Keith Smith, left, and Grant Pearce are retiring after a combined total of 81 years at the Nelson freezing works. Photo: Simon Bloomberg

Freezing works loses 126 years of experience


The Nelson freezing works is losing a wealth of experience after three old timers with a combined total of 126 years service decided to hang up their white gumboots.

Norm Gill was the first to call it a day, retiring late last month after 45 years at the Stoke plant. Last week Grant Pearce followed suit after 43 years, and Keith Smith, 38 years, will be next when he retires when the season ends in the next week or two.

All three belong to a select group who started work at the old plant, which was closed in June 2000, and continued in the new plant opened later that year.

“We all came here from the old plant – I think there’s only about a dozen or so of us left now,” Grant says. “Nearly all the old guys like us have gone and all the young guys are from a different world, so it’s time to call it a day.”

Norm, who started as a labourer in the old plant before moving to the beef house and then into the cutting room where he was a leading hand and trainer, says he stayed there all these years because it was “a steady job that pays well”. Norm and his son Shane and grandson Sean created history in 2013 when they became the first family to have three generations working at the same time.

Grant started at the freezing works in October 1974 after moving from Golden Downs where was a forestry worker, to be closer to his fiancée, and now wife, Jill.  He started in the fellmongery before moving to the slaughterboard where he worked as a labourer, then butcher.

Keith had worked at Baigents Timberyard and on the Maui Oil rig before returning from his “big OE” and starting at the freezing works.

“My brother-in-law John Eales worked there and he put my name down and I got the job,” Keith says. “I started off as a labourer outside and then worked on the cooling floor before going onto the mutton chain as a butcher.”

All three old timers say the biggest changes they experienced during their long careers were the introduction of strict health and safety regulations and hygiene standards. Although these changes were inevitable, Grant says they have also made the working environment a lot more clinical.

“We used to have a lot of fun in the old plant. There was always someone joking around and playing tricks – you can’t do that with all the health and safety these days.”

Norm says “so much has changed since I started. If someone had told me I would have to wear a hairnet 40 years ago I would have laughed at them.”

The development of new technology that has increased the efficiency of the plant is another big change in the industry, Keith says.

“It was a lot harder in the old days before all the mechanisation, but we were young and you didn’t think anything of it. But even with all the mechanisation, it’s been getting harder again as I’ve been getting older.”

Grant says he is looking forward to his retirement and will be “taking things as they come”,  although his dog Max may have different ideas about that. “He’s a handful so I imagine I’ll be doing a fair bit of walking with him. We also do dog agility classes so we’ll have more time for that now.”

Norm is keeping busy helping a friend who runs a car sales yard while Keith is keen to finish restoring a 1929 Model A Ford he has been tinkering around with for a couple of years. All three say they will miss their workmates and camaraderie, but not the early starts and long hard days. “I will miss the guys but not the job – I’ve had enough,” Grant says.