Vintage tractors reign at dairy farm
John Thornton has a collection of vintage tractors that would be the envy of any transport museum, writes Rob Tipa.
For former New Zealand ploughing champion John Thornton, 73, the sweet sound of a vintage John Deere tractor engine is like music to his ears.
‘‘It’s a sound that is unique,’’ he explains, ‘‘a distinctive pop-pop . . . pop-pop cadence caused by an unusual combination of crankshaft rotation and engine timing. You wouldn’t get that with any other engine,’’ he says.
At one vintage tractor rally he attended there were about 200 old John Deere tractors, all chuffing away merrily with their distinctive two-cylinder engine exhaust note.
‘‘You couldn’t tell whether it was your heart beat or the tractors, but everyone there had this big smile on their faces,’’ he recalls.
While he may admit to a sentimental attachment to vintage tractors, and John Deeres in particular, Thornton also has the perfect defence for collecting a shed full of about 10 John Deere tractors on his Momona dairy farm, just across the road from the Dunedin Airport. ’’They are all capable of a day’s work. Sometimes you take one out to roll a paddock of young grass and you wonder why you took it with the transmission noise, the engine noise and the noise of the roller.’’
When a John Deere 60 model tractor came up for sale locally, a friend didn’t want to see it leave the district and decided that Thornton had more money than anyone else at the time to buy it. ’’Everybody thought I was mad, but it’s a beautiful machine. It has had a good life and has been well looked after,’’ he says.
Recently he was offered another classic 1937 model, still on its original tyres, a machine he had had his eye on for some time. Some of the tractors in his collection were in such bad shape they had to be fully restored. One machine from the West Coast was actually full of water, which turned out to be a blessing because it had preserved the engine.
Thornton is a member of the Otago Vintage Machinery Club and has driven his tractors to vintage machinery rallies all over the South Island. Some trips have turned into 10-day cross country adventures via Middlemarch, Ranfurly, the Hakataramea Pass, Wanaka and Haast. ’’It’s amazing what you see when you drive down the road on a tractor,’’ he says. ‘‘You see a lot more than you do even if you drive down the same road every day.‘‘
Thornton discovered ploughing and was hooked as a boy in the 1950s when a Taieri ploughing match was held across the road from his family’s cow shed
He had ‘‘a dabble’’ at ploughing during the 1960s then borrowed a neighbour’s plough for a couple of seasons before buying an old Ransome plough and converting it for match ploughing.
He got some good advice from some of the country’s best ploughmen and then went on the road to get some practise.
‘‘And that was the end of that,’’ he jokes. ‘‘It’s taken me all round the country, to three world ploughing matches as a competitor and close to 20 world ploughing match finals around the world three in Canada, two in Australia, Europe, Africa, England, Ireland and Yugoslavia. I’ve made friends all over the world.’’ Thornton was the first New Zealand ploughman to win back-to-back national Silver Plough Championship titles in Masterton in 1977 and Studholme in 1978. He went on to represent New Zealand at the World Ploughing Championships in Holland and Germany and won bronze medals on both occasions.
He won his third national title at Palmerston in 1982 and represented the country for a third time in Zimbabwe in 1983. ’’I only won the first title on a count back and the second and third title by one point, but a win’s a win,’’ he says.
Last year he travelled to the world championships in York, where he managed the New Zealand vintage ploughing team and is just as happy coaching, judging and helping competitors set up their gear as he is competing.
When he is not milking cows twice a day, seven days a week, Thornton still competes in vintage ploughing matches around the region. For that he uses a muchloved International Farmall Super FC, a 21 horsepower tractor bought new by his family in 1953 and used for everything from making hay to harvesting potatoes.
‘‘I bought a vintage trailing plough and had a wee run with it at the Taieri Ploughing Match. There’s a bit of potential there,’’ he says modestly. ‘‘It’s different to operate than what I’m used to but I think I’ll have a bit of fun.’’
Thornton reckons you have to be ‘‘a bit of a perfectionist’’ to plough well and, ‘‘apart from the odd bad day in the paddock, it’s a skill you never lose’’. ‘‘But I might be pushing it to win another national title,’’ he says.
In May this year at the annual New Zealand Century Farm and Station Awards in Lawrence the Thornton family celebrated a century of farming on the Taieri.
John Thornton’s greatgrandfather Thomas Thornton was a seaman who originally came from Wigan in Lancashire, England, in the late 1800s.
Thomas recalled sailing boats on to the beach at Waikouaiti, throwing the horses overboard and letting them swim ashore in the days before wharves were built to unload stock or supplies.
John’s grandfather Frank started working as a seaman and married Janet Grieg from a farming family at Heywards Point, overlooking Otago Harbour, where he milked cows and broke in horses.
It was difficult land for dairying so Frank and Janet moved to the better alluvial soils of the Taieri Plain in 1916 when they bought a settlement block of 19 acres at Momona, which remains the centre of the Thornton’s Wiganwood dairy farm today.
John’s father Bill and uncle Andrew both worked at the Momona cheese factory, thinned swedes and mangolds, stooked wheat, picked potatoes and even grew cocksfoot for seed until they had saved enough to lease several other settlement blocks around Momona.
In 1953 John’s father bought a neighbouring 90-acre block and the family settled in to milk cows as their main income earner. They also grew up to 10 acres of potatoes and a few acres of mangolds as stock food when the milk payout was lower. These days Wiganwood is about 60ha and supports a dairy herd of about 100 pedigree Wiganwood holstein-friesian milking cows.‘‘
Now 73, he still enjoys milking cows and has no intention of retiring. ‘‘Farming is all I’ve known and I’m reasonably fit so as long as I can I will continue to milk cows,’’ he says.
Everybody thought I was mad, but it's a beautiful machine. John Thornton Otago farmer