Norm Johnson, 85 not out!

September 2008
Norm Johnson was a keen cricketer. His best score ever, he says, was 85 not out. Now in his 86th year hes aiming for his first century.

All his life has been lived on the south Taranaki farm that his father bought in 1928 for 40 pounds per acre. Norm bought a little more land some years ago and now has 104 acres (42 ha).

We run about 50 milking cows and a lot of young stock and make a lot of supplementary feed that we sometimes help other people out with. We always have a lot of bulls on the property to use ourselves and sell for beef, and I always send my cull cows away in as good condition as I can get them into, says Norm.

I milk the cows myself, and for general farm work and tractor driving I have a man that comes here each day. The small milking herd is uneconomic according to the experts, but we seem to do okay, and I have not trouble paying my bills.

Norm was possibly the first farmer in the country to milk his herd once-a-day all season, and he has been doing that for 36 years so he has certainly been doing it the longest.

My mother had read in Australian newspapers that when they were short of feed they put their dairy herds onto once-a-day milking. I began to experiment with it but found it quite stressful because it was unknown territory, and even the shed inspector told me that the milk would be substandard if I milked once-a-day, he says.

I continued anyway and didnt have any problems. Not long after I first started the local vet said he was running a somatic cell competition involving all the farmers around this area and he wanted me to join in. So I did although I didnt think I would be very competitive, but at the end of the year I won the first prize.

My grades have always been good, and in fact I have boxes of records to prove it. I milk in an old walk-through shed, and when the shed inspector suggests I need to build a new shed I show him all the certificates for top milk quality, and he backs off a bit.


Norm is keen on species diversity in his pastures because it provides variety for his stock. He is happy to tolerate weeds that are eaten by stock because they supply different minerals that ordinary pasture may not. Experience has taught him that karaka trees are also good fodder.

Weve planted rows of pines, macrocarpas and poplars for shelter, but as they get bigger they open out at the bottom and cold draughts come through, so we have been experimenting with karakas. They seem to thrive under the canopy, he says.

They seem to be good tucker for the cattle, and if any branches fall off over the fence and even if any berries fall onto the ground the animals squabble over them. It's amazing to see these big animals picking up such small berries.

I was always led to believe that the nuts were poisonous, but one time I had gathered a lot into a bucket ready to plant, and I put them by the gate while I was getting my overalls on. When I came out the calves were walking away from the empty bucket. I was really worried, but nothing happened and I have had no poisoning of stock by karakas at all.

Norm is contributing his experience and some karaka nuts to a small Sustainable Farming Fund project looking at the value and safety of karaka nuts as food for humans and stock. They are a bit like oatmeal, he says.


Norm enjoys helping people whether it be through supplying supplementary feed when it is short or finance when people are in a jam.

In the early days I invested my meagre wages off the farm, but the companies I invested in got into difficulties. Eventually when I got my money back I decided it would be a bit safer to help farming people, says Norm.

I am a bachelor, and instead of spending money on myself or grabbing more land like a lot of people do, I have been helping young farmers and other people with finance. That has really snowballed, and when one person has finished with the money there are usually others waiting for it. I have helped people with homes and businesses too.

Although he is happy to spend money on a tractor and some machinery for the farm, Norm is reluctant to spend money on himself. For many years he made do with his parents 1952 Chevrolet for transport, and it was not until 1992 that he bought a ute. Not that he uses it a lot to date it has done only 30,000km. He did splash out recently and get the Chev restored it is now shinier than it ever was when it was brand new, he says but he doesnt enjoy tipping lots of petrol into it at todays prices even though old ladies are allowed to drink.

Norms early life clearly shaped his attitudes and values. His father had only Standard 6 education, but trained as a boiler maker, a milk grader and then became a dairy factory manager at 20. He taught Norm the value of the three Rs.

He used to say if you could do those three things nobody could stop you from learning. I worked for my parents with no wages for years to help them to pay off the second mortgage, which was quite a hurdle, says Norm.

When Dad bought the farm the payout was 1/6 (15c) and then it went down to 8d (7c), and I when I asked him for something as a child he would say Sorry, we will be lucky if we can stop where we are here, we are on the edge of a precipice.

They survived, and Norm nursed both his father and mother before they died in 1976 and 1990 respectively. He learned from that experience and has generally been in good health himself.

My father had a double hernia, and the tricks I saw him get up to simply to survive have stood me in good stead because I have just had a hernia operation. I had to wait three and a half years for that, so I learned to live with it, he says.

I am getting over the operation slowly. I felt good when I first came out but about five days later my body started saying Hey whats happened here? I was ordered not to do anything for six weeks but I am back in the workforce now.

And work he does, including every milking, which can be any time of the evening. "Im not a clock watcher. I work from daylight and if I've got an important job to do the cows can wait. Mostly it's work like hedge cutting or replacing water pipes or fixing troughs.

Norm has no plans to stop milking, experimenting with stock feeding or lending money to worthy people. He has his sights firmly set on his century, and in the meantime will keep on working away on his property. As he is fond of saying: A good shepherd is never far from his flock.