New Zealand father and son are sharp operators

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Malcolm and Lance Clark are a father and son team who have switched from the pressures of dairy farming for a different kind of pressure – the art of shelterbelt trimming, specialising in rural and lifestyle properties

Malcolm and Lance have come a long way since those early days and are the first to admit that it hasn’t been easy. However, now armed with a more modern fleet, one core ingredient remains the same – the satisfaction of a job well done and positive customer feedback.

Father and son team Malcolm and Lance Clark

Early days

Having grown up around farm machinery as a farmer’s son on the family dairy farm in Patetonga in the Waikato on New Zealand’s North Island, Lance spent most of his early years working as a dairy farmer, following in his father’s footsteps.

The experience gave the pair a solid ground in being part of a family business. These days, those same core skills remain essential to successfully managing the business, and mum Jill is also crucial to the smooth operating of Clark & Son – taking care of the heavy workload in the office and doing much of the organising behind the scenes.

"When mum and dad sold the family farm, I got a job milking cows in Pukekohe," says Lance.

"I’d also worked over the years driving various gear for ag contractors like Wallings.

"The family farm had got to the stage where we either needed to commit to expanding or make some major changes. One way to resolve it was whether we bought the neighbouring farm or they bought ours, so mum and dad decided to sell and take a break."

Lance with his one-of-a-kind Fendt 718, which boasts a cab that rotates 220 degrees

Malcolm and Jill travelled overseas for a couple of years. When they returned home, Malcolm was keen to keep busy and Lance was ready to leave his role working for someone else and strike out by himself.

Looking to do something different, their shelter trimming business started off with the purchase of an existing business and one tractor, which Malcolm and Lance took turns operating. Before long, the old Ford was upgraded to a Massey Ferguson 6265.

"The upgrade was a definite step up in terms of operator comfort," says Lance, "and the 6265 with its Dyna 4 transmission was well suited to our requirements for hedge cutting."

In 2008, a second shelter trimming business was purchased. The Iseki tractor from that business was immediately scrapped, and a Massey Ferguson 7475 Vario transmission was purchased, which still remains in the fleet today. The original Massey Ferguson 6265 was replaced with another Massey Ferguson 6265, which also remains in the fleet today.

With two tractors enabling the pair to carry out twice as much work, a Fendt 718 was ordered in 2019, as the hours on the Massey Ferguson 7475 were inching up about 14,000.

The rotating cab in action, which can turn 220 degrees for improved visibility

Tools of the trade

The customised Fendt 718 Vario tractor is the pride of the Clark & Son line-up, with its rotating cab and customised Palfinger crane and cutting head.

The rotating cab turns to 220 degrees and allows for improved visibility when operating in tight spaces with high hedges.

"We wanted it set up to allow us to be more efficient and also reach heights of up to 12 to 13 metres [for] flat topping and 15 to 16 metres [for] side trimming while being able to keep the cutting head straight and flat – important for a quality finish," Lance says.

Having it customised to suit their specific requirements meant additional investment and time delays, and while the eventual project took almost two years to see to fruition and land in New Zealand, both Lance and Malcolm were delighted with the final design.

"While the complete unit with its crane and cutting head now works like a dream, further complications were yet to come, adding another year to the project to get the right balance between the crane and custom-built cutting head working to our desired requirements," says Lance.

"Like anything with machinery that’s not ‘standard’, getting something this customised can be time-consuming and frustrating."

As well as delays with the tractor and getting the rotating cab fitted, there was also a six-month delay getting the crane component from England.

"We had to be pretty patient," says Malcolm.

"And if that wasn’t bad enough, the tractor with Palfinger crane arrived in the country shortly before we went into the first lockdown, so after that long wait, it sat there doing nothing for months."

A tidy finish with the Fendt 718 and its customised crane and cutter

Malcolm’s years of engineering expertise have been a definite asset to the business, particularly when it has come to customising cutter heads

and other specifics on their machinery. Over the decades, he has built everything from cowsheds to farm trailers, stock crates, and more.

"For the cutter head on the Fendt unit, we’ve worked closely with the team at Tirau Welders to perfect the details. We always knew exactly what we wanted but it was a customised build to copy and improve on our existing two cutterheads. Tirau Welders were amazing to work with and understood what we were after perfectly."

Most of the equipment at Clark & Son has been strengthened and modified. Having the balance of the crane and cutters exactly right is essential for strength without being too heavy when extended at trimming height.

"There’s a lot of steel on our machines, and we’ve learned to protect the cab roof, bonnet, and windows against falling debris, etc."

A roof window of 18mm plate glass has been custom added to the machine for operational safety purposes.

For tidy up work after the trimmers have been in, Malcolm and Lance have a Berti 220 heavy-duty fixed tooth mulcher and a Berti ECF/MD220 side shift mulcher. The heavy-duty mulcher is a great tool for some land clearing, regularly being used to mulch out old blueberry rows for replanting, behind a second Massey Ferguson 7475.

"Having the ability to offer a clean-up component to our trimming services is important," says Malcolm.

Of course, given some of the terrain they work on, it isn’t always straightforward.

"We definitely have some challenging properties with uneven terrain and trying to work in confined awkward places.

"Then there’s the element of the occasional unknown such as sinkholes – never fun to have a wheel drop into those when you have the crane fully extended."

The MF 7475 trimmer at work on Motiti Island

Always alert

Part of the key to maintaining machinery and nipping potential problems in the bud comes down to the awareness of the operator, which is why Lance and Malcolm continue to be the sole operators of their expensive fleet of machinery.

"When you’re out there cutting, you’re always listening for something that might sound a bit different or keeping an eye out for any potential stress points," says Lance. "The nature of the jobs we’re doing is really hard on the gear, so maintenance and staying aware is hugely important."

A delicate balance

With their joint skillsets, Lance and Malcolm have a reputation for providing quality service. Lance, in particular, has become something of an artist with the cutters, often called upon by clients with specialist projects who want a meticulous arch in the middle of their straight hedge.

"There’s definitely an art to it, and it’s a delicate balance – not only when doing something specific like a curve but also in making sure you’re cutting the right amount from different tree varieties to keep it tidy while not compromising future growth."

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