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Fencing: the way it was

During her 40+ years on the fenceline, Horowhenua-based fencing contractor Maria Clement has seen a lot of changes.

Fencing is a career that Maria is still passionate about, more than four decades since she entered it, and she has no plans to retire any time soon. 

From the shed to the fenceline

One of four girls, Maria was never a child for being indoors and could often be found in the shed with her father’s tools. “Dad was an engineer, mechanic, carpenter – a jack of all trades. I adored him as he always encouraged me to learn and grow in an untraditional girlish way,  either working with him or embarking on my own projects and learning experiences.”  

On more than one occasion Maria could be found hiding in her room after a mishap. Incidents like sneaking one of her dads very sharp chisels “which was only to be used under his watchful eye” and badly cutting her hand, or when green roof paint covered the brand-new cream skirt her mum had just proudly made. 

Maria’s initial entry to the fencing industry was the 5 years she spent working for Speedrite Electric Fencing, who were based in Levin at the time, making components for electric fence units. When she married her (now former) husband Colin they embarked on their fencing career together as a team, which allowed Maria to transition onto the fenceline. “I knew that I always wanted to work outdoors with my hands. I’d finally found my happy place as a fencer”.

Family and fencing

Beginning a family in the early 80’s didn’t slow Maria down. In 1983, with 7-month-old Sarah on her hip, Maria was one of the few women competing in both the Golden Pliers and the Gallagher team’s electric fencing competition (with Colin). Luckily babysitting was eagerly offered by fellow competitors’ wives while she competed.  As the family grew, babysitters for 3 toddlers wasn’t so easy, so competing took a back burner.

Back home their trusty Land Rover also doubled as a fenceline creche, set up with a playpen and a bed, and it was always parked within close reach. “When they were babies, I’d work for 2-3 hours then stop for half an hour or so when they needed feeding, changing and attention. As each outgrew the back of the Landy it was off to Nana’s, Grandad’s, and day-care.” 

Baby number four added an extra dimension as he despised day-care which meant he hung out on the fenceline for much longer than his older siblings. Most of his time was spent playing in the post hole dirt, returning home with an ever dwindling supply of cars and trucks.

“On one forestry job I was head down digging and Leon was playing in the dirt when we were suddenly surrounded by army soldiers – in full camo. They managed to sneak right up to us!  We laughed and chatted and one gave Leon a rat pack chocolate bar, the highlight of his day. All four of our children spent a lot of their childhood with us on the fence line. Times were very different then.”

Pathway to success

After about 6 years of fencing, Maria soon started picking up her own fencing clients, finding that many female divorcées or widows living on smaller farms or lifestyle blocks felt very comfortable with another female being on the property, offering advice, suggestions and then doing the work. “Many times, I’d end up doing other jobs for them like fixing leaky taps, repairing clotheslines etc”.

As a sole contractor, Maria enjoyed the smaller jobs that the bigger gangs passed up, many of which involved repairs and maintenance of existing fences. She took pride in making a tired baggy fence, stockproof and tidy again, which often meant new end assemblies, wires, posts and battens. She also picked up contracts with Electra reinstating fences behind the vegetation team, and FOMS repairing fences, gateways and strainers damaged by logging trucks. The majority of this work was done the hard way – hand digging and crowbarring because of tree roots and rocks.  When longer fencelines or better ground conditions permitted, Maria would make use of her post hole borer and use a post rammer.

It was the willingness to take on these extra projects that saw Maria diversify into residential landscaping construction such as retaining walls, decks and wooden fences, alongside her agricultural fencing.  “Having high standards for and pride in my work is so important to me. I’ve never had to advertise for work – it’s always been through word of mouth.”

The right tools for the job

Being a woman in a physical industry means you can’t always rely on brute strength – working smart is just as important. “Sometimes a helping hand would be great, but what I may lack in strength, 99% of the time, leverage and physics gets the job done.”

Maria considers having specialist digging tools also important, and the early days competing at Mystery Creek allowed her to form connections with prominent and well-regarded fencer Frank Prince. Frank was heavily involved in the development of the Master Fencer course in the mid 80’s, and also made a number of precision fencing tools for Maria. Her favourite spade “Huck” was recently retired and replaced by another Frank Prince spade, preciously stored away stored in the shed for “a rainy day”.

No plans to retire yet

“I love my life as a fencer, but I would have loved becoming a qualified builder, which was sadly unheard of in my time. However, I’m fortunate two sons are qualified builders, and my third son does automated gateways, so I’m often called on for the boxing and concrete work. My eldest daughter and I often fence together on her block of land. Fencing has been a wonderful way of life as a family, it certainly has given them great values and great work ethics.”

Recently Maria has secured additional subcontracting work with another fencing contractor. While she loves the work, she’s happy for someone else to run the business side of the projects. No quoting, no rounding up materials, no bookwork. “Subcontracting and working with others gives me the chance to pass on skills. I hope that the next generation of fencers enjoy this job as much as I have – and still do. I’m not ready to retire yet”.  

Written by Jaime Bigwood

Published in the Women in the Industry Feature in WIRED Issue 68 / March 2023 by Fencing Contractors NZ