Dick Cochrane’s interview with Bob Curragh

I am sitting here with Dick Cockrane and we are going to have a lovely cup of tea and we are going to retrack some of Dick’s history.

Dick when did you start with the Grain and Seed Trade?

I started on the 1st June 1951 with Pyne Guinness in the Head Office in Christchurch and not to long afterwards I went to Leeston as a boy in the store out there.

And I finally went back to Leeston as the Resident Grain Agent in I think about 1957.

From Leeston I went back to Christchurch in 1962 to Head Office as Asst Mgr of the Grain & Seed Dept and 1972 I was Mgr of that department.

Who was Manager in those days?

Well when I started in Pynes in those days the Manager was a man called Lou Bowen who was Mgr of the Grain & Seed Dept followed by the late Lester Fleetwood and then after that John Patterson was the Manager and I was appointed Manager when John started the Export Department which he controlled. That’s how it worked in those days.

And from Pynes?

Well from Pynes, I left in 1977 and joined Yates Cooper as Production Manager which involved extensive overseas travel selling peas nad other seeds and I was based for a number of years in Christchurch with the late Bernie Meachen Those of you who may have known Bernie would realise what a character he was.

You would have had your moments with Bernie?

I remember some friends were playing golf with him at Russley on the 6th hole and Bernie was known to do his bun occasionally and was known to throw a club or 2 and he was on the 6th hole and had a terrible shot and got very angry and tossed a club which went past Tony Collins like a helicopter Blade and Tony very quietly reached down to his golf bag opened it up and bought out a motorbike helmet and put it on,

He obviously knew what was going to happen.

At which time Bernie actually laughed and took as a joke.

A few months prior to that I believe he was playing golf in Blenheim and the same thing happened. Only problem he through his club into a paddock of wheat and it hasn’t been seen since.

I think club throwing runs in the trade as I know of a couple of others who were prone to throwing a club or two.

So then you moved to Auckland with Yates?

1983 we went to Auckland because at that time the Company wanted everybody consolidated. We didn’t think it was a terribly good idea as it is very hard to run the seed business from Auckland when you are dealing with most people in Canterbury.

Shortly afterwards the Arthur Yates & Co was taken over by Equity Corp. and in 1987 shifted back to Christchurch and 5 of us formed NZ Agriseeds out at the Old West Coast Road at Darfield.

Which I know a bit about. I enjoyed my time out there with you. It wasn’t long enough those 6 months passed too quickly for me. Sharing an office with you was a joy a real pleasure.

So you watched that company grow.

Yes, it was an amazing company and the 8 years I spent there before I retired in 1995 was some of the happiest of my whole career I had in the seed industry.

It’s quite amazing to start a company with other friends and to see how the company expanded and grew.

There were only 5 of us for a start in the company and we had multi functions and a lot of work and different jobs to get it moving.

I hear you used to mow the lawns on a ‘ride-on’ on a Saturday morning?

Yes we used to go out on the weekend, painting fences and generally playing around but we had to do that because we didn’t want to spend too much money on other..

Overheads, keep them down.

Yep that’s right. Its interesting that a company such as that um there were 3 main reasons for success, – simplify it – we decided early on I think it was Selwyn Manning – we weren’t going to get involved in seed cleaning and that had a double effect.

  1. There wasn’t the terrific expense of owning pulleys and wheels

  2. It allowed us to give business to the country regional seed cleaning companies which was a great help to us in getting us contracts and so on so it had a double effect.

And to this day we still have that close attachment with the likes of Darfield Seed cleaning, Hinds Seed Cleaning, Stapletons. It’s a reward for those companies

The other things we instigated an I believe we were the first to do it were a guaranteed minimum price for seed in other words we would guarantee a minimum price with a contract, we would sign the contract with the farmer and he was able to go and do his budgeting and of course we made sure that we didn’t ever pay the guaranteed minimum price, we always managed to give them a little more to keep them happy.

We also instigated a contract system for ryegrasses and later clovers and so on which up until that time and to my knowledge had never been done. And this was once again giving security and stability to the farmers. I think this has worked very very well and still does.

It still does very much. And you were there from Day 1 with PBR with the licensing of varieties.

Well when PBR was first mooted there was a prior to that there was a ……………….Division/ Merchants Liaison Committee. This committee consisting of Federated Farmers, Crop Research Division at Lincoln, and merchants. It was formed to make decisions on new grain cultivars prior to commercial release regarding suitability to the trade and also to make commercial decisions about grain cultivars after release and that actual committee was disbanded and was superseded by the NZ Plant Breeding and Research Assn but it did a lot of work in the early years leading up to the formation of that legislation.

You were heavily involved with that legislation in the early days too Dick.

Yes of us yeah.

And from there could we just touch on the other activities you were involved with – the Wheat Board to start with.

Yes I was the Merchants Representative 1n 1982 to 1985. The NZ Wheat Board for those of you who didn’t know about it was Rye Representatives? Representatives from the Milling industry and one from the Grain & Seed Merchants Assn. And at that time wheat of course was the centre pin of the whole seed industry because all other seeds and crop prices were basically leveraged off that and we used to be responsible for the distribution of the wheat throughout the country and also for the pricing and that gave great stability for the seed & grain trade during those years which was disbanded by Roger Douglas and David Lange in later years. One of the main reasons because they milling industry and also the desire for the milling industry to be able to import large quantities into the North Island and Australian wheats allow them to diversify their production of various types of brands because prior to that the main wheat growing areas in the Sth Island were only producing in the main soft biscuit wheats and feed wheats.

You also had involvement with The Potato Board.

I was never on the Potato Board but the Potato Board was very important and we probably had a lot to do with the potato industry in those years in the forming of grades and I remember in marketing of potatoes I remember distinctly the conferences in yesteryear we had 70/80% of the grievances were about potatoes.

A huge business prior to the days of the Aromoana when ships used to come into Lyttelton and pick up 5000tonne of spuds for Auckland. Prior to the days of Pukekohe growing large quantities of potatoes for the Auckland market. So the potato therefore was important to maintaining some stability in standards.

Going from shortages to surpluses pretty quickly with potatoes. I have heard some interesting stories there.

Yes the Potato Board created a levy for all growers. Years of surplus the potatoes were pitted and then later in the season the port graders from Lyttelton and Timaru would go around and assess the quality of the potatoes and they would be paid out a fixed price for that surplus.

Dick you were on the Grading Committee in the 70s. Tell us a bit about your time there please.

Well the NZ Merchants had a Grading Committee and I was Chairman from 1970 until 1984. This group adjudicated on internal disputes between merchants regarding certain grains and standards used in domestic grain trading. We also met with the merchants and formulated different standards and grades as well as selecting samples of wheats and barleys as the standard of grain that had to be sent to London every year. And if there was a dispute amongst merchants the buying and selling merchant or buying merchant then this committee would adjudicate and several members of the trade were on that the whole time. I don’t think it still goes does it Bob.

They still have adjudicating. Yes they do Arbitration, yes they do. You have had some interesting times on those arbitrations. Fully resolved at all times.

Yes unique as we all know in that at the end of the day whether you were in the Northern Hemisphere or the Southern Hemisphere or anywhere in the World there is only one man who makes courses and decisions to be made and he is up in the sky and we are all affected by the weather aren’t we and we can’t control it thank God.

No you are exactly right. That’s the bottom line.

Um yes there has been some funny instances we used to have tremendous conferences not that you don’t now but they used to start on a Thursday, sometimes on a Wednesday and the party that went on was pretty extensive. I remember in the Wairakei Resort the late Harry Martin who was Secretary of the Federation for a very long time, he had a swimming contest which developed into a shambles whereby those great big laundry baskets were used as projectiles and filled with grain merchants in various stages of sobriety and pushed along the side of the pool and sometimes into the pool.

That doesn’t happen anymore I can assure you.

So, there was another famous time up in Blenheim when Barry Wheelan who was with Yates at that time tripped on his way home from the party into the rose bushes and we had huge difficulty getting him out and when we finally got him out he was all punctures and scratches and he bled for ages and he didn’t live that one down for a long time.

I believe some of the Nth Island delegates took another couple of days to get home as well particularly the guy over in Hawkes Bay – taking his time getting there and then back home.

The late Graeme Scott, a great character. He used to take his time getting across the Rangatikei Plains. I went with him once but never again. He stopped at every little tin pot pub on the way and it took a long long time.

I was going to Hanmer for a conference once and a friend who shall be nameless driving up the straight to the red post after Culverden and the steering wheel came off in his hand in the car and he said what the hell do we do now. I said pray quickly.

He didn’t hit the red pole I hope. You didn’t end up going to Waiau instead?

No he managed to pull over.

I would just like to say in conclusion that my career in the Grain and Seed Trade was one of the greatest times obviously and the greatest work that I could ever think of and I thoroughly recommend the trade to any young person who wants a great fulfilling and satisfactory life amongst good people.

I would also like to wish this conference all the best and the seed trade in general all the best for the future.

Thank you Dick.