Mapua's Oldest Resident Still on the Land

The value we place on things is inversely proportional to their availability.  That’s what struck me when I drove up the driveway to the home of ninety three year old Ivan Wells.  Ivan’s house sits atop  a rise overlooking an expanse of green fields, with the village of Mapua discreetly hidden behind a hill.  In short, he has a million dollar view, in one of the most pleasant parts of the world.  When Ivan’s father arrived in 1929 it was simply another Moutere Hills orchard, and the view was irrelevant.

  

Land wasn’t worth much at that time, and the Hills were characterised by abandoned orchards.   Ivan’s dad entered orcharding at its lowest ebb.  Vast areas had been planted after world war one, and soldiers who had managed to dodge a bullet in Europe came to the Moutere where they met their demise.  The only thing that could be said for the Moutere clay was that it was good for holding up trees.  It offered little else, as the unfortunate soldiers discovered.  By the time Decimus Wells, Ivan’s dad, arrived most of the orchardists had gone bankrupt.

 

Decimus did the exact opposite of most of the returned soldiers in the hills.  He caught a bullet in Europe, and when the others were leaving their orchards, he bought one.  In 1917 Decimus and thousands of others were existing in trenches in France.  Men had to be fed and Decimus had the job of carting food and water.  With a canister on his back, one strapped to his belly and rations in his arms, rather than slosh through knee deep mud he climbed out of the trench and took a short cut.  Unfortunately a German machine gunner was wide awake.   A bullet pierced Decimus’s  back canister; a second one went through the front canister, and a third shattered the humerus in one of his arms.  Fortunately it was world war one, not world war two when machine guns fired more rapidly.  There would never have been an Ivan Wells because bullets would have scythed through his father’s torso.   Decimus was invalided back to New Zealand.

He wasn’t drawn to orcharding in Nelson, but rather repelled by dairy farming in Taranaki.  The wet climate did not agree with his new wife, and his brothers (nine of them) were annoyed with him for not remaining a bachelor and taking care of their widowed mother.

What remained of the orchards in the Moutere Hills survived and even thrived  thanks to scientific work by the Cawthron Institute.  They worked out that the Moutere soils need Lime, Phosphate, Nitrogen, etc. etc.; in short just about everything, also drainage.  By the time world war two came around apple and pear growing had a semblance of viability.  The war disrupted marketing, but the government stepped in and initiated compulsory acquisition of the fruit.

 

During world war two there was the problem of a shortage of labour.  This is where Ivan comes in.   After a training stint at Burnham he was manpowered back to the hills, working first on an orchard at Mahana and then back on the home orchard.  He’s still there.

  

The all time worst year was 1951.  The harvest was in full swing and the watersiders went on strike.   Fruit either rotted on the wharves or was left on the trees.  The government ended up compensating growers 1/3 of the perceived value of their crop, while the newly formed Apple and Pear Board paid a further 1/3.  The growers had to take the remaining 1/3rd on the chin.  The Apple and Pear Board reduced payments in subsequent years to recoup the money paid out in 1951.

In 1952 Ivan married and took over the orchard, but in 1954 he was laid low with a bad back.  People aren’t made to lug two bushel boxes of apples at a time, but as a teenager, Ivan thought he was invincible.   Ivan wasn’t just incapacitated for a short time.  He missed one whole harvest and much of the rest of the year.  When he was able to get back to work, he did not hold back and ended up incapacitated again in 1956.

 

One of the first improvements Ivan’s father made to the orchard was installing in-ground reticulation for spraying;  pipes which carried spray from a central spray tank to all parts of the orchard.  Outlets were spaced so that every tree could be reached with a 100 foot hose.  The main sprays were Lead Arsenate and Lime Sulphur.  Spray masks were unheard of, as were gloves.  If your hands got dirty you washed them in the spray tank.

  

The property was over fifty hectares, and the orchard only occupied four.  Technology improved and it became possible, indeed necessary, to make the orchard larger.  Ivan eventually increased the plantings to cover twelve hectares.  Spraying from a portable tank proved more efficient than the reticulated system.  Ivan was able to do this holding the nozzle in one hand and driving his tractor with the other.  What followed was nozzles mounted on the tank and then the air blast sprayers, and these remain the standard to this day.

 

Lead arsenate was replaced by DDT in the early fifties.  Ivan can still hear the spray rep saying “this stuff is as safe as houses.  You can drink the stuff”.  DDT was followed by another similar spray called DDD, then Organophosphates.

 

Ivan’s dad died at 86.  Ivan is 93.  Many of Ivan’s fellow orchardists have been conspicuous by their longevity.  He jokes that this may be because all the sprays killed off the bugs.  On the other hand, Ivan’s son would get eczema from the sprays.  As soon as he stepped off the school bus and approached the packing shed, he would start itching; thus putting an end to any succession plan for the orchard.

 On the day I called, new lambs were frolicking on the slopes where the orchard once stood.  From the lounge of the house built in 1932 Ivan has an uninterrupted view of pastures.  The house has had two growth spurts since 1932, but it is still small by today’s standards.  Ivan keeps it as neat and tidy as a new pin.  He uses a walking stick these days, saying he’s regressed to what he was like when he was like in 1954 and 56, but there is no sign of his mind letting him down.

  

No doubt the view will soon change.  If you step out on the lawn and look in the direction of the main road you can see a subdivision encroaching, and despite the Lead Arsenate and DDT which perhaps killed off Ivan’s bad bugs, he won’t last forever.  On this spring day Ivan gave me a look at a era soon to be erased from living memory.

Aug 26, 2016 • Peter Owen

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