My family immigrated to New Zealand from the States when I was 11 years old. By the time I was 14, we owned a 500-hectare farm and were working from dawn to dusk as farmers do. But that’s where our homage to tradition ended—and why our Kiwi neighbors, steeped in generations of farming know-how, often looked askance at us.
Back in the mid 1970s, most Kiwi farmers—and every last one of our immediate neighbors—subscribed to certain immutable laws regarding chores and gender. Girls did the inside chores. Period. If a farmer’s lass did venture out into the paddocks, she was carrying a tray of refreshments for the real workers.
My parents had three daughters and no sons. So, as a New Jersey Yankee in King Kiwi’s Court, my father made adjustments. He put hydraulic-powered pinchers on the front end of the tractor, so we could rid our paddocks of the fast-growing broom and gorse weeds without benefit of huge biceps. When we harvested in late summer, he made our hay bales 70 lbs instead of 90 so his wiry daughters could sling them around. It made transporting the bales to the barn, building a pyramid of grassy bricks up to the cobwebby rafters, and feeding out in winter much easier.
The dirt roads running through our farm didn’t carry much traffic, so a plume of dust in the distance was an event that merited a short work break to eyeball the intruder, even during the chaos of feeding out. More often than not, though, it was a neighbor slowing down to take in the sacrilegious spectacle of girls doing a man’s job. We soon learned to pretend certain vehicles weren’t there because the faces inside clearly weren’t happy with the tableaux on display: Three slim girls balancing on the back of a flatbed truck, utility knives in hand, slashing green binder twine apart and tossing swatches of hay into the mooing herds around us.
Unbelievable as it might seem, we survived those non-traditional years. I’m sure the farmers who shook their heads over ‘those darn furnnors’ have since moved to town or are six feet under. I can’t say much to the ones currently pushing up daises, but it would be very droll to ask the surviving old codgers what they remember about the “mericans” who lived down the road apiece. Do they still think girls don’t belong in, on or even around farming equipment? Do their kids—sorry, their sons—who inherited those farms still follow the old ways?
Perhaps gender should determine who does what on a farm because let’s face it, muscles are useful. But working smarter, not harder, can—and should—apply to any aspect of our lives; it’s certainly become a cornerstone of modern business. So even though I didn’t always enjoy being one of the chisels sculpting a cultural-sexual revolution in rural New Zealand, I’m proud of my father’s innovative spirit. Especially now that it’s safely in my very distant past.