Hidden STAR

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Deep in the North Canterbury forest lurks New Zealand’s most unique Western Star. Never seen or heard, it’s gleaming, new, and just happens to be the pride and joy of not just its owners, but also New Zealand’s most hidden away lady trucker.

If you stumbled across Patoa Farms by mistake on a tramp or something, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d slipped through a wormhole in space and been instantly transported to Iowa, Dakota, or somewhere like that. Confronted with a Dodge Ram truck fitted with a stock feed body, or a gleaming new Western Star 4700 6x4, also equipped with a feed bin, it wouldn’t be until Jax Clarke, driver of the Western Star, pulled up, jumped out, and said, “Ya right there mate?” that you’d realise you were still in Aotearoa.

Patoa Farms in Hawarden, North Canterbury is a huge operation by any measure, one of the largest free-farm piggeries in the Southern Hemisphere, proudly flying the banner ‘Our little piggies roam free’. Readers will remember the story we ran on one of the region’s earliest 58 tonne HPMV units, a Scania R620 owned and operated by R J Baker in Rangiora whose sole purpose was carting food to the farm’s 40,000 inhabitants (ref Jan/Feb 2017 issue). Patoa is a best practice operation that ’s used as a model in how best to treat Porky and Priscilla Pig en route to their inevitable destiny. Life is life, and pork, like beef, mutton, chicken, and fish, doesn’t grow on trees, it has to be farmed – but that can be done with dignity and respect for those upwardly supplying the mammalian food chain.

The farm is owned and run by the Sterne family with co-founder Steve Sterne and his daughter Holly at the reins on a daily basis. They ’re immensely proud of their farm, both what they ’ve achieved, and how they ’ve achieved it. Even here in New Zealand Holly recalls the ‘delightful’ offspring of local farming aristocracy teasing her about being a pig farmer. However, the ‘shoof ’s’ most certainly on the other foot now. Anyone who knows anything about pig farming knows that once a year the go-to place is the International Hog Fair in Des Moines, Iowa.

“It has to be seen to be believed,” said Steve. “If it ’s to do with a pig, it’s there.”


Photo: There’s nothing Jax can’t operate from inside, or outside.


Photo:  loading the feed; note the split in the lid allowing Jax to load two bins while the other two remain closed.

Pig farms need trucks, and because Steve knew little about trucks and trucking in New Zealand, he took his leads from experts in the States. That ’s pretty much how a left hook Dodge Ram feed truck ended up in Hawarden. To us on the outside a Dodge Ram feed truck is likely to induce drool. To Steve it’s a feed wagon. Albeit a pretty cool one.

Understandably the Dodge got to the stage where it was not up to the demand the curly-tailed customers in the lodges were imposing on it. Patoa needed something bigger. So, at the Des Moines Hog Fair in 2015 Steve was introduced to a Western Star truck sporting the ‘Rolls-Royce’ Sudenga feed bin. Now this was it, the real deal. So he commenced the journey to get one back to Patoa. That, as it turns out, was easier said than done. In the course of daily operations, being left or right-hand drive is of no consequence, but trying to communicate metric chassis and body measurements with imperial US suppliers, border controls, and ensuring a myriad of other compliance requirements were met proved harder than herding a piglet on an icy morning in Red Bands. So, the Western Star folks stateside did some digging and pointed Steve at Heavy Trucks Ltd in Christchurch, home of Western Star in the region, and at that point truck sales manager Glenn Heybourn entered the fray. Steve was surprised Western Star was so well represented in New Zealand and Glenn couldn’t believe his ears when Steve arrived and said, ‘I’m trying to get one of these, can you help?’ “ The team at Heavy Trucks have been absolutely great to deal with the whole way,” said Steve. “ They know their stuff inside out.”

And as for Glenn, well every truck sales person loves that surprise, quirky, left-field job from a customer who walks in cold and is the real deal. Something that requires research, tweaking and fine-tuning.


Photo: It’s a sunny day so Jax positions the boom from the outside the remote.

Glenn commenced the job as the truck guy in New Zealand who knew what it was the customer wanted and was able to chew a bit of jerky and communicate that to the ‘ole boys in the US. “ The whole project was really fascinating,” says Glenn. “ There were so many things we looked at and thought ‘we can improve that ’. The Americans did a lot manually from the outside; we got them to bring it inside, automating the control of things on the body from inside the cab. A good example is the lids on the bin. We had them split them so Jax could load half in the rain while keeping the other half shut. Cameras were another thing. We put cameras on the unit so Jax could keep an eye on everything and make tasks like positioning the auger much easier. Everyone here loved the project and the truck that resulted. We’re very proud of it.” With the build and fit up completed, the truck was brought home to Patoa. The Western Star itself was specced to suit the hot, freezing, dusty, muddy, world of the farm. It’s a tough place for a truck, with extremes of conditions and an almost constant wind.


Photo: Jax busy at the wheel. Her speed and smoothness around the run is so deceptive.

The end product was a right-hand drive 6x4 Western Star 4700 with a Cummins ISL 8.9-litre e5 SCR Euro 5 motor producing 264kW (355hp) at 2100rpm and 1599Nm (1180lb/ ft) of torque at 1200rpm. Behind that is an Allison 3000 RDS 6-speed automatic transmission with a PTO. Front axle is a Meritor FG-941 on parabolic taper leaf springs with shocks. Out back are Meritor MT 40-140XGP tandem axles with diff-lock rated at 40,000lb, on AirLiner air suspension.

The truck’s on steel 10-stud wheels (giving it such a cool US flavour) with 295/80R 22.5 tyres.

But let ’s put the brakes on for a bit. Before we continue, we’ll take a look at what Jax and her Western Star do, just to put other spec related things into context.

Firstly, it’s worth remembering the wind is relentless, the dust constant, the fragrance unique, and the noise omnipresent. Jax drives under a row of eight feed silos with loading booms. The truck can load from four silos at a time and she can put different mixes in each of the truck’s sealed compartments, according to her order list. Her customers’ ages determine the banquet they get. Once loaded – about 14 tonne payload – she’s off, stopping at the feed silo next to each lodge on the delivery run. She can position and operate the truck’s auger from in the cab or remotely from outside, and she’s an expert at dropping the sock into the hole at the top of the silo. Once in, it ’s a matter of engaging the auger and unloading. With all the deliveries done and having wound her way around the various drop sites, it’s back to the loading silos and the process starts again.


Photo:  Feed truck buyer extraordinaire Steve Sterne, New Zealand’s hardest to find lady trucker, Jax Clarke, and good Kiwi bloke and operations man Rob Reynold.

Total distance travelled? Anywhere from 500m to 1.5km. Customer satisfaction? By the sound of the squeals, extreme. It’s like a metro dial-a -pizza run in a town populated entirely by Warner Brothers’ finest.

Now that we have that information under our belts, let ’s get back to the truck. There’s no number plate, RUC holder or COF (although maintenance on the dot because this is a mission critical part of the business).

The engine has extra dust combating capabilities. That includes air intakes on the side of the bonnet, pre-cleaners and a safety element on the hefty under-hood Donaldson air cleaner, as well as an engine fan that runs in reverse for a minute or two every time the truck starts in order to blow gunk out of the radiator. There’s no cruise control and no traction control; there’s no need; top speed would rarely exceed 40km/h, and the central lodges at Patoa are on flat-as-a -pancake ground. There’s a Denso extreme duty air conditioner on the roof so the cab can be kept shut as much as possible. So, does Jax like her Western Star feed truck? “Hell yes! This is cool.” The inside is a credit to her considering the world she operates in, and she keeps on top of things with a quick brush and wipe after every load. Inside it’s all Western Star and if you’re going to be doing a job like this then providing kit that makes the operator’s eyes light up each time she sees it is a good business decision on any level. Jax has been at the farm for three years and although the feed truck is her number one role, she has other responsibilities and works closely with operations manager Rob Reynolds. She knows the whole feed operation inside out, where the stopping points are and all the subtle stuff that makes it appear deceptively easy. Just looking you know it would take you half a day to do a run she’s nailed in about 45 minutes.

Riding on board it’s also instantly apparent what the Western Star brings to the operation. This is a typical tuff Western Star, little troubled by the job requirements. Accelerating rapidly, stops and starts, it could do this forever...which is just as well, it probably will be, although Glenn said the truck’s been specified to be useful outside the farm in the unlikely event it finds itself in the big wide world. The Allison was the perfect solution gearbox wise, it’s not a job you’d ever want to be changing gears in, nor putting up with the fussiness of an AMT. Jax is no slug operating the package either; she certainly has the truck’s measure. Already it’s an extension of herself as she wheels it around the lodges with consummate ease, managing the entire process from a central console inside the cab, able to communicate with Rob via radio telephone. “ You get some interesting looks from others when you tell them what you do and what you drive. This is my baby and I love her. She makes the job so easy.” So there you have it. The Patoa Farms Western Star 4700, hidden deep in the forests of North Canterbury. Arguably New Zealand’s coolest little trucking secret, in the hands of the amazing Jax Clarke – a proud and passionate lady trucker. The only thing left to say is...

B’th b’th b’th b’that ’s all folks.