When Bill Johnston went to the first New Zealand Agricultural Fieldays in 1969 (or the Town and Country Fair as it was then known), he probably wasn’t thinking about the half-century long tradition he was starting.
This year marks Fieldays’ 50th year of showcasing agriculture and innovation to rural and urban audiences. It’s also a special year for Bill, because 2018 will mark his 50th Fieldays. The Invercargill farmer hasn’t missed one since it started.
Fifty years ago Bill travelled from his family’s dairy farm in Otorohanga to attend the very first Fieldays’ event, then held at the Te Rapa Racecourse in Hamilton.
For the first few years, Fieldays was held in the summer months until June, with its wetter and muddier weather, became ‘official’ Fieldays month.
“Not that you’d have to worry about the winter weather now, these days you can just about get around Fieldays in your good shoes,” says Bill.
Traipsing into a wet Fieldays could be hazardous. “A bit of rain would mean about six inches of mud and cars sliding all over the place trying to get out. It’s much more organised now – they’ve got it down to a fine art.”
The Racecourse housed Fieldays in its first two years before the event was moved to its current location at Mystery Creek, just outside of Hamilton, in 1971.
In the early days, Bill says you could get around Fieldays in about three hours. “Now it’s more like three days,” he says.
He has a method for making sure he sees everything, one he follows every year. “I start at the beginning, at the big main entrance, and have a wander up and down the rows, getting in about half of everything over the first two days, then on the third day I go back to the things I want to see again.
“It’s always nice to see all the big new machinery and have a bit of a dream about it all. In the early days tractors were a lot smaller; over the years they’ve become more like tree toppers.”
Of course, Bill’s seen a lot of change in the 50 years he’s been going to Fieldays, from what was originally a concept to bring “town and country” together, to the international agricultural showpiece it is today, showcasing hundreds of innovations and almost 1000 exhibitors.
But he reckons the core purpose has stayed the same – and that’s what keeps him coming back.
“The basics are still there,” he says. “New ideas and inventions can come and go at times but the core of farming is still there.”
Bill never set out to have 50 Fieldays events under his belt, but when Fieldays put the call out on its Facebook page to hear the stories of its dedicated event-goers, Bill’s name cropped up in a comment from his niece.
“She dobbed me in! I wasn’t really thinking about having a record or anything like that, it’s just always been a bit of a tradition to go.”
Making the big move down south to Invercargill certainly hasn’t deterred his tradition either. Bill moved to help his son Graeme convert his sheep farm to dairy in 2008, and continued to travel to Hamilton for Fieldays every year.
Bill project-managed the conversion, which took about six months, building the shed and doing the fencing. Now, he’s more than happy to take a backseat on the farm in what he calls the official “gofer” role.
And now his visits to Fieldays often include fact-finding tasks for his son. “Graeme sends me off with an expected list of what he wants me to get information on,” Bill says. “I’ve done my time in the shed, so it’s nice being told what to do for a change.”
One of the farm helpers not likely to make the journey to Fieldays this year is farm “overseer”, Jet the dog. “He’d go if he could - if something’s happening he’s usually trying to get his nose in.”
Bill will be a guest of honour at the flag-raising ceremony which officially opens Fieldays on Wednesday 13 June.
New Zealand National Fieldays Society chief executive Peter Nation says Bill represents many of Fieldays’ long-standing supporters over the years.
“It’s quite extraordinary to have a supporter like Bill, and the fact that he comes up each year from the bottom of the South Island is astounding,” says Mr Nation.
“We’re honoured to be celebrating 50 years of his tradition, as we celebrate 50 years of Fieldays.”
Bill Johnston’s story will debut as a 30-second television commercial during Country Calendar on TVNZ 1 this Sunday May 13 from 7pm. A longer version of his story is available in the new documentary box set Fieldays Stories, available on TVNZ OnDemand (TVNZ.co.nz).
An event will be held at the Winton War Memorial Hall between 12-2pm on Saturday May 19 to celebrate Bill’s story, and to bring the Southland community together to celebrate Fieldays’ 50th anniversary.
Fieldays marketing manager Taryn Storey says the Winton event will feature a free sausage sizzle, family-friendly activities and games and the event will be MC-ed by popular radio host Jamie McKay from The Country Show. Doug Avery, author of The Resilient Farmer will also be speaking at the event at 2pm. This will be the first in a series of events happening across the country in the build up to Fieldays on June 13, says Storey.
“We want to invite the people of Winton and surrounding area to come down to the Winton War Memorial Hall on Saturday to share in the fun and celebrations,” says Storey. “Fieldays is a national event that means a lot to people all over New Zealand, and this is a chance for people to come and share their memories of Fieldays and share their stories about farming life. It’s also a chance for the rural community to get-together, catch up with old friends and neighbours and have some fun.”
Other events will be held in May and June in Feilding, Kerikeri, Te Puke and Hamilton.
For more information about Fieldays 2018 see www.fieldays.co.nz