Meathman JJ Meade was one of only a handful of Irish drivers permitted to fly into New Zealand for agricultural work this year.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern imposed one of the strictest COVID-19 lockdowns in the world.
On 19 March 2020, New Zealand closed all borders and entry ports to the country to all non-residents. New Zealand citizens and residents were permitted to return, but only if they underwent two weeks of managed isolation.
“Long story short, I was one of the very lucky drivers to be allowed into New Zealand with the COVID-19 situation,” he tells the Irish Farmers Journal.
“There were exceptions granted for 210 machinery operators, but with managed isolation reserved for Kiwis at Christmas, I think somewhere between 70 and 80 is all that got in,” he explains.
From Lobinstown in Co Meath, Meade works for his namesake and neighbour agri contractor Kevin Meade for the past few years, but this is his second season working in New Zealand.
Last year, he was among a group of 25 Irish drivers who flew in to work with contractor Daryl Thompson. This year, that number was just four.
While JJ is a seasonal driver, a number of Irish drivers stay full-time in New Zealand through the winter as well.
“This is my second season here. Last season, I was lucky to have got a nice variation of nearly everything from wagons, mowers and balers to ploughing, sowing and planting fodder beet,” says JJ.
His boss Daryl Thompson grew up on a dairy farm and set up the contracting business in 1995.
Among his team is Cavan native Killian O’Reilly, who moved to New Zealand in 2010 and now heads up the silage and baling side of the contracting team.
This time around, JJ is working the triple mowers with a John Deere 6250R.
“I hope to stay on that tractor continually for the season, as opposed to jumping around different tractors.
“Other likely jobs that I will do with it are driving a Fusion baler, operating a loader wagon, groundworks and whatever else is asked of me,” he says.
Thompson Contracting covers a huge area of Southland and on a scale that’s very different to Ireland.
It’s not uncommon to be 100+ km from the yard for several days on end
“We cover a very large area compared to home. It’s not uncommon to be 100+ km from the yard for several days on end. There are some jobs nearly as far as 200km away or more,” says JJ.
Among the jobs they do is the baling of Invercargill Airport, which is sometimes baled and sometimes chopped and hauled with trucks.
“Most of our jobs are large-scale dairy farms. Some farmers own multiple dairy farms and the acres are out of this world compared to at home!” he says.
Most of the machinery has been modified to have a ball hitch on the back, so that the workers utes (jeeps) can be towed from job to job, as well as fuel.
The crew occasionally stay in small hotels or pubs when they work far away from the Thompson base.
“The job has good pay, but shops are expensive and very scarce, so you need to be able to cook enough lunch for the day if you don’t want to be leaving it all in the shop first thing in the morning,” says JJ.
Asked whether money or love of machinery is the main driver for his New Zealand trips, JJ tells the Irish Farmers Journal:
“It’s definitely a love of machinery. I’m qualified as a secondary school teacher in engineering and technical drawing after spending four years in UL.
“New Zealand has been on the bucket list a long time and as soon as I was qualified there was only one place I wanted to be,” he says.
“I’ll return to the classroom yet, but for now I’m after seeing that there’s a whole lot more to the world than your local parish and it’s good to get to see it while I’m young and not tied down,” he adds.
“There’s no point thinking of what could have been in 10 years when I have the opportunity now. I’ll be rambling around Lobinstown for hopefully a long time, so why not spend a little bit of that time seeing all the things I’ve been hearing about!” says the happy Meathman.
Thompson's is running a large fleet of roughly 50 machines, including two Claas Jaguar 950 choppers and two Claas Xerion tractors with turning cabs. This allows both to run reverse-drive triple mowers where the operator sees all three mowers.
They run three JCB 435 loading shovels and a fleet of trucks.
The tractor fleet is big and diverse, including Case, Claas, Massey Ferguson and a significantly larger portion of John Deeres. Tractor numbers can vary, as some of them would be on short-term hire.
Mowing and tedding
Mowing is carried out primarily by the two Xerions and the 6250R that JJ works, but there is an additional set of triple mowers and a set of doubles.
Tedding is done seldomly by two Kuhn trailed tedders and mostly used for hay or after rain
There are 4x4 rotor Kuhn rakes for three silage crews and one for a baler crew, as well as two more two-rotor rakes.
Silage and wholecrop are cut with the choppers, JJ says, and five Stratumann loader wagons.
Balers and wrappers
Thompson's has three Fusion 3 Plus balers, a Kuhn combi baler, a Kuhn standard baler and a separate wrapper for smaller jobs or to push on.
There’s also a Claas quadrant square baler and a tube wrapper.
There are three muck spreaders, a slurry tanker and two piping outfits on the go.
Groundworks and sowing
The company also does a lot of groundwork contracting.
In the yard are three ploughs, four power harrows, a one-pass sower, two roller drills for grass seed, two planters and accompanying fertiliser bins.
There are also heavy discs, rippers, sub soillers and a tracked digger.
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