Roger Newton Lange, who has died at the age of 81, was something of a pioneer when it came to mechanising Taranaki farming – sometimes building or refining the machinery himself.
From his parents, he took over two properties in beautiful but tough countryside – Mangahia Station at Uruti and a homestead near Urenui – and eventually owned four farms covering about 1600 hectares. He was also one of the first to diversify into commercial forestry.
Over the decades he bulldozed and dynamite blasted around 30km of access roads in the rugged hill terrain around Mangahia Station, and built a water wheel to pump from a valley stream, up a 50-60 metre elevation, to a cow shed a kilometre away.
To save on the expense of hiring helicopters to control weeds and gorse, he built a sprayer around a 20-tonne excavator. It had tanks, pumps and a trailer, and a remote control handpiece attached to the digger boom.
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In 1963, he bought the first convention hay baler, a Welger AP 14, in the district, and it paid for itself within one harvesting season when he contracted it out.
Lange was also among the first to realise the value of using effluent as fertiliser, and as the 1960s gave way to a new decade, he saw an opportunity that was to have a real impact on the region's terrain.
"He'd been overseas and had come though Canada," Jack Jury, his friend and colleague of 70 years, recalled.
"He saw where they had trees and were logging, and he reckoned it was real mountain country. He reckoned the hills of Uruti would be nothing compared with that, so he decided he would plant a lot of pine trees."
Jury, who first met Lange at Urenui School in 1952, said 5000 seedlings were bought, "and they all took because pine trees grow quite easily".
They planted 30,000 saplings the following year and 42,000 the next.
"And he just kept on going… although he got smaller lots after that."
Lange built a sawmill in Uruti, then another in Urenui, as well as a machine for making posts and poles.
As his nephew Peter Groves explained: "In one day they could cut a truck load of trees down, drag them into the sawmill by bulldozer, saw them into a load of usable sizes and lengths, transport the load into New Plymouth and unload the timber for the customer, who might be building a house, and come back with the cash."
Unlike other commercial forestry operations, Lange left the bush, and its valuable rimu trees, alone.
"This is quite unique as most farmers had been forced to 'rob the bush', logging it to keep cash coming in during lean times."
Groves said many people owed their start in farming to his uncle – cutting scrub, planting or pruning pine trees, hay making, operating machinery, or stock work.
"He always had a thermos of tea with him, some fruit and the basics for a smoko – bread, tins of fish, some leftover roast – to share with whoever was working around the properties."
Lange's family began farming in Taranaki in the early 1900s.
His grandfather, Alfred, had sailed to Blenheim from Hamburg, Germany, in the 1840s.
Alfred’s son, Darcy, took up farming at Waitanga, between Ahititi and Ohura, before joining up to fight in the First World War. However, he always kept one eye on business.
During training, he spoke to his lieutenant so he could attend a sale in Fielding. There he bought 50 black Angus cattle and transported them by rail to Waitara and then by road to the farm.
This was the start of the herd of around 1000 cattle that is farmed today.
Lange’s mother, Dorothy (nee Newton), was a music teacher who supplemented the family’s sometimes spartan income by giving children piano lessons, often riding miles by horseback to do so.
As well as the piano, her son could play the violin, banjo and piano accordion, a handy instrument when camped out with workmates in remote bush for months on end to break-in hill country.
He also enjoyed machinery – he had six bulldozers, two Toyota Hilux and a series-one diesel Land Rover called Bugsy.
As well as vehicles, he owned a horse he named Copper after buying it from Albert Soffe, a Waitara policeman.
"He was a very, very good person with people and he knew a lot of people from all walks of life," Groves added.
"Sometimes he attended the New Plymouth Club, parking his old Land Rover out the back away from the flash cars."
Lange continued to drive despite not retaining his licence.
"He viewed this as a minor issue in the grand scheme of things," Groves said. "I don't believe he ever got a ticket."
In his later years, Lange slowly succumbed to Alzheimer's disease, but remained in control of his farms for as long as he could.
He was well-known in Urenui, and Groves said people there would come to his aid if his memory failed.
"He would go and buy fish and chips and if he forgot his PIN number they would help him. You get that in a small rural community: we help people out."
However, four years ago Lange was forced to move into care, leaving his properties in trust and farmed by his loyal staff.
He lived first at Norfolk Lodge rest home in Waitara, and afterwards at Somerset Mountain View in New Plymouth, which was built on a 40-hectare block that he had owned in the 1960s as a run-off.
Although he had girlfriends, Lange never married, his nephew said.
"His main focus was running the farm with all the challenges that went with it. That was enough responsibility and he did a fantastic job."
- Roger Newton Lange, November 24, 1940 – June 6, 2021
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