Heart Of The Country Working To Live In A Dream
Arnold PickmereNew Zealand Herald
A New Zealand family reflect on their 30 year experience on turning a farmstead into a dream. Their 450ha Shelly Beack Park Farms is now an organic farming showcase.
John Pearce believes that for some people the attraction of owning a lifestyle block - a house and a few country hectares - is a dream which often comes from childhood.
Maybe you spent some time on a farm when you were young. Even a burst of haymaking in the holidays used to be fun, if it didn't go on too long. You think your kids deserve the same chance.
The chance of a farm bike or a horse to ride can beguile youngsters.
But what worries Mr Pearce, and quite a few others who know how good the experience can be, is how often things can go wrong.
There are reckoned to be about 100,000 lifestyle blocks around the country.
And statistics suggest that on average that perfect piece of land you bought may be back on the market in less than three years, unless you get things right before you start. Lifestyle blocks are among the most volatile real estate around.
But some people, like John and Norrie Pearce, have made it last almost 30 years.
Their 450ha ("six farms rolled into one") on the western shores of the Kaipara Harbour, Shelly Beach Park Farms is now an organic farming showcase.
It is an intricate yet logical system in which each animal or plant project supports others. Several dozen animal and horticultural products come from the farm. The livestock, for example, includes a dairy herd, beef cattle, sheep, pigs, emus, turkeys, geese, chickens and fish.
But it did not start like that. When John, a hospital administrator, and Norrie, who still researches organic chemistry at the University of Auckland, came back from the United States in 1973 they looked around for a 10-acre block, so they could grow some of their own food.
Instead, they discovered a rundown 200ha coastal block on the western shores of the Kaipara Harbour for about the same price as small blocks nearer the city.
It had no fences, no water and the only barriers to the wind whistling down from Dargaville were weeds and shoulder-high thistles.
The first year that they tried dairying, they ran out of water in the summer. Buying water was expensive because an average cow needs 40 or 50 litres a day.
John Pearce sought advice from his neighbours, offering to work for them for half a day or so, as long as he could ask them questions at the same time.
He did not know anything about organics in those days either. But that was almost 30 years of analysis and thought ago.
Now dams, carefully designed shelterbelts to create microclimates and a host of other developments - including resowing some land with seed from a 70-year old local pasture containing 16 or 17 different plant types - have transformed the property.
These days when John Pearce thinks of lifestyle blocks, he starts at the beginning, which is whether your nearest or dearest supports your childhood dream.
"The number of broken marriages in the organic farming community is most sobering," he says in a new 64-page booklet The Sustainable Dream about making, lifestyle blocks work.
He also runs courses for lifestyle block owners at Unitec in Auckland.
He advocates doing lots of homework and seeking advice, not least from accountants or lawyers who are well paid to look at dreams with the rose-tinted glasses off.
Never look at a property only when it is at its best, in spring or autumn.
Find out about water supply and your rights to it and how you will feed animals throughout the year. Does the property have any chemical contamination?
Don't forget that even on many big farms, one partner often works away from the farm to provide extra income. Be clear how you will cope.
And if you plan to produce goods for sale on your block, where will sell them?
For John and Norrie Pearce the last 30 years have been absorbingly interesting.
They have had a Biodynamic (Demeter) organic classification since 1979, and research using Norrie's qualifications has helped find out why some benefits of organic farming previously attributed to rather mystical methods are explainable through scientific analysis of what is going on in the ground.
" We used to think it was something you couldn't explain," says John,"but now we know it's down to bugs."
They now have overseas students coming to the farm to study their methods and help with labour.
Every day, the property supplies an organic butcher's shop with beef, sheepmeat and pork. The stock is never drenched or vaccinated, something achieved only by several years of careful husbandry.
A report due out soon covering organic system case studies and involving various bodies including the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry notes that the Pearce's farming operation took four or five years to become economic, but has been that way since 1983.
The interviewers' comment in the report: "Like a number pioneers in organic systems they have discovered much, after considerable personal cost and risk."
John and Norrie Pearce, organic pioneers, may be closer to a dream. Through their efforts on the block they started almost 30 years ago, fewer people now dismiss a natural farming style.