Five generations and 111 years of farming

Neil Fitzgerald’s first love is operating machinery. Photo: Catherine Fry.

There is a definite sense of pride and belonging among New Zealand’s old farming families whose descendants are still working the land today.

The Fitzgerald family are no exception and have farmed and run earthworks businesses in the Auckland and Waikato areas for four generations.

Third generation Fitzgeralds, Neil and Jennifer head the family, with son Grant and his wife Jodi farming alongside them, and three grandsons showing a keen interest in farming and machinery.

Neil and Jennifer’s three daughters, Charmaine, Karyn and Debra have all pursued successful careers outside farming.

“It started in 1913 when my grandfather, William Fitzgerald, emigrated from England and dairy farmed at Ramarama,” says Neil.

110 years later, Neil still has the ledger where the money for the land and the purchases required to set up the farm were recorded. This treasured heirloom shows a fascinating insight into pre-World War I farming life in New Zealand.

They moved to Papakura and Neil’s father, Alan Fitzgerald, took over the farm in the late 1930s. Neil was born there in 1950.

Third generation Fitzgerald family farmers, Neil and Jennifer. Photo: Catherine Fry.

“My father ran a 50 to 100 cow dairy shed at Drury in 1951. He was a bit of a wheeler and dealer and bought and sold earthwork machinery,” says Neil.

The family moved to Springdale in 1953 and Alan established an earthworks business but employed drivers to carry out the work.

Only child Neil loved heavy machinery and often drove for his father but became involved in the farm to keep it in the family.

The third generation

Neil married Jennifer in 1971.

“I was brought up on a Wardville dairy farm, but I had a job in town and used to help mum with the chores associated with a big, busy household of seven kids, mum and dad, our farm worker and a lodger,” says Jennifer.

Jennifer was petrified of cows and had to overcome that when the couple went 50/50 share milking for Neil’s parents. Their herd was sold in 1978 and Neil returned to contracting.

The couple lived in the Aka Aka area where Neil rebuilt stopbanks with his dragline, before moving to live in Puni on a 20-acre block while their children were young, and Jennifer worked as a secretary at the local school.

The heirloom ledger showing the purchases for the first farm by William Fitzgerald in 1913. Photo: Catherine Fry.

For 12 and a half years (five full time), Neil carried out earthworks for the development of Great Mercury Island, 20 miles off the Whitianga coast, coming home once every three weeks.

“During this time we bought a run-down farm in Waerenga and completely redeveloped it,” says Neil.

Its sale five years later alongside the Puni property enabled the 1995 purchase of their current 137 hectare dairy farm in Mangatangi.

Jennifer oversaw the 100-year-old homestead renovations before moving the family in 2000. She managed the staff on the dairy farm, reared calves, and milked occasionally.

The fourth and fifth generation

In 2004, Grant started working alongside Neil, taking over the contracting business in 2017. “Retired” Neil looks after their own farm, which has a manager and staff with Jennifer overseeing them.

To assist Grant and Jodi expand, Neil and Jennifer bought into a neighbouring 102 hectare deer farm with them and converted it into a dairy run-off and beef grazing. When Grant and Jodi bought them out, Neil and Jennifer leased the run off enabling their heifers to stay on farm.

Grant and Jodi have since bought another neighbouring block and grow 47 hectares of maize and graze young stock, while Grant continues contracting.

“The land is basically our retirement plan, something we can fall back on when my contracting days are over,” says Grant.

The couple live in a new house on their land, overlooking the family farm in the distance. Their three young boys, Tyler (13), Cooper (12) and Max (11), are all heavily into motocross, farm life and machinery.

Tyler and Max are mechanically minded and renovated their first tractor that once belonged to Neil, and Grant had done up as a youngster.

“At the time Tyler was wheelchair bound for two months after a motocross accident. It gave him something to do and Dad and I helped him,” says Grant.

Neil and Jennifer have grown both dairy farming and earthworks businesses. Photo: Catherine Fry.

The two boys soon realised that there was money to be made from buying old Mud Bug farm bikes and other machines and renovating them.

Max had Googled how to take an engine out before buying his own to restore. The boys now own a vintage machinery collection themselves.

“Cooper is more interested in farming and fattened and sold some lambs one year. With an allowance of three acres of land, he used his profits to buy some Suffolk ewes and a ram and last season had 15 lambs to sell,” says Grant.

The Fitzgerald family looks set to have a fifth generation of farmers and contractors continuing the family legacy.


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