Suburbia to Farm - how farm life has changed us
The recent extreme weather has made us think about our lives as growers, how we've gotten to where we are and who we are now.
We had been living on Waiheke Island for 17 years when Daryn said “Lets shift off the island. I’m tired of commuting and not seeing you guys and we’ve dreamed of having our own business for a long time”. I’ll be honest, my heart sank. I hate change. I don’t like being out of my comfort zone. Our little boys and I had a nice life, playing on the beach, being near my family. But we did miss Daryn - he was away long days due to the extra hours it took commuting. He travelled overseas frequently for his job and was away weeks at a time. Ok, I thought, one step at a time, we can just start researching and it might not happen for a while.
We didn’t think seriously about how we would earn a living in our new life, but liked the idea of producing some kind of food product. Auckland had a lot of people who could be our customers and Daryn needed to keep his current job until we got the new venture started. So we decided to stay roughly an hour of Auckland.
We headed over to Auckland one Saturday morning to look at rural properties, all on the Kaipara side of North Auckland. I was still feeling apprehensive about the prospect of moving. As we stepped off the ferry I bumped into an elderly man and said “oh, I’m sorry”. He smiled kindly and said “don’t be sorry, just be happy”. Lucky I had my sunglasses on because I cried all the way to our town car parked on the nearby wharf. The man’s words felt like some fatherly advice, telling me to bravely look forward to new our adventure.
We settled on a 48 acre farm near Wellsford. The original part of the house had been there since early settlers had built it, big old trees planted through the years gave the small farm character and it was next to a tidal inlet from the Kaipara Harbour. Our youngest son started at the tiny local school and our oldest son the college a half hour drive away. Both boys loved their new schools and soon made friends.
We had decided to buy cattle to graze the paddocks. We had been at the farm for about a week when Daryn came back from the saleyards with 40 sheep. “Just to tidy the paddocks up a bit”, he said. The next day he went overseas on a work trip. I dropped the boys off to school and came back to find a dead sheep. It took me all day to dig that hole, wrap the sheep in an old sheet and tow it to the hole with our car. I still think it was a clever plan - towing the sheep into the hole, the car wheels straddled the hole and the wrapped up sheep dropped neatly into the hole. I had never touched something dead before, so it was a big deal for me, I feel embarrassed now, remembering that the next day at school I was telling a proper sheep farmer about it. He said “you know you can always call and we’ll come to help if anything like that happens”. I said I needed to start out like I was going to carry on - I couldn’t ring them every time something happened when Daryn was away. We sold the sheep and got cattle. Cattle are great.
That first summer it was exciting when we got the first hay cut from our flat paddocks across the road. The boys and dog had a great time jumping up and over the bales, the paddocks looked nice and tidy when cut - and it was good to sell the bales and make some money. In the beginning it was also a way to meet locals who came to buy the hay, one of those first locals we met still calls in to buy veges and have a yarn about goats and life.
Earning a living from the farm has been a development over 9 years, but finally the farm supports us completely. We are now full-time market gardeners, growing, harvesting, packing, marketing and selling our veges. It’s been years of learning, exhausting at times, but very rewarding. I’ll tell you something, it’s been good for our brains to be learning so many new things. We hadn’t market gardened before, so it’s been a steep learning curve. If a crop fails, it’s many hours of work and plant-growing time that’s gone. We had part-time jobs to supplement the farm income the first 6 years, but we found that the farm didn’t work as a business until we got brave and threw all our energy into it. I have immense admiration for Daryn, who, knowing nothing about hydroponic growing, researched, built and led us to grow the most wonderful lettuces and herbs using the system. Although we have in-ground garden beds also, it is the hydroponic garden that keeps our income consistent year round. It’s been a wonderful lesson for our boys to see us start a small business from scratch, face and over-come challenges. They’ve seen that when the going gets tough, if you work hard enough, you can make it.
We had dreamed of changing our life, but hadn’t thought about how it would change us and how much we would learn.
Daryn and I learning to work as a team hasn’t been easy ... but I have to say we’re become pretty good at it. We think differently and tackle jobs differently. But at some stage I think we realised that being different was actually a good thing and makes our business stronger. We’ve both compromised a bit which has helped. We would never have spent so much time together in our old life, and I’m certain we wouldn’t know each other as well as we do now. We feel good that we are in control of our own destiny - we aren’t reliant on anyone else for our income like we were in our past.
People often say rural communities are tight knit. We’ve found our locals friendly, helpful and generous with their time, but don’t socialise in the same ways we were used to in our old life, like going out to restaurants for dinner or meeting up for a walk. Catch ups are often outside the local 4 square or rural supplies stores. We also found another new community in our customers, people who buy our veges at the market, or pickup their orders from the farm and stay for a yarn about the weather, livestock pricing, trading eggs for lettuces or an extra big hug because your dog died. We even had local customers turn up in a big storm because they were worried about the coriander and lettuces (their favourites!). Yet another community is our fellow small producers at the farmers markets. We are all small business people, proudly producing, working hard, sometimes struggling but loving what we do. Once we sell out at the Saturday market, there is time to catchup with stallholders, sharing news of what’s happening on their farms or how business is.
There are practical things we didn’t have to think about in suburbia. One night we woke to a big thump under our bed. it turned out to be a possum that came down an unused chimney! And other things like thousands of mitres of farm fencing, a very large lawn to mow, pests to trap, livestock to look after, big trees that fall down, farm troughs and dams to check, farm races and a long driveway to maintain. All of these things take time and money to keep up with, but the reward is living in a beautiful and healthy place, having loads of privacy, being proud of helping to keep pest numbers down, entertainment provided by livestock, free firewood ...
How has life changed for our boys? Being stuck out in the country makes it hard to hang out with friends on a whim. They missed out on Saturday sport ... they were helping us at the farmers markets. That was back when we worked six and a half days a week, doing two farmers markets every weekend. The boys have been a really great help to us. We actually couldn’t have done it without them. Sometimes it’s been paid work ... but sometimes it hasn’t, when we were really struggling to make ends meet. We know them better and they know us better from working side by side with us, in the garden, in the packing room and at the market. They wouldn’t have been able to come with us to our previous life’s work. They’ve watched and supported us do things we had never done before.
Nature is a huge part of our new lives. We are totally immersed (most of the time literally) in the weather. It dictates how much our crops grow, what we grow and when, what our schedule is, whether we can sleep easy or not, even how much money we make. We have learned so much about mother nature here on the farm. In reward we are fitter and stronger for working in the garden, get lots of fresh air and vitamin D, eat lots of fresh really good veges, and earn our living. We like the idea that we might never really retire, staying fit and strong working in our (down sized by then) garden. We heard someone say their farming life was a lifestyle, not a job. And that you don't retire from a lifestyle.
We miss parts of our old life - living closer to friends and family, swims at the beach, eating out more, living in a comfortable new house (our farm house is very old), having more disposable income, and - a big one - having holidays ... but that’s about it.
What if we’d never come here to this new life? We wouldn’t be who we are now. We wouldn’t know how capable we are, and that we could be good at growing and selling veges. It’s been a humbling experience to live so modestly. It’s made us braver - we love what we’re doing for now, but we wouldn’t be scared to try something else in the future. Living here has made us question what really is important. Maybe money and flash things aren’t as important as we once thought.