book. But all this does not mean that the book is without its problems.

As the author of several commissioned histories myself I have some sympathy for the difficulties confronting Macdonald, especially as the Alma Baker trust is so important to his own university. Even so, I feel his telling is a touch too celebratory. Once again the unproblematic, whiggish paradigm which has dominated the writing of New Zealand history since William Pember Reeves, is rehearsed without much question. Not only are things getting better all the time but it seems that we are farming even better.

Such a positive telling begs many questions. When one looks at the land which Baker purchased one has to ask the question would it not have been better left in bush? After all it has only been made profitable after enormous expenditure. Did it ever really make either economic or environmental sense? Anyone familiar with South island sheep farming would consider such damp, bush-clad country to have been quite unsuited to sheep farming. Baker and latterly Massey University may have proven such scepticism wrong, but at what cost? Then there is the matter of the inadequate price paid to the original Maori owners and Baker’s cavalier attitude to these indigenous nuisances. He can hardly be singled out in this respect but Macdonald skates rather too lightly and quickly over this “awkward” area.

More serious is the question of representativeness. How representative was Baker of New Zealand farmers and how typical was Limestone Downs as a mixed sheep and beef farm? The short answer is that both Baker and his farm were quite atypical. Despite the gloomy predictions of Marx and the hope of failure amongst the envious New Right, most New Zealand farms have been and continue to be operated by families who both reside on and work their own properties. Recent research from Otago suggests that this has always been the case.

Stevan Eldred‑Grigg’s attempt to portray big nineteenth-century landowners as an effete gentry living it up in the clubs of Christchurch while their managers slogged it out in the remote country now appears to be little more than a post-marxist romance. On the contrary, most of these men too worked hard on their estates where they lived most of the time. Indeed this reality holds the key to their success because it kept them in constant touch with the day-to-day, nitty-gritty problems of farming.

Recent work by scholars in North America, such as Paul Voissey’s study of family farms in Alberta, actually goes as far as arguing that the family farm has triumphed over corporate- and state-run alternatives precisely because of this immediate connection with the land and because the family unit of labour is more flexible than any other. Put another way, the family farmer’s ability to exploit his or her own labour and that of his or her family makes what marxists dismiss as the “simple commodity mode of production” into the most efficient form of farming. Baker had no such flexibility available and remained dependent on lawyers, accountants, professional managers and hired labour. The crucial necessity to survive also gives an urgency to full-time family operations which was lacking in the case of a hobby or play farmer like Baker who tried to run the properties from the luxury of a Malayan mansion, an Auckland hotel and cruise ships. Macdonald is well aware of these things and should have pointed them out.

Limestone Downs was also unusual not only in relation to the vast amounts of capital poured in but in its connection with Massey University. Massey has other such farms with which telling comparisons could have been made. Admittedly, the internal politics may have been rather delicate but Macdonald needed to find the courage to engage in such an exercise to establish how Limestone Downs has differed from other university farms. Detailed information is available on these other properties so that the interesting material on expenditure, farming methodology etc could have been set in a more satisfying framework. Macdonald as professor of history at Massey was in an ideal position to make such comparisons and thereby broaden both the historical and contemporary usefulness of the study. Comparisons with other big businessman farmers overseas, especially in Australia, may also have been instructive.

Perhaps my expectations were a little high because this is a good book and the historiography of rural New Zealand has been considerably enriched by its publication. Even so it would have been better if Macdonald had been more critical of his subject and if he had paid more attention to setting this wealthy farmer and his farm into the broader New Zealand picture.


Tom Brooking is senior lecturer in history at the University of Otago. His life of John McKenzie, Minister of Lands in the Seddon Government, is due to be published soon.


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