Ken Weaver is preparing for his annual sheep shear this weekend. Photo: Sara Hollyman.

Veteran can still pull the wool

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Ken Weaver was just 14-years-old when he left school to become a fleece picker.

It was 1951 and the price of sheep wool had gone through the roof. It was the greatest economic boom in New Zealand history, thanks to America’s war with Korea.

“Normally they were paying one shilling an hour, we were getting paid nine shillings and six pence an hour,” he says. “Hell, that was a lot of money.”

Ken, the oldest of nine children, says his entire first pay packet went in the bank.

That was the beginning of his life-long career in the farming industry. A career that he can’t seem to stay away from, even at 81-years of age.

Every year, Ken and his wife Glenys organise the Nelson North Country Club Speed Shear, which coincides with the Nelson A&P Show.

Shearers from across the country compete to be crowned top of their game, and claim the $600 prize money, and each year Ken still competes in the veteran section. This weekend will be no exception.

“They’re good on the veterans, it’s not all about the speed.”

When asked if he was was planning on giving up anytime soon, Ken replied: “Well, good question. A lot of it’s about where you put your feet, so I’ll give it a go while I can.”

He says in his life long career in farming, which began in his home region of Marlborough, he has worn many hats, but he has never been a professional shearer.

Once the wool prices began dropping after the boom, Ken went to work for the Rabbit Board, hunting rabbits for local fruit tree growers, which he says was a totally different ball game to what it is now.

“We used to use larvicide to gas the burrows. It had tear gas in it for safety, so we’d know if the space we were in wasn’t getting enough fresh air.”

“I was too young to have a shotgun, so I carried the larvicide gun, but I tell you what, I used to know where the best fruit in Marlborough was growing, and we’d eat our fair share of it on the job.”

After rabbit hunting, he was ready to take over his own farm, which he did in the form of a 10-acre block in Renwick – an old army camp which was covered in Manuka and rabbits, so he had to clear it all before he began to farm.

He moved to Nelson in 1975 where he began farming 3600 acres of land at Delaware Bay, which he continued for 25 years until he retired to Atawhai.

Ken says after the wool boom, Agriculture and Fisheries, now known as MPI, were keen to run trials on other types of farming.

He says he took it a step further than a trial and sent test samples from his goats’ fur to Australia.

The results found that certain goats had a fine down in their hair – cashmere – which was even finer than mohair. So, Ken became the first person in the region to shear goats to make cashmere, right at the beginning of another boom.

He says one thing that’s changed over his years of shearing different animals is the noise.

“There were no machines back then, so it was so quiet in the shearing shed. The wool classer would ring the dong to signal the end of smoko and all you’d hear was the shed door clicking shut, it was just so quiet.”

In his heyday Ken could shear 100 sheep with hand shears – essentially a good pair of scissors – if he was “really going for it”.

To see Ken and the other shearers in action, head along to the Nelson North Country Club at 7pm this Saturday.