Weather Matters on the Farm

Is The Weather Changing?

There is still fierce opposition in some quarters about whether the weather is changing and the whole climate change debate.

It seems to me that humankind has indisputably contributed to the raised carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. And the disgusting levels of pollution throughout the world can only be attributed to us.

Whether or not you agree with climate change, a radical overhaul of the way we treat our environments — local, national and planet-wide is sorely needed and long overdue.

This week I took a look back at some memorable weather moments on the farm in Garston. Snow, rain, wind, storms, droughts and of course many, many lovely days. We’ve had them all and more in the 35 years I’ve lived in this beautiful place.

View over snow-covered mountainside and farm paddocks in Garston, winter, 2015.
Wintry weather over the farm in Garston, 2015. 

Weather And Water

Last Summer was a hot, dry one. The faithful stream which feeds our farm and two houses dwindled to a trickle. Day after day the sun beat down, the thirsty sheep drank more water than ever, and the pool which houses our precious water intake came within an inch of failing.

Dry weather took it's toll. Our farm's water supply creek, reduced to a trickle in January 2018.
Just a trickle left in our precious creek. January 2018.

But Spring this year has been the opposite: sun — sure — but also wind, snow and so much rain! The trickle has transformed into a torrent and now instead of drying up, our water pipe is in danger of being washed away.

Water supply creek in flood, November 2018.
The trickle has changed to a torrent. November 2018.

When you work outside the weather plays a huge part in your life. You’re at the mercy of the elements day in, day out. And no one is quite so vulnerable to the whims of the weather gods as a farmer.

Weather Varies Throughout The Valley

When glaciers carved out the Upper Mataura Valley in the last ice age they left a narrow river valley and a series of terraces rising up towards the mountain ranges which line the valley east and west. The formation gives the weather gods plenty of ways to play their tricks.

It’s only a small valley by world standards, but the weather at one end can be completely different to what’s happening at the other end. I well remember one summer when day after day afternoon rain bands swept up the valley floor but left our farm on the terraces parched.

And I’ll never forget a particularly fierce thunderstorm which rattled the windows of our house. Hailstones poured in such torrents that they formed a fountain shooting off the guttering. Thunder and lightning flashed overhead and there was no way I could drive down to a scheduled meeting at the school.

10 minutes later the whole thing was over and I dashed down to the meeting — only a kilometre away and there was not a hailstorm to be seen. No wonder they looked disbelieving when I explained why I was late.

But nothing can compare to the wall of water which swept out of its creek bed and down the road towards two thousand sheep and lambs one fateful summer evening.

Stormy weather looms. Storm clouds brewing over Garston.
Storm clouds brewing late on a hot afternoon.

Flash Flood

January 2001. It was a hot, hazy day — and we had spent it bringing sheep and lambs down to the holding paddocks beside the woolshed, ready for weaning the next morning.

Its quite a tricky job — lambs and ewes are notoriously hard to move. While the majority of them will run where you want them to, there are always lambs which bolt in the opposite direction — and ewes that are determined to search back through the mob for their missing lambs.

However, by evening the woolshed paddocks were filled with a great noisy mass of sheep and lambs. Gradually they settled enough to eat and to drink from the small stream which winds through on its way to the Mataura River.

On this fateful day, towering storm clouds had built up over the mountains as they often do on hot afternoons. Thunder rumbled occasionally but no rain fell on the milling mob of sheep and lambs and we were pleased about that. A thunderstorm over the outside yards would have meant we’d be working with drenched sheep and slippery mud the next day.

By 8 o’clock the clouds over the mountains were thick and black. It was clearly teeming up there. Most of us were just relieved it wasn’t pouring on the sheep but a subdued rumbling sound made Terry uneasy. Abruptly — and for no reason that I could see — he abandoned his meal and headed to the hill paddock above our house where he could spot the creek as it came down the mountain.

Casually we watched, wondering why he was driving up there. Suddenly his truck spun around and shot back down the paddock at high speed. At the gate, Terry leapt out, dashed towards his dogs and yelled at me —  “Get help! There’s a flood on the way!”

Action time!

Down to the woolshed we dashed with one purpose in mind — to get the sheep away from the creek paddocks and onto higher ground.

Chaos ensued: dogs barking, kids screaming, alarmed sheep bleating and Terry yelling orders which no one could hear. Suddenly into this confusion burst Andrew — the neighbour I’d called for help — bringing more dog-power and a renewed urgency. Dashing down on the heels of the flood he had seen the wall of water which was sweeping down the narrow gully towards us.

Just minutes later the last animal had been hustled through the gate onto the hill above the woolshed. James and his new partner Lizette — making her first visit to the farm this fateful day— together with 7-year-old Chris dashed their truck across the bridge seconds before the wave hit.

On it swept, spreading across the paddocks, inundating gardens and flooding the State Highway as it crashed its way towards the Mataura River.

1 km up the road, Scotts Creek was behaving in a similar manner, leaving its farmers equally stunned. And yet, in the whole valley, these were the only two streams which flooded. All the water in that intense thunderstorm was concentrated in one narrow band — flooding the two streams and leaving every other waterway untouched.

What a mess that flood left in its wake. Our road and all its culverts were washed out. Fences piled high with debris which took weeks to clear away.

Fences piled high with debris after the flash flood. Garston 2001.
Fences piled high with debris outside the woolshed. As you can probably guess, we postponed the weaning for a week that year.

The neighbour’s water system was destroyed — but not ours, thank goodness.

We marvelled at the path of destruction which was visible along the creek bed for months afterwards. The mud-covered bushes high above showed just how far that wave had reached.

Brown vegetation high above the creek bed shows where the wave reached.
Brown vegetation high above the creek bed shows where the wave reached. We are so thankful for the warning rumble that alerted Terry to the potential disaster.

Farmers Are NEVER Happy With The Weather

My farmer lives and breathes the weather. He is always out in it, rain…hail…snow…wind…sunshine, and so are his animals and crops.

As you can imagine, it’s not a lot of fun for a sheep being out in the wet and cold. We have sheltering trees and bushes in most of the paddocks, and of course, they have their woolly coats for protection, but they still look miserable in the sodden paddocks on a rainy day.

However, too little rain is equally bad. When the dry weather goes on and on the ground dries out and the grass doesn’t grow. The sheep lie panting under the trees and are constantly looking for food.

Even when I think the weather is perfect, something will be wrong with it from a farmer’s point of view. Inevitably that nice drop of rain in a dry year seems to come just after we’ve cut the grass for hay.

In a really good year (weather-wise) I’ve even heard farmers muttering about “too much grass” on occasion.

Weather Matters

When I first came to the valley way back in 1981 I used to phone home to Auckland on an expensive toll call once a month.

When I hung up my landlady would always say “What’s the weather like up there?”

I didn’t know. It was not a question I ever thought of asking. As a city girl the weather wasn’t so important to me back then. But nowadays, I’ve lived so long on the farm that I understand just how much the weather matters.

I don’t phone home much these days — but thanks to the world wide web my messages with Mum are frequent, and you can be sure that nowadays we always mention the weather.

Blue sky and sunshine weather. The view South overlooking the green farm in late spring.
But still, often the weather is beautiful.  And the valley looks green and lush after all that rain.  November 2018.

And Your Weather Is…?

I’ve often been heard to thankfully remark that whatever the weather gods are throwing at us in Garston, its always far worse somewhere else in New Zealand. Our weather is mild and kind compared to the extremes some of you face in the world every year.

What are your best and worst weather memories? Comment below – and/or share a photo on Time of my Life’s Facebook page.

Lambing Time: A Family Affair

A ewe nuzzles her tiny black lamb at lambing time

All Hands On Deck

Running a farm is an all-encompassing affair. It’s your livelihood and your life. So when you start having kids, lambing time becomes a family affair.

Our children were immersed in the farming lifestyle from their earliest days, and never more so than in Spring. During this busy season, our motto has always been “all hands on deck.”

When the kids were small, tiny lambs were their main delight. Because of the intensive way we lambed back then, there were always spare lambs in the pen waiting for new mothers. They were fed four times a day, and the kids quickly learned all the tricks of the trade, from mixing up multiple batches of milk to persuading a reluctant lamb to drink.

3-year-old Debbie bottle feeding lambs at lambing time.

A Lamb To Remember

Inevitably some became pets. Every year, a new set of pets to love and play with. Our memories of the healthy ones are blurred now but one lamb we’ll never forget.

Floppy. He was not the prettiest, with wobbly back legs that never worked particularly well, but oh what a personality that lamb had. Other lambs came running for the milk and rushed off to play as soon as the bottle was empty. But Floppy loved a cuddle and because he belonged to Debbie, who loved animals to distraction, he got hundreds of them. I would often find them cuddled up together in the paddock or in the hay barn, both perfectly happy.

Floppy’s spirit was indomitable, but his body gradually let him down. Eventually, those wobbly back legs gave out, and he stopped walking. Even then he didn’t give up, dragging himself around on his front legs and bottom, and always happy for a bottle and another cuddle. It was a sad day for us all when at last he gave up the fight.

Debbie cuddling her special pet lamb, Floppy.
Debbie with Floppy who only lived 3 months, but taught us a lot about making the best of what life gives you.

Opening The Gates

As the kids got older they graduated to task number two: gate opener. Our sheep were set stocked, which means that each little mob was shut in its own paddock. There were so many paddocks, each with its own set of problems, that having someone to open and close the gates was a great time and energy saver.

It wasn’t always one of our children of course. My parents loved to come up and help out at lambing time, and so did visiting cousins and friends. It was such a thrill — and an education — for them to go round the sheep with Terry.

Gate opening may sound like an easy job, but on our farm, believe me, it wasn’t! Every gate seemed to have a different sort of latch or chain. Some were simple to unlatch but tricky to do up again. Others were the opposite. Some gates swung beautifully on their hinges; a few had to be lifted and heaved bit by bit until there was just enough room for the truck to squeeze through. Most gates were metal — a few were the old (actually, ancient) wooden variety and we were more than a little scared of breaking them as they creaked open.

— And Other Essential Tasks

In those days we identified all the twin lambs by spraying them — each set with their own colourful mark. If a twin wandered away we could find the mother by looking for the other similarly marked twin.

In their, pre-children days, the men would simply use dots or lines on the lamb’s heads, necks, backs etc. But once the kids and I came on the scene we got far more creative. Terry didn’t care what we did — so long as he could easily see the mark.

Again, this was a job that anyone who was agile enough to jump out of the truck, scoop up twin lambs, deftly spray a mark on exactly the same part of each lamb, and dash back to the truck without disturbing the ewes or being followed by the lambs (who suddenly decided you were their best friend) could do. It was another way we could help Terry save a little bit of energy for the big things that the kids couldn’t do yet.

Fast forward to 2018, and we don’t mark the twins any more. In the keep-it-natural-whenever-possible way we approach lambing now, we’ve found it really isn’t necessary, We save a lot of time, and spray and funnily enough, 99% of the lambs and mothers seem to find each other again anyway.

Nowadays we reserve the spray markings for sheep and lambs who’ve been mothered on. We put the same mark on both the ewe and her adopted lamb, just in case they get separated.

2 sheep and lambs brightly marked with flag symbols for the 2015 Rugby World Cup which happened during lambing time.
The 2015 lambing: Steph decided on a “Rugby World Cup theme” and marked all the mothered up lambs with flags. They were all particularly bright and easy to identify that year.

A Day In The Life At Lambing Time

Wake up time is not by the clock, but rather, with the birds. By sun-up we’re filling the flask with hot water — for mixing milk powder, not coffee — and gearing up for the morning lambing beat. Even on a fine morning, that means jerseys, coats, hats and long socks under our trousers.

If you’re me, you might even be wearing woolly leg warmers and a rug. The men, of course, are far tougher and wouldn’t be caught dead with either of those. But, as I said before, it’s pretty chilly in the Polaris and I like to take all possible precautions against the cold.

So off we chug in the Polaris. It’s small and light, and the sheep don’t take much notice of it as we trundle around the paddock, unlike the larger farm truck, which they tend to view with some alarm.

Inevitably there will be one or two dead lambs to pick up, but what we’re really looking for is signs of a ewe or lamb in trouble. Most ewes will give birth naturally and without too much drama. Then they’ll turn round, find — somewhat to their surprise — this tiny, wet creature, and begin to lick it clean. After a while, the lamb will find its way to the udder, have a good drink of warm, life-giving colostrum and never look back. We don’t have to worry about those lambs.

Looking For Problems

Not all the ewes have it quite so easy. Lambs coming backwards; twins in a tangle; a lamb that’s grown too big and is just plain stuck — these are what we’re watching for and they’re not always easy to spot. Ewes that are out in the open, eating, looking happy — those girls are fine for now. But we check anything that’s off by itself beside a fence, or under a tree, looking a bit forlorn.

You would think that a ewe in trouble would be grateful when the lambing shepherd arrives to help. You would be wrong! As soon as she realises that you’re interested in her, she’s up and away. No matter how miserable she feels, she’s likely to bolt as soon as you try to catch her.

Some dogs are great at helping to catch a sheep. Our son has several that make his life much easier in that regard.

We don’t!

I’m not particularly good at imitating a sheepdog, but I do my best to head the ewe in Terry’s direction, and if we’re lucky we’ll catch it the first time. Or maybe on the second attempt. By the third attempt, I’m keeping very quiet and trying not to be noticed. If (heaven forbid) we have to make a fourth attempt… well, let’s just say that on those stressful occasions I learned some new words in the first few years that I did the lambing beat.

Round the sheep…deal with any problems… open and close the gate… into the next paddock… repeat, again and again. On a fine day with few problems, it’s magic. On a wet, cold, snowy or windy day it’s horrible. The best we can hope for at lambing time is a fine, warm spring with no problems. The worst we can get is the opposite.

Back They Come

Our children may be grown up now, but every year at least one of them comes home to help out at lambing time.

I like to think that farming keeps them grounded and, like riding a bike, those skills learned as children and teens never really leave you. The girls may be city-based now but they can all still help to catch a sheep or lamb a ewe. They haven’t forgotten how to grab a runaway lamb and unblock its gummed-up tail.

We love it when they come back and truly appreciate their help. We’re getting older now, my farmer and I, but, happily the latest generation is alive and well and getting ready to do his part.

1 year old Harvey is bottle feeding a lamb with his mother and auntie at lambing time.
Harvey is getting ready to join the team at lambing time.

Lambing Time looks a little different on the farm these days. Find out more in Part 1 of this series: Lambing 101

Life On The Farm: Lambing 101

4 lambs at lambing time, all looking at the camera.

Spring

It’s September, which in Garston means spring, one of the busiest seasons in the farming year.

The trees are covered in blossom; daffodils abound; there is a ton of ground preparation to do before Terry can sow the new crops. But foremost in our minds right now are our pregnant sheep.

Mamma mia, here we go again: it’s lambing time on the farm.

Many Variations At Lambing Time

There are probably as many variations in farm lambing practices as there are farms in New Zealand. We all have our own ways of looking after the sheep in spring.

Partly it depends on the type of sheep you’re farming. Some, like Merinos, are bred to be easy-care. High country farmers put their merino ewes out on the hills and don’t go near them when they’re lambing. You’ll do more harm than good, trying to interfere there.

It also depends on the sort of lambing percentages you’re aiming for, and how intensively you farm.

Many farmers, especially those nearer sea level, where the land is warmer and winters less severe, aim for lambing percentages of 140% or more. Their sheep are bred for multiple births; twins and — even better —  triplets are common and encouraged on these sorts of farms. There’s a ton of work in this method, with lambing shepherds constantly going around the sheep. Orphan lambs — and some of those triplet lambs — will be brought into sheds and bottle-fed; others will be mothered on to ewes whose lambs have died.

On our farm, we’re somewhere in between these two extremes.

Jenny, bottle feeding orphan lambs during lambing time on the farm.
We keep rescued lambs in a cosy pen, and mother them onto new mums as soon as possible, but we don’t feed and  raise lots of orphan lambs the way intensive sheep farms do. 

Weather Matters

There is nothing nicer than lambing on a warm spring day. The sun is shining, the grass is growing, lambs are playing and there is comparatively little for us to do. There’s even time to chat as we drive slowly around each paddock looking out for signs of trouble.

Unfortunately, Spring rarely gives us 6 weeks of lovely weather. Instead, that changeable season is likely to throw everything at us: sun, wind, rain, snow, frost — you name it, we’ll get it in spades during lambing.

Spring is the time for the nor’west wind. It sweeps down the valley, gaining strength as the day goes on. A good nor’wester in Garston can rival a windy Wellington corner any day. Sometimes the wind is so strong you can literally lean onto it; truck doors slam on unwary fingers, and anything unsecured (boxes… bins… washing baskets…) can end up halfway down the paddock if you don’t catch it in time.

At least the nor’wester is a warm wind. However, it’s often the precursor to a Southerly change and that’s the weather we don’t want. Unlike the northern hemisphere, the south wind here can be bitterly cold, and brings with it rain and sometimes snow.

Going round the sheep in the wet and cold is horrible, especially in Terry’s preferred vehicle, the Polaris. which is not enclosed, and has no form of heating. I can’t complain too much because it does have a roof, so at least we don’t get wet in it. Lambing on a quad bike in the rain, as some farmers do, must be worse.

Terry, warmly dressed for driving the drafty farm Polaris.
The trusty Polaris.  A little more weatherproof than a quad bike, but still rather drafty on a cold day.

Stacking The Odds For Lambing Success

Caring for the ewes

It seems pretty harsh to expect new lambs to survive in awful weather but if you lamb outside, with a minimum of intervention that’s what they have to do. So we stack the odds in the lamb’s favour as much as we can. Often that starts in winter.

Terry works hard to feed the ewes plenty of good food during the winter because a well-fed ewe will be able to pass on more nutrition to the lamb and grow it to a good size before it’s born.

Just before lambing starts we bring in the conveyor contractor to give the ewes mineral supplements and vaccinations. The lamb will get the benefit of these when it drinks colostrum in the first few days after it is born.

Most of our paddocks have some sort of shelter which the ewes can seek out in bad weather. Tree-lanes, bushes, flax and even old wood piles all provide shelter from wind and weather when necessary. The idea is to give shelter as naturally as possible.

Ewe and lambs sheltering under a tree at lambing time.
A ewe and her twins under the trees which provide shelter from both rain and sun.

Pre-lamb shearing

A number of years ago we began pre-lamb shearing. It sounds mean to take the ewes’ woolly coats away in winter, but the sheep quickly adapt and the advantages at lambing time are huge.

Woolly, pregnant ewes are prone to lying down and getting cast, which means they end up stuck on their broad, woolly backs, unable to get up again. If a ewe gets cast after you’ve been through her paddock, she could end up lying there suffering for hours. She might even die.

Sheep can even become cast after giving birth. It is awful to find a cast ewe with a lamb nearby, dead because the mother wasn’t able to get up and lick the mucus away from its nose. Alternatively, a lamb may have a clear nose and get up and wander away from the cast ewe. Because it hasn’t been licked and suckled, the mother-baby bond doesn’t form and they can be difficult to pair up again.

Shorn ewes are far less likely to get cast. They are also less likely to lie down on their little lambs by mistake, and because they, too, feel the cold they are more likely to seek shelter for their lambs in bad weather.

Breeding For Survival

So those are some ways that we manage our sheep for successful and easy-care lambing. But over the past few years, we’ve been actively breeding for success as well.

Our sheep are the old-fashioned Romneys, which many New Zealanders would picture when they think “sheep.” They’re a good, all-rounder — good for meat and wool production — but traditionally they’ve needed a lot of looking after at lambing time.

Ideally, we only want to breed from ewes who have had a trouble-free birth and are good mothers. If we have to help a ewe to give birth, or to feed her lambs because her teats are at an awkward angle, or — worst of all — she takes one look of disgust at her newborn lamb and hightails it off into the distance, we give the ewe a black ear tag so that she is culled (removed from the breeding flock) before the next lambing season.

The Brown Fat Factor

We have also introduced new blood into the flock, with Snowline Rams from Cheddar Valley Station. These sheep are bred to produce hardy lambs with plenty of brown fat under their skin at birth.

Brown fat, also known as “brown adipose tissue”, is what keeps the lamb warm and gives it energy during its first few days of life. It’s especially important in that crucial time between birth and the lamb’s first feed and having plenty of it can make a big difference to a lamb born into cold weather.

Summing It All Up

So those are some of the reasons why we lamb as we do, and why you’ll see the Polaris or the farm truck driving slowly around our paddocks morning and evening during Spring.

Ewe and lambs in front of the lucerne paddock, which is growing one of next winter's feed crop.
The green lucerne paddock is growing next winter’s balage crop. Meanwhile, old straw makes a cosy bed for a well-fed lamb.

We actively work over a long period of time to give our sheep a natural environment and a safe lambing experience. But what is it really like to be out on the lambing beat?

That’s a topic for another day. Look out, in a week or two,  for “Lambing Part 2: A Family Affair.”

Photos courtesy of Jenny and Steph McNamee.

Town and Country — Team Building At Its Best

There’s no doubt that James McNamee is a man of many missions. To us, he’s the mover and shaker behind our farm’s fledgeling hop business. At work, he’s a team leader who inspires loyalty and commitment. In fact, one of James’ biggest strengths lies in team building.

James may have physically left Garston many years ago, but it’s a place still dear to his heart. So it was with some delight — and perhaps trepidation — that in September he let his separate worlds collide. That turned out to be a win for all.

The occasion was the Fulton Hogan Communications Team annual conference; the purpose was Team Building, inclusiveness and open communication and the result was wildly successful — beyond any of our expectations.

Fulton Hogan employees and representatives from partner companies Telstra, Spark, Mobile Mentor and DataCom flew into Queenstown from all parts of Australia and New Zealand. But before the conferencing and presentations they came further south for a “Garston and Beyond” experience that many will never forget.

Day 1: Garston

It’s nearly lambing time on the farm and we had the conveyor in to give the ewes their pre-lamb treatments.  

In days gone by this was a slow and back-breaking job which took ages and stressed sheep and workers alike. But with the advent of conveyor contractors, the ewes get their vaccinations, long-lasting drench and mineral supplements in one morning’s work. The whole thing proved to be fascinating to our visitors.

A birds-eye view of the conveyor crew vaccinating sheep on the farm.
Conveyor crew from the “birds-eye view.”  Conveying is fast and painless for the sheep.

They couldn’t help with injecting the vaccinations etc of course but they loved the birds-eye viewing platform we’d arranged. Some thoroughly enjoyed mucking in and getting their hands (and boots) dirty in the yards, helping to move the sheep up to the conveyor.

Gavin proved particularly handy in the pen. I don’t know if he had worked with sheep before but he seemed to be a bit of a natural. It wasn’t long before he learned just how strong pregnant sheep can be. It’s not easy when a sheep barges back at you, but he soon found the knack to turning them around.

Gavin with a "sheep moving shaker" walking the sheep towards the conveyor.
Gavin earning his morning tea by moving the sheep towards the conveyor. 

Soon it was time for a typical farm “smoko’ — morning tea— and then we moved onto the second task for the day.

Stringing Up The Hop Frames

Hops grow tall — basically as tall as they can get and most of the flowers grow at the upper levels. So when the shoots start to appear in late spring we wind the best ones up 4-metre high strings. These are cut down with the plant at harvest time so fresh strings need to go up each spring.

This was the task James now set his team, and they were delighted to help. It’s a job that takes longer than you’d think and definitely proved a team building winner.

Once they got a system worked out, things flowed smoothly and they got more than half the required strings up. It was so helpful to us — saving us a lot of work at a busy time of year — and I think the team enjoyed knowing that they were doing real farm work instead of a manufactured experience.

Strings along the hop frames.
The hops strings are up. It was such a help for us to have this done and dusted before lambing time.

Walking To Welcome Rock

We wanted to give our visitors a taste of the high country, so who better to call on than Tom O’Brien at Welcome Rock Trails.

There’s nothing like standing on top of a mountain drinking in the views and we were so lucky with the weather. I’ve been up that mountain in many different conditions: howling gales, rain, snow, mist not to mention scorching sun. But on this day there was none of that: the weather gods gave us calm and warm, with a touch of cloud. Perfect!

Walking along the Welcome Rock Trail with beautiful sky view.
A beautiful afternoon to start a trek along the Welcome Rock trail.

Snow To Delight And “Fight”

If I had to sum up the walk in just one phrase it would be snowball fights. While most of the trail was clear and dry, there was just enough snow in the sheltered spots to make it interesting — especially for those who had not seen snow before.

Of course, James threw the first snowball.

After that the air filled with flying snow missiles every time we encountered a new patch. Unfortunately for the team James  managed to evade all their snowballs on the way up, while still landing a few telling blows of his own.

James McNamee, snowball at the ready.

The team got their revenge on the way home. No longer needing James to lead the way, they forged ahead and ambushed him while he was distracted by a phone call.

Walking The Trail To A Welcome Lunch

Even without snow, the 27 km trail is a perfect introduction to the New Zealand high country. Don’t worry: we didn’t make our guests walk quite that far. The 45 minute hike to the actual Welcome Rock gave a taste of adventure and plenty of steps to add to the 10,000-steps-a-day “Steptember Challenge” which many of them were doing.

Team members standing on the outcrop of rock known as the Welcome Rock in Garston.
On Welcome Rock

And just down the track from the rock was the welcome sight of Slate Hut and the smell of food. Laura, from Real Country and Hamish (local friend, farmer and neighbour) were busy barbequing a much-needed feast. It seemed a long time since the morning’s smoko.

Guns And Bows: A New Experience

Retracing our steps past Welcome Rock and down the Nevis Road, the team headed to the Real Country base at Kingston where Laura had organised clay bird shooting and archery.

Clay birds, for the uninitiated, are discs about the size of a CD, which are shot into the air out of a spring-loaded trap. It takes a good bit of coordination to hit a moving target, which makes clay shooting quite a challenge.

I must say, the team proved pretty handy at both activities. There’s nothing like the thrill of aiming at and hitting your target, so it proved to be a fun challenge to end a tiring day.

Ready, aim… archery practice at Laura Douglas’s Real Country” shed.

Day 2: Mavora to Mount Nick

Southland is full of amazing scenery and diversity, but we couldn’t show it all in a day, so we loaded up the four-wheel drives and Laura’s van and headed west towards the back blocks that hold a special place in McNamee hearts.

As the crow flies, the Mavora Lakes and Mount Nicholas Station are really just over the hill. Unfortunately we’re not crows, so we had to take the long way round by road. The clouds were down and drizzle fell often, which made us especially thankful for Sunday’s fine weather.

I haven’t been into the Mavoras (as they’re known locally) for years, but they were just as beautiful as I remembered.

There’s magic in misty lakes and mountains and the lakes were serene and still. They were a lovely place for the “Steptember crowd” to get a few more steps in — but woe betide those who came back late to lunch.

Lake Mavora in the mist.
One of the two Mavora Lakes on that misty, moisty morning.

McNamee Memories

The road to Mount Nicholas is full of memories for the McNamee clan. The gravel track arrows through the back-country that they’ve mustered and sweated — or shivered — in over the many years that the McNamee’s have known the Butsons (station owners.)

As we trundled towards Lake Wakatipu, James memories came flooding out. That long fence-line disappearing into the distance — 3 of his brothers built it back in the ‘70s. There’s the Von Hut nestling under the mountain: we’ve heard many a tale about Fall Musterers and the nights they spent there with the dogs and horses bedded down outside.

Now we remember the story of one brother becoming disoriented in a snowstorm on one particularly difficult muster. He’d have died if his dogs hadn’t cuddled warmly around him. And the one about a teenage James — allowed to tag along one day. He jumped over a creek, didn’t quite make it and ended up with a wet boot. Too scared to mention the problem in case he was sent back, he learned an important lesson instead.

Turns out it’s pretty hard to keep up with an experienced mountain musterer when you’re slipping and sliding inside wet boots.

Team Building beside the Home Creek Hut on Mt Nicholas Station in Southland, NZ
Some of the team at Home Creek on Mt Nicholas Station.

Journey’s End

All too soon, it seemed, our journey had finished. We’d stopped at Home Creek, talked with Bruce, the Mt Nicholas tourism operator, at the enormous woolshed and trundled the road between stations down to the Walter Peak wharf where the team was due to catch the Earnslaw steamship back to Queenstown.

This was goodbye time for the Garston crew. We were driving the trucks back along the track.

It says a lot for the inclusiveness of the conference team that we were sorry to see them go. Tom, Hamish, Laura and I loved meeting and spending time with this diverse bunch of people.

Altitude Brewing

While we were trundling back the way we came, there was one last treat in store for the team. They had been in at the beginning of our hop story — now they were heading to the home of the beer brewed from last year’s hop crop.

Altitude Brewing took all of our green hops last year and made a special brew — Jimmy Mac’s — with them. I”ve heard from those in the know that it’s a pretty good beer.

No doubt the team got to taste it — and some of the others on offer at Altitude’s newly-opened premises down by the lake near Frankton.

Team Building — Know, Like And Trust

Making connections and building understanding and trust is a theme that runs through a number of my posts. After all, people are more likely to be friends… to do business… to connect… with people they know, like and trust.

It’s a lesson that many businesses today are beginning to learn; that collaboration and cooperation, social enterprise and ethical practices work better in the long run. They’re better for our health, our environment, our politics and our world.

It seems to me, after meeting the IT Service team from Fulton Hogan, that this is a group actively building the know, like and trust factor.

I guess this is best expressed by Neville, who wrote:

It has been a real highlight of my year & I am at a bit of a loss to properly express just what a great time I had!  
Meeting the other vendors face to face was very valuable, as was spending time with your team outside of our normal daily work-situation. The time away has reinforced to me just how special those relationships are.

So really, in the end, it’s all about people, how you treat them and the relationships you forge. I’ve taken a few lessons from James’ book over the years I’ve known him, but this is surely one of the best.  

In Garston the team stayed at:

Garston – A Place To Call Home

Overlooking the playground on the Green.

I’ve lived on a farm in Garston for 35+ years so that almost makes me a local. But my husband is truly Garston born and bred. His family were one of the first to settle in the valley when it was opened up to farmers in the 1860’s and the McNamees have been here ever since.

So for our family, the ties to Garston run very deep, and we’d find it pretty difficult to leave.

But what is it that makes this quiet country village so hard to beat?

Cycle Trail with distant mountains, looking north towards Garston.
The “Around the Mountains” cycle trail, heading North to Garston.

The View

Let’s begin with Garston’s location.

The village is set in the narrow Upper Mataura River Valley, and mountains range on either side, as far as the eye can see. Their beauty is different from the craggy splendour of Queenstown’s Remarkables range. Ours are “working” mountains; home to animals — farmed and wild —  rare bugs, mountain plants and above all, the golden tussocks which colour the landscape.

Above the village, hidden terraces slope in layers up to the foot of the mountains, and this is where our house can be found. When I step out of the back door for my daily walk there is not a soul to be seen. It’s just me, the birds and the sheep.

What a way to begin — or end —  a day.

A Tough Start

When Europeans first arrived they farmed the Upper Mataura Valley as one giant sheep station. But later on the area was divided into 200-acre sections and these were balloted out to small farmers and settlers.

And that’s where the modern history in Garston begins. Our family came from the lean pickings of the gold claims in the Skippers Valley to try their luck at farming. Others made money killing rabbits — a lucrative enough trade in those days to enable them to save enough to buy into a farm. Some came from family farms further north or south.

Life was pretty tough in those early days. The valley had very few trees back then and firewood was in short supply. The winters were brutal. There’s a famous tale of one long ago winter when the deep snow lasted for so long that the settlers had to use their carefully-hoarded fence posts for firewood just to survive.

Money was scarce too. The kids walked to school from farms dotted around the countryside whether they had shoes or not. My father-in-law used to say:

“We never minded stepping in a cow pat on the way to school —  at least it warmed our feet up.”

I still don’t know if he was joking or not.

Gold

There’s gold in them thar hills. Or at least there used to be.

Shortly after the settlers arrived gold was discovered in creeks and cracks all around, and life got busy as the gold miners flooded in. They came from all over the world to try their luck, set up camp for a while and livened up the area.

Eventually, the gold became too difficult to find, and the miners drifted away to try their luck elsewhere. They left reminders of their stay, with a little cluster of Chinese miners’ graves in the cemetery, and the great water races which they dug high in the mountains to supply water for the great sluice guns in the Nokomai Valley just beyond Garston.

Loving Reminders

Stone picnic table and seat in Garston.
The memorial picnic area north of the Garston Green.

John Newman

It’s easy to guess that Garston is proud of its history. One of the first things that stands out when you stop is the information booth, which was updated after much collaboration by local historians. And when you start to look around you’ll find caring memorials all over the Garston Green.

North of the shops is the picnic area dedicated to John Newman, a former owner of the Garston Hotel, who planted so many of the trees between Athol and Arrowtown. Take a stroll towards the tree-covered hillside nearby and you’ll find a gorgeous little walk called Newman’s Way which takes you up over the knoll to Garston School.

Newman's Way sign and path at Garston.
One of three entrances to Newman’s Way.

The Vital Rail Link

Further down the Green, you’ll find tributes to the time when the trains ran in Garston because when the railway opened in 1878 it was a huge boon to the area.

In those days before sealed roads, fast cars and huge articulated trucks, trains were the best and fastest way to travel the long distance between the “big smoke” of Invercargill in the South and Kingston — the gateway to Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown — in the North.

Farmers transported stock in and out of the valley by rail right up until the early 1970s.

Close up of a man guiding sheep onto a railway wagon.
Loading sheep onto the train at the Nokomai Siding, 1968.   Photo courtesy of Pam and Peter Naylor.

Even when trucks took over the job, the famous Kingston Flyer steam train ran through Garston as a tourist attraction until 1979, when floods damaged the railway tracks so badly that the whole line closed.


Garston doesn’t forget, though. On the Green, you’ll find tracks, trucks and a display of antique jiggers. There, too, is a loving memorial to Russell Glendinning, a towering figure in local railway lore.

The Russell Glendinning Memorial Seat.
Russell Glendinning was a hugely popular, expert train driver. He drove the Kingston Flyer on her last-ever trip through Garston.

Peter Rabbit’s Village

Peter Rabbit’s House has been a special secret in Garston for a long time now. It’s a bit of a  mystery; who did put out that little clothesline and Peter Rabbit sign next to the rabbit hole? Whoever it was, I hope they know how their whimsy brought smiles, and that gradually other, secret “rabbit paraphernalia” appeared.

Tiny clothesline and outhouse in Peter Rabbit's Garston village.
Some of the original pieces in Peter’s village.

Eventually, someone added a diary, and visitors started leaving Peter little notes.

The House expanded in 2017 when the Garston School children decided that Peter needed company, and made a whole replica gold-mining era village.

No one will tell you whereabouts Peter Rabbit’s Village is in Garston. To this day it’s still a delightful surprise to discover for yourself.

The River

Winding through the valley, the Mataura River is world renowned for its trout. People come from all over the globe to try their luck in the cool, clear waters during the fly-fishing season. Some eat their catch or mount it to sit proudly on a wall.

But others are simply there for the love of the fish and the sport. Those intrepid fishermen are found in the tricky “catch and release” sections of the river. Some of the fish there are huge — and wily — having been caught and released more than once over the years.

My favourite river memories are set in the 1990’s. Baking summer days, at the stony beach under the old railway bridge where all the local mums and kids gathered to cool off.

The children floated down the river on giant old inner-tubes from their dads’ tractors, jumped off the rocks and ate enormous afternoon teas. The bravest of them hung over the rail of the towering bridge above.

“Watch me! Watch me!” they’d yell and then leap down into the deepest pool below.

Stretch Your Legs In Garston…

Nowadays Garston is moving on and looking outwards.

Travellers stream through on their way to the glories of Milford Sound or Queenstown and many of them stop at the Garston Green for a welcome break.

Kids race to recover from their long journeys on the playground. Adults discover the delights of  The Coffee Bomb, Craft Keepers and The Hunny Shop.

…Or Stay A While

But some opt for more than a quick stop.

Fishermen, bikers, hikers and those who just want a slice of rural peace and quiet, can all find a bed at the Garston Hotel or at one of the lovely B&Bs dotted around the district.

There’s no denying that living in the country has its challenges. Farmers tend to work the daylight hours: short in winter, long in summer. And of course, in the spring lambing and autumn harvest seasons, work can continue well after dark.

And almost every trip requires a car: we’re simply too far from everywhere to walk.

But despite that, Garston is a special place to be. Friendships run deep and beauty surrounds us every time we step out the door.

I am lucky to call this little slice of New Zealand home.

Frontage of the Garston Information Booth at the Garston Green.

B&Bs in Garston:

The Red Shed

Southern Venues High Country Farmstay

The Naylor House

Menlove Homestay

Castle Hill Lodge

Anakawa

Meadowbank

P.S.

Eventually, I plan to have many more profiles of the enterprising people who live and work in Garston, Athol, Kingston and beyond.

If you (or someone you know) would like to feature on Time of my Life I’d love to hear from you.

Please contact me through the contact form below or message me through Time of my Life’s Facebook page.

If you live further afield in the South and feel your story would be a good fit for Time of my Life, I’m happy to help. Contact me to arrange a time to connect.

In Defence Of Vanilla

Dried Vanilla Beans on a plate.

Vanilla Doesn’t Deserve Its Bland Image

Last week I listened to a podcast.

It had nothing to do with vanilla — in fact, it was about a blogger who changed her rather bland writing into a vivid and personable style, thus attracting more readers.

But afterwards, the host commented that the writer’s former style was a bit vanilla.”

And I thought:

“Whoa! How did vanilla get such a bad rap?

Why do we describe things that are bland or boring as “vanilla’?

Because let me tell you, I’ve been finding out about vanilla lately and there’s NOTHING bland and boring about the world’s second-most expensive spice.

Difficult To Grow

For a start, it is an amazingly tricky crop to grow. It originally came from Mexico, where in the wild it will grow from seed. But that is a hit-and-miss affair so farmers grow the vine from a cutting.

Vanilla comes from the orchid family and has a difficult-to-pollinate flower that, it turns out, is pollinated in the wild by hummingbirds and the Mexican Melipona bee. Actually, even this fact is more of a theory. To be honest no one seems to know for sure exactly what insect pollinates the plant. To add to that, each flower only lives for one day and is fertile for just 8-12 hours of that time. So, whatever insect does the job, it has to be really on the ball.

But in other vanilla-farming countries — spread through tropical parts of Asia, Africa and the Pacific — the only way to pollinate is by hand.

Fortunately, the flowers are hermaphrodites (male and female)  so each flower can fertilize itself. Unfortunately, there’s a delicate membrane between the anther (male, pollen-producing part) and stigma (female, germinating part).

So you have to insert a small, sharp stick into the flower, lift the membrane, then rub the anther and stigma together without damaging any of the delicate flower parts. It’s a very labour intensive process.

So Much Time And Work

Nine months later the long, thin pods are fully grown and the tips begin to turn yellow. This is the sign they are ready for harvesting. Farmers now have to move fast. Once picked, the crop will deteriorate and go mouldy very quickly.

The freshly harvested green pods have nothing of the flavour and aroma we associate with vanilla. That comes a whole year later after the pods have been “killed”, sweated, dried and conditioned.

Most farmers don’t have the resources to process their own crop, so they sell to middlemen who supply the raw vanilla to big processing factories.

Farming Can Be Dangerous

Madagascar is the world’s leading producer of vanilla. It’s a big business there and that brings some dangerous problems.

All of a sudden it seems that the world can’t get enough of the stuff and that demand, coupled with short supply caused by cyclone damage to the crops, is causing some real headaches.

Theft is a major issue.

Vanilla thieves can strike in the middle of the night and decimate a farmer’s entire yearly income. So the farmers of Madagascar have taken to patrolling their ripening crops for up to 3 months of the year in a bid to protect them. It’s a dangerous job and people have been killed in the process.

Expensive Environmental Problem

But even worse, in my opinion, is the environmental damage that’s occurring as more of Madagascar’s precious and irreplaceable rainforest is cleared to make way for more vanilla farms.

It’s hard to blame the farmers. People have to feed their families, but where does it end? This is only one in a long line of lucrative crops that have motivated people to decimate the world’s vital landscapes.

We are all paying the price for that.

Vanilla Closer To Home 

In New Zealand, we are lucky enough to have access to sustainably grown vanilla sourced much closer to home. In fact, several South Pacific countries are now growing the precious plant. These are lead by Tonga, which started growing the crop in 2001 after a devastating cyclone wiped out many local businesses and infrastructure.

Heilala Vanilla began as a partnership between a kiwi family who wanted to help Tonga get back on its feet and a local farming family in Utungake. They produced their first, small harvest in 2005. Now they are not only providing employment and stability in Tonga but they are also mentoring groups in Samoa, Fiji and the Cook Islands to do the same.

After all this, you might be wondering how we actually use vanilla. Why is it worth going to all this trouble for?  

Some Uses

Vanilla is primarily used in cooking as a flavouring. The Aztecs used it in conjunction with cacao to produce a rich, chocolaty drink, and this was how it was first used when it came to Europe and England.

Many recipes, both sweet and savoury,  call for vanilla. In some it’s the hero — have you ever tried real vanilla ice cream? In other dishes, it complements and enhances all the other flavours, so that without it the meal falls a little flat.

My Recipes has some interesting dishes on their website.

It’s also an essential ingredient in some perfumes, cola drinks, and lends its aroma to candles, cigars, liqueurs… Turns out the world has many uses for the precious vanilla pod (or bean as it’s sometimes known.)

Vanilla and ice cream served with raspberries.

Not All Vanilla Is The Real Deal

Now I bet you’ve had vanilla ice cream many times in your life. You know, those favourite Kiwi brands like TipTop, Deep South, Pams … they all have it.

“Plain ice cream” we called it when I was a kid, and we ate it with hot puddings or fruit desserts.

Oh-oh. It turns out that “plain ice cream” is an excellent description for those —  and other cheap ice cream brands — because there is not actually a skerrick of real vanilla to be found in any of them.

In fact, I’m willing to bet that any cheap vanilla product you buy contains imitation vanilla, which is made synthetically and comes a far distant second in flavour and aroma in comparison to the real thing.

Real Vanilla Is Expensive

If you want real vanilla, be prepared to pay for it. Premium ice cream brands — yes, the ones I checked use actual vanilla beans.

Vanilla Essence — if it’s cheap, it’s imitation. Look for the words “real vanilla”, “seeds” and “alcohol” on the label if you want to buy genuine vanilla.

Vanilla paste is another alternative and I’ve noticed that many of my healthier baking recipes call for that. Some recipes use actual vanilla beans and seeds. Now that I know so much more, I might even try that too.

For now, I’ll stick to the essence though. It still costs me a small fortune each time I buy a new bottle, but after discovering just some of the amazing story behind vanilla, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

P.S. — There’s No Vanilla Farming In Garston

After learning so much about the trials, tribulations and joys of vanilla farming, I’m slightly relieved that our grain crops and are somewhat easier, and certainly less dangerous to grow.

Our hops are less labour-intensive to harvest and process, and I still have time to gather the wild foods that grow around our farm.

Thanks to all the hard-working farmers who feed the world.

Sources for this article include:

factsanddetails.com

Fighting the Vanilla Thieves

Wikipedia

And the podcast comment that triggered this post came from one of my favourite podcasters Darren Rowse over at ProBlogger