Page 1: Biography
Flax-miller and promoter, farm developer
This biography, written by Judy Malone, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996, and updated in November, 2010.
Alfred Seifert was born on 26 June 1877 in Loburn North, Canterbury, New Zealand, the seventh child in a family of seven boys and three girls born to John Herman Seifert, a native of Germany, and Mary Jane Brown, of Irish descent. The family farmed at Kaiapoi Island (Coutts Island) and Loburn North, and Alfred attended the local public school, probably till the age of 12.
After leaving school Seifert and his brothers worked in flax mills at Westport, Lake Wanaka, and in Manawatu. Six of the seven Seifert brothers were to operate, in all, over 30 flax mills in New Zealand, investing in each other's businesses. In 1899 Alfred set up on his own at Turakina, in the Rangitikei district. In 1902 he became a partner in the Makerua Estate Company, which developed over 12,000 acres of swamp near Shannon for growing New Zealand flax. The land had hitherto been considered worthless and the venture was very profitable. He married Esther Blondell on 5 February 1900 at Springhills, Southland; they were to have a son and a daughter.
Seifert had seen the operation of large-scale cordage factories overseas. In 1906, in partnership with his brother Louis, he founded A. & L. Seifert's Flaxdressing Company. They purchased the last big flax block in the Makerua swamp, some 4,200 acres, and on the main road from Shannon to Tokomaru built Miranui (big mill). Opened in 1907, it was the largest flax mill ever established in New Zealand.
At its peak Miranui operated day and night and employed over 200 men. It was the most successful flax-milling company in New Zealand, and the mill was a showpiece of the flax industry. Seifert, as managing director and the major shareholder, was the driving force behind this venture. He helped design the mill, and proved that the development of swamps for flax-milling through systematic, large-scale drainage was economically viable.
Seifert's company had an excellent reputation as an employer: it provided good wages and comfortable accommodation, a dining room that seated 130, a reading room with piano, a billiards room, and a well-stocked store. Seifert was a Liberal and sympathetic to the less socialistic aspects of the labour movement. He was approached, probably in 1911, by members of the Manawatu Flaxmills Employees' Union to stand for Parliament as a labour candidate. He declined, because the union was too closely associated with the militant New Zealand Federation of Labour.
Seifert promoted the whole flax industry by his leadership in the New Zealand Flaxmillers' Association, serving as president and as spokesman for the industry to the government. After the appearance of a virulent disease (yellow leaf) in the flax in 1916, he realised that the future of the industry lay in the application of scientific techniques to the cultivation of the plant and the production of the fibre. He financed and stimulated others to undertake research into plant breeding, and a disease-resistant variety known as 'SS' (Seifert selection) was developed in the 1920s. Experiments on chemical bleaching of flax fibre were undertaken, and Thomas Easterfield, first director of the Cawthron Institute in Nelson, investigated possible flax by-products.
In 1927 the company sold Miranui and Seifert embarked on a bold new venture at Motuiti, near Foxton. Over 300,000 disease-resistant seedlings were planted in the hope of developing a large-scale flax farm. It pointed to the future, but with no government support and the onset of the depression the project failed in 1933, at considerable financial loss to Seifert and other shareholders. In the 1930s and 40s he worked at transforming former flax-growing land in Manawatu into profitable dairy farms and potato-growing enterprises. However, he remained a prestigious figure on a flax advisory committee that had close relations with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Department of Industries and Commerce.
Seifert thrived in public life. He served on the Palmerston North Borough Council for one term and the Horowhenua Electric-power Board for over 20 years. Having studied river control on trips abroad, he worked tirelessly for years for flood control of the Manawatu River. He had a lifelong passion for golf, serving on the New Zealand Golf Association's Council's Greenkeeping Research Committee, and, in 1929, managing the first national golf team to compete overseas. He also had a 30-year association with the Manawatu Daily Times Company as chairman and major shareholder.
Alfred Seifert travelled widely in the United States, Asia and Europe. In temperament energetic, enthusiastic and sociable, he was a noted figure in Palmerston North, where he lived for 40 years. He died there on 11 August 1945; his wife, Esther, survived him by 25 years.