Don’t mention retirement in the Webb household
Ask Bill Webb if the sale of his farm and business signals retirement and you will get a snort of derision; ask his wife Vicki, however, and you will get a definite yes – at least from the gruelling work schedule he maintained for 48 years developing one of the Bay of Plenty’s largest agricultural contracting and feed supply businesses.
From a very early age, Bill developed a passion for tractors.
“I was only nine or 10 years old when I learned to drive a tractor on the family farm at Oropi,” Bill recalls.
“My step-father (who later adopted me and my sister) was older than my mum and he aided and abetted my interest in helping around the farm so by the time I was eleven or twelve I was driving it on my own and learning to fence.
“At the time there weren’t many agricultural contractors around and, as a small farm, we struggled getting anyone to do the jobs which needed doing. Dad had an old mower and a Farmall tractor and an old horse-drawn rake which I convinced my father into allowing me to adapt so it would run behind the tractor. That done I was able to mow and rake grass so we only needed a contractor for bailing.
“That worked for a while but then it became hard to get someone to bail the hay and I found an old tractor in a shed at Oropi; it was a David Brown Cropmaster, so a school mate and I got Dad’s Fergie 28 and dragged it back to the farm, took it apart and fixed it up. I was probably about 13 at that stage.
“Around the same time I also found an old bailer lying disused in another farm shed and brought it home and back to life with the help of a family friend.
“So at 14, I started mowing, raking and bailing our hay and word got around and neighbours asked if I could do the same on their farms.”
Bill recalls he had a few hairy moments which honed his tractor driving skills.
“I remember an occasion, driving a tractor with a feed-out wagon of silage, down a steep hill and realised I couldn’t get it into 4WD. There was a duck pond at the bottom of the hill and I had to quickly face the fact that that is where I’d end up if I wasn’t able to get some sort of control. Thankfully I had duals on the tractor and threw it sideways and into a water trough, which stopped my descent. It was a valuable lesson.”
Make or break
Bill Webb left school when he was 15, with School Certificate, and joined the Federated Farmers Farm Cadet scheme “because I’d be able to drive tractors whilst farming”.
“I did a lot of tractor work for local farmers and then went onto Jensen’s and milked for them and then became a Lower Order Sharemilker before Contract Milking on a 250 cow farm in Te Puke for the Williamsons, who also had a lot of machinery.
“When the opportunity to lease the neighbour’s farm at Oropi came up, I jumped at that and combined it with what remained of the family farm, and milked on that until the neighbour’s block was sold. That was a decision point for me and my young family and we decided to sell the cows so I could get seriously into the contracting business.
“It was make or break. I was set up for hay and silage making but also saw an opportunity for seeding new pastures and so built the first roller seeder in the area. I also rebuilt a barbary hedge cutter, adding horticulture shelter trimming and root pruning for the then fledgling kiwifruit industry.
“By the 1990s, the business was going well but I was blighted by old machinery which was constantly breaking down.
“I did some calculations and found that I was spending $15 to $17 maintaining old machinery compared to $7 per hour if I invested in new machinery, so we went out and bought four new 4WD John Deere tractors with air conditioned cabs and good visibility and a new bailer.
“I was doing a lot of silage at the time and was asked to harvest a maize crop for silage but I wasn’t happy with the quality of the job because the Gallagher Silerator I was using tended to pick up a lot of dirt so I found an old Gehl tow-behind two-row fine chop machine languishing in the scrub, dragged it out and got it running and that machine absolutely transformed the quality of the silage I was able to produce.”
Meeting growing demand
Bill Webb Contracting’s ability to deliver a superior crop lead to significant growth in demand and Bill soon found many farmers wanted the flexibility of being able to buy-in quality feed v growing it “so I started leasing land and growing and cropping maize.
“Within 12 to 18 months I had retired the old Gehl and bought a new John Deere tow-behind chopper, a round bailer, conventional bailer and four row planter.
“We had four people working for us and steadily grew the business until, when we sold it in 2010, we had 16 John Deere tractors, two self-propelled forage harvesters and 23 staff.”
Looking back, Bill recalls that selling the contracting business coincided with a demand for feed sales. “We were buying our work – standing grass and maize – and then on-selling for silage or hay so it made sense to devote energy to develop a feed supply business and open the way for others to get into the contracting business.”
Bill Webb Feed Solutions leased a few blocks of land, growing and harvesting silage and hay and also buying in feed from around the country.
“As it had been in contracting, the emphasis was always that any feed we sold had to be of the highest quality.”
When the Covid pandemic hit, Bill and Vicki decided the time was right to buy a 100 hectare hill country dry-stock farm at Ohauiti.
“We did a lot of work improving the farm, eradicating gorse etc, but were then hit – like the rest of the country – by continuous wet weather. In one year we had 4950ml at the farm; I never seemed to get out of wet weather gear and we just decided that we had worked hard for long enough and it was time to sell the farm and the business.
“We had always planned to build our retirement home on the farm but Covid put paid to that – in a matter of years the cost more than trebled so we stayed where we are – in Ohauiti – and are considering our next move.”
All the hard work and hours that both Bill and Vicki put in the business were rewarded and honoured by winning the New Zealand Contractor of the year 2004 award and the Supreme Business Award for Te Puke in 2010.
“I still have a couple of old tractors – a David Brown Cropmaster and a John Deere - in the shed alongside an Allis Chalmers conventional baler so I will do a bit work with them just to keep my hand in.
“Vicki joined me in the business in 1993 and has worked alongside me ever since. We have enjoyed working with our famer clients, suppliers and contractors as they seem more like friends now as we have been working with most of them for so long now.”
“Vicki and I would like to thank readers for your support over the years and want to wish Andre Lietze and Rick Henderson (the new owners) and their families all the best for their future ventures.”