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Retired Rakaia farmer Edward Oakley recognised for community efforts

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Edward Oakley’s contribution to the rural Rakaia community was celebrated at this year’s Ashburton District Council’s Community Honours Awards. Photo / Sharon Davis / Rural Guardian

By Sharon Davis reporters@theguardian.co.nz

Retired farmer and Rakaia community stalwart Edward Oakley was recognised for his contribution to the Rakaia community in the latest local council honours last month. Rural Guardian’s Sharon Davis caught up with him for a chat about his life as a farmer and local politician.

Hatfield Farm on the outskirts of Rakaia in Mid Canterbury has been in the Oakley family for 120 years.

Edward has lived on the farm all his life, except for a few years at St Andrew’s College in Christchurch, and has served the area for most of his life.

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He was involved in the Rakaia Pony Club, Lauriston Young Farmers’ Club, Federated Farmers, Rakaia Rugby Club, and Rakaia Lions, and spent nine years serving on the local council.

He was also responsible for organising the local Anzac service for a period of about 10 years.

“I was always taking part in things. I like to have my say.”

After completing his schooling in Christchurch, he returned to the family farm and took over running the farm when his father died 18 months later.

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His time with the Lauriston Young Farmers was a formative period for Edward as a young farmer.

The meetings were always interesting “with fruity discussions”.

Sir Charles Hilgendorf was the advisory member.

He would “pontificate about things” and had an expansionist vision, Edward said.

In the 1960s, five local farmers started the first farm discussion group in the district.

“I wasn’t the instigator,” Edward said.

“We’d walk over the farms, make suggestions and pool our knowledge with the help of an advisor from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.”

When Edward became involved in Federated Farmers, the local Rakaia branch wasn’t very active.

“It got to the stage where there were only two or three active in the Rakaia branch. In the late 1960s, we decided to run an annual field day to generate interest on the last Friday in November.

“We involved expertise from Crop and Food and picked out four or five local farms that had something people would be interested in.

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“The agricultural industry is very good at sharing information. I think that is a good thing.”

People would travel from farm to farm, with farmers coming from as far as north and south Canterbury.

The Foundation for Arable Research eventually took over the field days – they still run them today, Edward said.

When Edward was in his late 30s he was approached by the retiring councillor for the then South Rakaia Ward and asked if he wanted to represent the ward.

“I was nominated. There was no election.”

Edward said he spent an enjoyable six years on the old County Council.

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The council had a roading gang and a bridge gang.

“We did everything ourselves. It was a lot like farming.”

When the councils amalgamated, Edward did one term on the district council.

“We were pressured by the borough to do away with the ward system.

“The predictable happened, and Rakaia had no representation for three years,” he said.

After he lost the next election, Edward, together with Bernie Caldwell, appealed to the Local Government Commission and brought a case to “three crusty retired judges” to get wards back for rural areas.

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About three months later, a “big fat letter” arrived in the post to say they had won the case.

“I did more off the council than when I was on it,” Edward joked.

When he left the council, Edward got involved in Federated Farmers.

He was with Federated Farmers for about nine or 10 years and served as arable vice chair for New Zealand during that time.

“It was a traumatic time for farming in the 1980s. Things were not too flash, and farmers were under threat.”

Edward believed that to make a point, you had to overstate the case.

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“I got good at that and got a lot of publicity. The wheat and crop industry was battling and lots of farmers went under.

“It was all the luck of circumstances whether you survived or not.”

Edward said he was lucky enough to survive.

“I could be quite acerbic at times. That worried some people and I got moved on.”

He said he felt he’d “done his stint” and didn’t mind.

Edward retired from farming 12 years ago. He still lives in the farmhouse, but leases out the land, to a neighbouring farm.

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They farm lily bulbs, along with a typical Canterbury farm mix of crops, and finish lambs on the farm.

“In the past, farmers did everything themselves. Now we have contractors come in. It’s a different operation. That’s all specialisation and progress.”

Looking back on years of community service, Edward said: “I did it because I enjoyed it. It was relaxation.

“A day off the farm doing something else – that extra stimulation.”

He said too many people in positions of authority felt they were an indispensable cog in the wheel.

“Everyone’s dispensable,” Edward said.

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He was also on the Board of Governors for his old school for about eight years.

“I was away from the farm a lot – it was all so enjoyable.”

Edward’s personal highlight was playing a role in brokering an impasse between the Rakaia Hut owners and the Catchment Board.

There had been an ongoing scrap between Rakaia Huts and the Catchment Board – the hut owners were facing eviction because of the flood risk.

When a local roading contractor built a road and embankment in one weekend, the Catchment Board went berserk.

The two local ward councillors received a call to go to the Rakaia Huts immediately, said Edward.

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“The board and the residents were ready to annihilate each other. We had to broker a deal.”

The board eventually accepted it was a done deal and too hard to remove, he said.

About six weeks later, the hut holders presented Edward with a “great big salmon” for helping with the board.

The embankment “is still there today with a road built on top of it. But for that, Rakaia Huts wouldn’t be there today,” he said.

Edward was also involved in the publication of Rakaia Our History.

“I headed a committee of enthusiastic locals who decided to record the history of our district.”

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The result was a volume of 718 pages of text and photos recording 150 years of settlement in Rakaia. It took five years to complete.

“The result was a great success. Over 700 copies have found their way into the wider community,” said Edward who regarded this as one of his greatest achievements.

“We employed a professional history writer, Janine Irvine, to put it together. The publication received a commendation at the New Zealand Book Awards.”

Along with good friend Peter Watson, Edward has also written a history of The Lions Club of Rakaia.

This article was originally published in Rural Guardian.



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