Oh! Those Gum Trees On The Farm

Gum trees tower over the house.

Blue gums line the gravel road that winds past our dusty little farmhouse. Look out to the west. Once you could see for miles, but not any more. Now your gaze stops at the towering gums.

Why are they still there, blocking my view?

Eucalyptus trees, as blue gums are more properly called, are a hardy bunch with more than a few annoying features.

You couldn’t call them pretty trees. Their bark peels like last week’s sunburnt skin littering the lawn with long brown stripes. Branches sprout every which way and their dull green leaves hang limply from every twig.

Strips of eucalyptus bark litter the ground.
Imagine clearing this off the lawn every time you need to mow the grass.

They’re supposed to be evergreen, which in blue gum terms means they shed their leaves all year round. No brilliant yellow, orange and red displays outside my house, just green and brown leaves wafting down in every breeze.

And yet, these Aussie imports are fascinating trees.

So Many Eucalyptus Trees Around The World

You can find gum trees in many corners of the world. Perhaps that makes them Australia’s biggest export? Altogether there are more than 700 species, with just fifteen of them not native to Australia.

We tend to lump them altogether simply as “gums” but the reason they’re found in so many different countries is that there’s a eucalyptus tree for almost every climate. You’ll find them in the tropics, in the deserts and in swamps. Look around Australia and they’re sticking up on the coast — and the mountains. Many gums wilt at the first sign of a frost  — others are partial to a cold winter. The trick is to find the right one for you.

Eucalypts In New Zealand

In the late 1800s early New Zealanders had a love affair with eucalyptus trees and planted them in their thousands. From Kaitaia to Bluff farmers and plantation owners invested in gum tree forests for their future timber potential. Unfortunately, they didn’t properly research the correct varieties — and they seem to have ignored the few experts who did — so many trees wilted in unsuitable conditions. To add to the confusion, the same common name was used for different eucalyptus trees in different states which didn’t help planters over here.

The New Zealand National Geographic Magazine perfectly describes the problem.

Furthermore, some difficulties were not of the foresters’ making. Harry Bunn, a retired director of the Forest Research Institute and a eucalypt sympathiser, says: “In Australia, the name of a species in one state was often different from its name in another. Some of our foresters wanted to order seed of the E. regnans that grew in Tasmania, where it was called swamp gum, so they ordered swamp gum seeds. Unfortunately, in those days most of the seed came from Woy Woy, in New South Wales, and their swamp gum is E. ovata. It was duly collected from the worst site possible, delivered to New Zealand and planted on all the state plantations, including in the hills behind Whakarewarewa and at Puhipuhi. Of course, it was a dismal failure. After that, we started using Latin species names.”

https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/eucalypts-trees-of-the-future/

Properly grown, and in the right conditions, gum trees do have beautiful timber. But that’s not why we have gums on our farm.

Tommy Planted So Many Trees

My father-in-law loved planting trees on his farm. Douglas Firs seem to have been his favourite, judging by all the tree lanes lining our paddocks. But every now and then he planted pockets of gums thanks to his friend and advisor Graham Mulligan. He ran a well known tree nursery in Winton, and was an expert in growing eucalypts.

50+ years ago Tommy planted the gum trees that line the road beside our house. They were only a few metres tall and still spindly when we transported our house to shelter behind them.

Take The Good With The Bad

I didn’t know — and Terry didn’t care — that their roots would suck the goodness from the ground all around, And those pesky leaves create a mulch through which very little will grow. That’s my excuse for not having a decent front garden.

In autumn, winter and spring,  their tall shadows slide over the house, blocking out the precious sunlight far too soon. On the westward side of the row, it’s bright and breezy. Behind, in our garden, it’s cold and grey.

But…

When the wind is howling along the road, stirring up a choking cloud of dust, there’s not a speck on our side of the trees. And, during summer’s scorching heat that early shade is a welcome relief.

So many storms have beaten against those trees and they’ve withstood every one. No windows have been broken, no trampolines tossed, no rubbish bins rolled: the trees are our protection and shelter.  

Tommy chose our gum trees well. We don’t know what variety they are, but they’ve withstood every drought and snowstorm the years have thrown their way.

Gum trees are shallow rooted, which means that they tend to topple in stressful situations. But the ones beside our house show no signs of falling. We keep the weight off them by chopping branches off them every couple of years when the mobile hedge trimmer visits the valley.

More Reasons To Love The Gums

Those branches make fantastic firewood. Terry cuts them up with a chainsaw and splits the bigger logs while they’re fresh because once the wood dries out it becomes hard as nails. It burns for hours and I love to use it in winter. Blue gum is the perfect wood for banking the wood burner overnight.

In spring, our gum trees sprout delicate white flowers and the bees love them. Their pollen is full of protein and the nectar is just what they need to kick off honey production for the season.

The birds love them too. Each morning they ring out the dawn chorus from every branch. Native korimako (bellbirds) and piwakawaka (fantails) come to feast on the nectar and the flies that constantly hang around the trees. In fact, those trees act as a giant fly-screen for our house — another blessing to be grateful for.

Yes, annoying as their leaves, bark and shade can be, we’ll leave our gum trees where they stand. We’re grateful for their shelter and to Tommy, who planted them so long ago.

Huge gum tree by the fence.
This must be one gum tree that doesn’t mind having wet feet.

Here’s to the gum trees — long may they stand.

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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

Babies Are A Treasure On The Farm

You can read about more of the cute babies that we’re blessed with on the farm in:

Puppies On The Farm AND Muscovy Ducks On The Farm

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 “Lambing Part 2: A Family Affair.”

Photos courtesy of Jenny and Steph McNamee.

Town and Country — Team Building At Its Best

The team among tussocks and rocks at Welcome Rock.

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:


Is This Your First Visit To Time Of My Life?

Discover the Who, What and Why of TOML.

Check out my home page here and my behind the scenes story here.

Precious Pears

There are only 10 minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat. Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Harvest season is upon us here on the farm.

While my farming men are busy bringing in the grain, my own focus is on the bounty given to me by nature and the foresight of our pioneer ancestors.

This week the pears are ready to pick and preserve.

Bounty from the past.

When pioneering families settled their farms here in Garston 120 years ago, the land was devoid of trees. Grass, tussock and rocks were the main features of the narrow, river valley they would come to call home. Mountains lining both sides of the valley kept it freezing in winter and scorching in summer. Food was scarce and largely home-grown. The top priority was establishing a large vegetable garden beside a small, rough farmhouse. And next on the list was always planting the orchard.

For many years orchards, both small and large, were lovingly tended up and down the valley, but with the advent of sealed roads, speedy cars and modern supermarkets, the orchards have become overgrown and neglected in modern times. All the same, the sturdiest trees persist and each autumn they dot the valley with fragrant fruit for us to pick and be thankful for.

Harvest in the present.

So it is, that this week I’m harvesting the pears. It’s not as easy as you might think.

Sometimes the season is poor and there is scarcely a fruit to be seen, but this year there’s an abundance of pears on every tree. There are also birds, who can savour the best fruit on the highest branches which are impossible for me to reach. Not content with their share, however, they like to invade my territory on the branches below as well. They don’t eat the whole fruit: oh no! They would rather sample, leave a small hole, and move on to try the pear next door as well.

And then, we have the wind. Autumn can be a windy season around here, and this year is no exception. Many of the pears end up on the ground before they are ripe. These windfalls are often the ones I collect. They are easy to reach, and being still quite firm, have not taken any harm from their fall. However, danger lurks below. There’s a wasp nest somewhere around the orchard and the wasps begin feasting long before I arrive. They go for the half-rotten fruit, preferably already holed by the birds. So I tread very carefully under the trees, and restrict my haul to the unripe pears, preferably well away from the busy wasps.

The windfall pears are poles apart from Emerson’s perfect 10 minutes, and unfortunately, they are most unlikely to reach that happy state. For years, no matter how carefully I stored them or what ripening tricks I tried, many pears ended up going bad before they’re ripe enough to eat.

But I’m ever hopeful and this year I’m trying a new trick. I read some helpful pear hints in “This NZ Life” and they shed some light on my past pear problems.

Apparently, pears ripen from the inside out, so that even if a pear feels rock hard on the outside it may well be ripening on the inside.  So the best thing to do is to chill the pears as soon as you pick them, then bring out a few to finish ripening as you need them.

Pears and bananas in a paper bag to ripen
Apparently bananas and apples emit ethylene which will help to ripen, or at least soften the fruit.

Pears are a-cooking for the future.

Fortunately, if these new ripening ideas still don’t work, cooking will save the day. Poaching the pears in a sweet and delicious liquid will add flavour and soften the unripe fruit. I don’t have the time, skills (or quite frankly the inclination) to spend hours this week preserving multiple jars of fruit. I’ve tried it before and failed miserably every time.  So now I pick a little every day, and while the evening meal is cooking it’s often joined by a pot of pears bubbling gently on the stove. To preserve them, I’ll simply portion the cold pears into containers with the syrup and freeze.

Soft pears are cooked in a matter of minutes. I don’t trust these to the cooktop: they go into the microwave, with a little maple syrup, a knob of butter, cinnamon, vanilla essence and lemon juice for just a few minutes. They form their own delicious juice and taste exquisite. I’ve just finished cooking up the latest batch that did manage to ripen successfully.  I can’t wait to serve them up for dessert tonight.

But most pears will not be so ripe, so here’s how I’ll treat the main crop of windfall pears.

Pears poaching in a pot.
Pears in their sweet poaching liquid.

Simple Sweet’n’Spicy Poached Pears

8-12 firm pears            4-5 tbsp brown sugar or coconut sugar                

1-2 tsp ground cinnamon            1 lemon

Water                                                     Raisins or sultanas (optional)

What to do:

    1. Cut the pears into quarters, discarding core and stem. There is no need to peel.
    1. Put them into a deep saucepan on the stove (cooktop).
    1. Finely grate the lemon rind.
    1. Juice the lemon. (Use a lemon juicer to get as much as possible.)
    1. Add these to the pot.
    1. Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon into the pot and add water until the pears are almost covered.
    1. Cover and bring to the boil.
    1. Simmer gently until the pears are soft but not falling apart. This could take 20 – 30 minutes, or even longer depending on the size of the pieces and the temperature of the cooking liquid. Slow is best.
  1. Once cooked, add a handful of raisins or sultanas if desired. Leave everything to cool in the pot. The pears will increase in sweetness and the dried fruit will plump up and add more flavour.

To serve:

I love these pears with maple-walnut ice cream. The walnut flavour goes so well with pears, but really any ice cream would be nice. Sometimes I add an extra topping of chopped, toasted walnuts. Cover the pears and ice cream with spoonfuls of the hot cooking syrup.

To download this recipe as a PDF click the link below.

Simple Sweet’n’Spicy Poached Pears PDF

There’s something deeply satisfying about eating food you’ve gathered and cooked yourself. It hearkens back to our hunter-gatherer roots perhaps? Or maybe nostalgically to what we think of as a simpler time.

Your Turn To Talk

Are you a forager who enjoys finding food in the wild?

Or are you, like me, lucky enough to have an orchard nearby, or random trees growing in the backyard? 

Maybe you have hints or recipes to share.

Let’s start a fruitful conversation in the comments.

Harvesting Stories Abound On The Blog

Mushrooms Galore.

Walnut Trees On The Farm

The Old Apple Tree

Hops In A Hurry

Gathering In The Grain

Mushrooms Galore

Field mushrooms in basket

Hooray! It’s Mushroom Season Again

2018 is a bumper year for mushrooms on the farm. Every morning for a fortnight or more there have been fairy circles in every paddock.

It doesn’t happen every year. Last year — and the two before that — mushrooms were a scarce commodity in Garston. The weather was too cold … too dry … too something else.

But not this year. A hot, dry January followed by cool mornings and rain in February equals perfect mushroom conditions.

There’s no telling where they’ll spring up. The ground gives no hint. In the evening the paddock looks as it always does; nothing but green grass as far as the eye can see.  Next morning it’s dotted with white caps.

Field mushrooms are not like the fungi you buy in the supermarket. Those have been raised on mushroom farms, packaged and cooled. They are firm and last for days in the fridge.

These mushrooms are far too delicate for that. We pick them fresh, the same morning they appear. By evening they’ll be drying out. Tomorrow will be too late.

Storing Field Mushrooms

There’s no point in trying to keep these mushrooms in the fridge for long. A day or two is the most you can hope for.

Our forebears dried them, but I like to cook the mushrooms in butter and wine then freeze them in cute little pottles. Then it’s easy to slip their tasty goodness into winter soups and casseroles.

In the Kitchen

But the best way to eat mushrooms is straight from the paddock.  We love mushroom omelettes and mushroom sauce with a juicy steak. Yum!

But my favourite meal is mushroom risotto.

And over the years I’ve managed to perfect a slightly unconventional method for cooking a crowd-pleasing risotto.

I don’t claim to be a chef but honestly, I can’t follow a recipe to save my life. I’m far more likely to check out the basics and tweak the rest depending on the ingredients I have on hand.

And just to complicate matters, “deconstructed” is my go-to style.

When you’re raising four children, each of whom dislikes a different commonly-used ingredient, the only thing to do is give lots of choices.

Between them, my kids hated onions, cooked tomatoes, pineapples and mushrooms. As a result, I tend to cook things separately and let people help themselves to whatever they like best.

So here’s the risotto I made today, with mushrooms and love.

PLEASE NOTE: Some wild mushrooms are very poisonous. You should never pick or eat mushrooms unless you have positively identified them as edible.

2 bowls of mushroom risotto
Not-quite-traditional mushroom risotto – a deconstructed way to give everyone the flavours they prefer.

Lyn’s Not-Quite-Traditional Mushroom Risotto

1 cup uncooked arborio rice 

2-3 cups chopped mushrooms

2-3 cups chicken stock           

 ½ – 1 cup white wine

2 onions, finely chopped 

1-2 tsp crushed garlic

1-2 courgettes, chopped 

4 rashers bacon, chopped

Garlic salt to taste Pepper to taste

2-3 tbsp olive oil + butter

1-2 handfuls of grated parmesan or tasty cheddar cheese. The parmesan has more bite; the tasty adds to the creamy texture.

The 3 Secrets To Creating A Great Risotto

  • Use the correct rice: Arborio is the best.  
  • Add the liquid hot, and in small amounts, allowing the rice to absorb each cupful before adding the next.
  • Taste and use your own judgement as to the exact amount of liquid needed. The heat of the cooking surface and the exact amount of rice you used will determine how long to cook and how much liquid is needed. This particular batch took 25 minutes to cook.

What to do:

Step #1: Prepare your onions.

Melt the oil and butter in a large, deep pan. Add the onions and garlic and cook gently until they are soft and tender.

Step #2: While that’s cooking, chop mushrooms, measure rice and heat the first ½ cup of stock and wine combined.

Stir the rice into the cooked onion until each grain is coated in oil/butter and is well heated through.

Add the hot stock and stir gently. Cover and simmer.

Step #3: Begin to fry the mushrooms quickly in a separate pan.                        

 Field mushrooms can leak far more water than supermarket ones, so it is difficult to prevent them from stewing. I tip out the liquid periodically. Set aside in a separate bowl when cooked.

Step #4: While the rice is simmering and the mushrooms frying, heat the second half cup of water+wine. Chop the bacon and courgette.

Continue to add half cups of hot liquid until the rice tastes cooked to you. Don’t let it dry out: risotto is quite a creamy dish. The rice should be soft but not gluggy. Add pepper and salt to taste.

Step #5: When the rice is nearly ready, fry the chopped courgette and bacon in the same pan you used for the mushrooms.

Reheat the mushrooms if necessary.

At the last minute, stir grated cheese through the rice.

To serve:

Ladle spoonfuls of rice into 3 or 4 bowls. Top with the courgette and bacon mixture and, of course, the mushrooms.

Enjoy!

To download a PDF of this recipe, click the link below.

Lyn’s Not-Quite_Traditional Mushroom Risotto

Do you have a favourite mushroom recipe to share? Or maybe an experience of picking mushrooms in the country. 

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

More From Autumn Harvest On The Farm

The Old Apple Tree

Precious Pears

Hops in a Hurry

Gathering In The Grain

More Farm Recipes On The Blog

10 Tips For Success With A Bread Maker

How To Make Perfect Cheese Scones

Choco-Banana Ice Dream  (how to make a healthy ice-cream in minutes.)