By Simon Edwards
He’s jumped in a coffin, rounded up farmers and sheepdogs for a stand-off at the local MP’s office and organised bus-loads of rural folk to join the ‘fart tax’ protest on the steps of Parliament.
When Bryan Hocken, aka the honorary Mayor of Tarata, reckons something is to the detriment of farming and rural communities he doesn’t just moan about it, he takes the fight to the perpetrators.
Bryan’s usual contact with Wellington is over one of these protests but last month it was a happier occasion; he was at Government House to be made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit – one of the last New Zealanders to receive that honour signed off by Queen Elizabeth II.
For the occasion he swapped his usual attire of gumboots and black singlet for a white dinner jacket his late father Mervyn would don for evening meals on board the cruise ship voyages he so enjoyed.
“He lived until 90 and died in 2014,” Bryan says. “Before he went he said to me ‘you’d better take my white coat out of the wardrobe but only wear it on special occasions.”
It hasn’t had that many outings. It’s not the kind of thing to wear to barbecues or to the Tarata Sheep Dog Trial Club, where Bryan is patron and life member.
“I reckon Dad is looking down on me today and feeling pretty proud,” Bryan says, his wife Helen on his arm and nodding agreement. The couple were to mark their gold wedding anniversary this month with a “proper hooley” at Stratford’s Tarata Hall, where Bryan has chaired the committee for 36 years.
The pair met through Young Farmers, and in 1955 took over Helen’s dad’s farm. Helen has always done the book-keeping and typed the missives Bryan would fire out over this latest cause. He acknowledges exposure to Young Farmers, and later Federated Farmers, as putting him on the path of service to the rural community.
A letter signed by all the members of the current Federated Farmers Taranaki executive acknowledging the province’s former President says it all really: “You are a champion of the agricultural and rural community and we truly feel that advocates like yourself are what we as an industry are forged from. Your efforts in leading the charge against the Fart Tax, lamb tariffs, micro-chipping, land access and many other unnecessary regulations are legendary and an inspiration to those of us who attempt to follow in your footsteps.
“Your service to Taranaki Federated Farmers has and always will be appreciated and it is wonderful to see you being recognised for your significant contributions.”
Bryan grins recalling the lamb tariffs episode, “the one mistake and missed opportunity I made”. The Federated Farmers national office had suggested he organise a picket outside the US Embassy in Wellington over then President Bill Clinton’s moves to put up tariffs against NZ lamb exports. He wanted to write to Clinton direct, copying in media, to say “You can play around with Monica [Lewinksy] but leave our bloody lamb alone.
“The Feds CEO of the day kicked up such a fuss; ‘you can’t do that!!’. I wish I did though. I reckon it would have got on the cover of Time.”
Other protests did go ahead. The ‘fart tax’ one, with a tractor driven up Parliament’s steps, has gone down in our history. Bryan shakes his head over today’s battles around He Waka Eke Noa, and methane targets that have no relation to the science of warming impact. “It’s just a mess – we’ve got to sort it.”
Former MP and New Plymouth Mayor Harry Duynhoven failed to take seriously Bryan’s threat he would bring to his door farmer upset over proposals that compulsory microchipping of dogs would not exempt farm dogs. But he changed his tune when Bryan and scores of farmers and 50 sheep dogs, accompanied by a gaggle of TV cameras and other national media, set up outside his office. Harry tried to usher Bryan indoors for a meeting but he was having none of it. The discussion would happen outside, in front of everyone.
The coffin episode stemmed from another request from Federated Farmers’ national office. Then CEO Annabelle Young asked Bryan to make up a couple of coffins and paint them orange, a theme adopted for a campaign over walking access across farm properties.
“I’m a farmer not a cabinet maker…but we got it done,” Bryan recalls.
At the request of a newspaper photographer, he jumped in one of the coffins himself. Framed coverage of the occasion is still hanging in his woolshed.
“There can’t be many of us who have hopped in a coffin and got back out again…”
It hasn’t all been protests. After experiencing speakers and a fine dining occasion featuring homegrown beef and lamb at Te Papa, Bryan was determined to organise something similar in Taranaki “and get people motivated”. He has now organised four bi-annual Beef + Lamb NZ Taranaki Big Dine Ins, involving many thousands of dollars of sponsorship and attendances as high as 200+, with another such event planned for next year.
As well as Helen, with Bryan at Government House last month was his son in-law Jarrod Coogan, who is on the Taranaki Feds executive, and his wife Sarah, who is judging coordinator for the Taranaki Ballance farm environment awards. Jarrod and Sarah now run the family farm and are former provincial winners of BFEA. Service to other farmers appears to be in the genes.
Bryan is pretty chuffed with the MNZM. And rightly proud as he is of standing up against things he feels are wrong, he strongly believes in “playing the ball, not the man.
“I’ve tried to never make it personal; I think that’s a lesson we could all take on.
“I’ve always said to myself ‘there’s life after this’. I want to be able to sit down with these people afterwards and have a beer. Don’t burn your bridges.”