When you start getting emails from people you've never met, asking why you haven't updated your blog in ages, it's time to pull finger and write something.
I didn't realise anyone outside of our immediate circle of friends actually visits this site, so it was nice to know there are others enjoying our misadventures.
I've felt bad knowing we haven't posted anything since April. It simply boils down to being too damn busy. However, with a new year comes a new resolve and we'll try to be a bit more consistent in 2016.
In the meantime, here's a distillation of the last nine months, utilising that wonderful Japanese poetic form, the haiku. And some pretty pictures. Enjoy.
Posted by Farmer Nik
Another one done
So bring on the hangovers
And Happy New Year!
Wow . . . two months since the last update. Just confirms what I already knew: we have been busy!
Muntanui is exploding with life at the moment -- baby animals, rampant weeds and the beginnings of what looks like a bumper season of produce. Our trees have been laden with more blossom than we'd ever seen before, we desperately need to cut hay before everything bolts to seed and my vege garden's assuming triffid-like proportions. The mild winter and very wet spring seem to have triggered a massive mast (flowering en masse) in the surrounding beech forest. Our hills are tinged with gold and red -- a palette you'd normally associate more with a New England autumn than an alpine Kiwi spring.
It's an incredible time of year.
If there's one thing we managed to nail properly this year, it was lambing. Waiting until May to let Spidey in with the girls was the best thing we could've done. We had a higher pregnancy rate, more lambs born and the mortality rate was halved. The weather, although very wet, was a great deal warmer than it was last year and we used a paddock with plenty of shelter as the nursery.
We had a no-interference-unless-absolutely-necessary policy this year. It paid off -- no ewes rejected their young'uns, And, to top it all off, Farmer Wan became a dad, delivering two lambs all by his big, soft-hearted self.
If you'd like more of a blow-by-blow account of this year's lambing, including numbers and stats, check out our 2013 Lambing Diary.
We remain committed to converting Muntanui to biodynamics, so on Sunday 17 November we stirred and sprayed our second lot of Preparation 500. We distributed it over a paddock we're re-vegetating (more on that in the next post), with some left over for the orchard.
This time, we managed to get through the entire process without arguing, so we're counting that as a win.
It's way too early yet to know how successful our biodynamic practices are, especially when the conditions generally have been so ideal for rampant growth. The grass in the orchard is the lushest it's ever been and while it's true that we sprayed Prep 500 over it in autumn, it also got the benefit of drift from all the soil amendments we spread back in June. So it remains to be seen but we're very happy to persevere with the process for the foreseeable future.
The vege garden is totally full of plants for the first time since we arrived here and I'm feeling smug about that. Planting it all out was set back by a month because October rained solidly and I couldn't work the saturated soil without risking damage to it. We won't have our own tomatoes for Christmas, but we should have them by late January, which is better than this year, when we didn't get them until May.
The warmer weather means we've had our first wave of visitors and they've willingly donned gloves to help us out, for which we're very grateful. Big thanks to Kim and Jan, who cheerfully assisted with everything from tailing and rubber-ringing the ram lambs to weeding my woefully overgrown knot garden. Thanks also to Big Lil, weeder extraordinaire and best mate of St Anthony, the patron saint of lost things. I'm still not sure how much he had to do with Farmer Wan's sunglasses turning up again but hey, we're very grateful nonetheless.
Last, but not least, this:
Posted by Farmer Nik
Muntanui and some of its residents have been experiencing a noticeable growth spurt over the last three months. Take young Flora McFauna, for instance: nine months old and looking like a proper wee heifer.
Although they're not very apparent from the image above, her horns have started growing, too:
Yours Truly also seems to be experiencing a growth spurt, if all those suddenly teeny-tiny clothes hanging uselessly in the wardrobe are anything to go by. This isn't anything to celebrate and will be dealt with over the next three months, once the weather warms up a little and I don't need quite so much chocolate.
There'll be more on the subject of growth spurts soon. Right now, though, it's snowing and the whole house is shaking with the force of the gales we're getting. I've lit the fire. Farmer Wan has moved the cattle. Time to hunker down with a good book -- that's what lazy, cosy, winter Sundays are for, right?
Posted by Farmer Nik
The great thing about organising your life around the farming calendar is that you're given plenty of time to cultivate a creeping sense of dread: Lambing's in September! OMG! Only five months to go! Or: It's April and nothing's growing in the garden except misshapen Brussels sprouts and spindly leeks! We'll be dead by October! So when we learned last year that all cattle have to be tested annually for tuberculosis, we had a good twelve months to work ourselves into a real lather at the prospect.
As testing time drew nearer, a farmer friend warned us that the local TB testing guy didn't like "lifestylers" because they "don't have a clue".
Forewarned is forearmed, as they say. We were determined to win the TB testing guy's respect. After all, we had yards! Our cattle would be docile and sweet. The job would be completed in under ten minutes. The tester would rub his grizzled head, cock an eyebrow and grunt his appreciation. We'd smile humbly and shake his hand.
The day before the test, we had a practice session. It was a complete success -- took a mere hour and a half to get all six beasts into the yard and through the crush -- and they only charged through the temporary electric fencing once. No worries!***
When the TB testing guy arrived, he announced, "I bloody hate Highland cattle." Things kind of went downhill from there. Our animals, wary of the stranger, were anything but docile. They point-blank refused to enter the yards. Farmer Wan and I chased them around the paddock, flailing our arms helplessly. When we did finally get them yarded, Hamish the bull was stroppy and Bonnie, our huge alpha-female, bullied the others away from the crush. Then our young heifer burst through the head bail and ran off. At least the rest were tested.
"I'll be back in three days," said the TB testing guy. "Try to have the bull in the crush and the rest yarded by the time I arrive."
Hamish = good. The rest = steak soon if they don't watch it.
We knew we'd be okay the second time because we had reinforcements in the shape of my brother, Ciaran. Forty-five minutes before the tester was due, the three of us went out into the paddock, brandishing our polypipe waddys. We meant business.
Hamish was feeling cooperative. We got him into the crush with very little trouble. Yay! This was going to be a doddle!
Three-quarters of an hour later, the TB testing guy watched from his car as we tried -- and failed -- for the fourth time to get the other cattle into the yard. He ambled up the track towards us, just as they burst through the temporary electric fencing yet again and charged off into the back paddock through a gate that had somehow been left open. Farmer Wan threw down his waddy and swore loudly.
The TB testing guy rolled his eyes and something in me snapped. I was going to get those damned animals yarded, even if it took the rest of the afternoon. While Ciaran kept the tester distracted with casual conversation, I chased them up the hill to the track, waving my waddy and yelling at the top of my lungs. They started trotting in the right direction, more from exhaustion than my efforts, I think.
Just as they were about to break out and charge back down the hill, Farmer Wan appeared and drove them from the other side. Ten minutes later, it was all over. Done. Dusted. Finis. I couldn't believe it.
"If I were you, I'd knock the big cow on the head. That dippy heifer too," said the TB testing guy as we walked him back to his car. "You're lucky I don't charge by the hour."
He half-smiled, though, and I thought I saw the teeniest glimmer of something in his eyes. Not respect, but some kind of acknowledgment.
So now we have a whole year in which to dread the next round of TB testing. If we do nothing else in those 12 months, it's clear we'll have to get our cattle more used to being yarded. We'll have to round 'em up and keep them doggies rollin', regularly. And that, my friends, is why it's perfectly obvious that I need a stock whip ... desperately need a stock whip. My need is dire -- it's not just about the cool sound they make and the fact that I've always wanted one ever since I saw the Indiana Jones movies.
I'm sure the TB testing guy would back me up 100% on this.
Posted by Farmer Nik
*** For the benefit of friends and family who know even less about farming than we do, that result was woeful.
Meet Flora McFauna, born late afternoon on Thursday 11 October, about five minutes before we wandered up the hill to find out why her mum didn't seem interested in the hay we'd brought.
The mother, Senga, had already been mated before she arrived at Muntanui in February but we weren't entirely sure she was pregnant. Although she was bulging a bit at the sides, it didn't seem to be by enough (not that we'd know, rank amateurs in animal husbandry that we are).
As it turned out, dear Senga was indeed in calf. At the appointed time, she took care of business very quietly and efficiently by herself and then lay down to have a little 'her' time. When we went to check on her and spied the brown bundle lying on the ground in front, we initially thought the calf was dead. Farmer Wan started swearing quietly. After a minute or so, the calf moved, waved a leg in the air, rolled over and stood up. Joy!
There was a fair bit of gunk still hanging out of Senga. Thinking she might have partially prolapsed, I took some very graphic photos that I won't disturb you by sharing, and emailed them to the vet. He identified the mess as "membranes" and said there was nothing to worry about unless she got sick.
Mother and calf are both doing very well, especially considering the gales, rain and snow they had to put up with over the weekend. By rights, that should be the end of the nail-biting where baby animals are concerned, although our heifer calf, Sonsie, is now looking suspiciously bulgy in her own right. I'm hoping that's more to do with the good hay she's been eating than the amorous activities of Hamish the bull but I guess time will tell.
On the subject of Hamish, yesterday was his third birthday. Given that he's recently taken to spitting out the carrots we bring him, he didn't get anything special to mark the occasion. Farmer Wan and I, however, treated ourselves to a bottle of champagne. This had nothing at all to do with Hamish's birthday; yesterday also happened to be our eighth wedding anniversary. If anyone had told us on that Friday afternoon at Brisbane's Customs House in 2004 that we'd end up back in New Zealand, learning to farm and trying to live sustainably, we'd have laughed them out of the room. I guess the joke's on us... and what a brilliant joke it's turning out to be!
Posted by Farmer Nik
According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, to wince is to:
"Show bodily or mental pain or distress by slight start or loss of composure; flinch."
Here's the Muntanui version:
1. "Farmer Wan's involuntary movement upon realising that the hairy object the dog is holding in his jaws is not a mouse, nor a rat, nor even a squashed baby stoat, but rather our young steer's testicles, detached from their former owner and still sporting their blue elastrator band."
2. "The collective reaction of all males who read this post."
Posted by Farmer Nik
And I'm not talking about Game of Thrones here.
We were blessed with 16 straight days of glorious weather during April; we had temperatures up to 26 degrees C and no rain. Of course it all had to come to an end. We now lose the sun over the hill at the back at around 4:00pm and the temperature plummets accordingly. This morning we awoke to an outside temperature of 5 degrees C with a wind chill which made it feel like -8 degrees C, there is a dusting of snow on the ranges and we've had the fire lit all day. Time to get all those winter jobs done (plus all of the summer ones that weren't completed!)
So what have we been doing in the month since we last posted?
Bounteous harvest (Plums, plums and more plums)
Last year the apple trees were loaded with fruit and the plum trees were virtually empty; this year we harvested maybe a dozen apples and several kilograms of plums, which Farmer Nik proceeded to turn into the most beautiful Plum & Lavender or Plum & Vanilla jams. Just as well really, because all of the French Apricot Jam made in Jan/Feb was finished off during Mum and Dad's visit in February. (Note to Farmers Nik & Wan: make more next year!).
"Wee" Bonnie arrives
Early in the month we had a new arrival: Bonnie the Highland cow was delivered from nearby Tadmor Valley and settled in well with the rest of the herd. She is almost twice the size of our bull so we may have to build him a box to stand on when the time comes for him to do what bulls do best (only kidding!). She loves molasses spread on hay and will now take it from our hands.
Easter Bunny pays a visit
Having family visit at Easter prompted an unexpected visit by the Easter Bunny. On Easter Sunday morning there were numerous bunny footprints around Muntanui. These were eagerly followed by the youngest of the party and led to various locations of hidden chocolate eggs (including amongst the real eggs), each discovered amidst squeals of delight.
During this Easter family visit we headed once more to the Hidden Cafe for lunch and a quiet afternoon in the sculpture garden, well worth a visit if you are in the area.
Saffron harvest early
We had expected the saffron corms to flower in early May, so when they started popping up on the 1st April (see below) we were surprised. The harvest peaked just prior to the middle of the month, unfortunately coinciding with our four-day tramp to the Blue Lake. Fortunately, thanks to the generosity of friends from Wakefield, we were able to complete the tramp and they took care of Muntanui, all the animals and the saffron harvesting/processing whilst we were away. We have processed all of the harvest so far; and having peaked at 120 flowers in one day, we are now picking no more than a dozen each morning. (Note to Farmers Nik & Wan: don't go away in April!).
The Blue Lake Tramp
Farmer Nik pitched the idea for a story about the Blue Lake to NZ Geographic magazine, the original idea being to hitch a ride on a DoC chopper and then write the story. The DoC representative who Farmer Nik spoke with thought this a good idea but suggested the story might be better if Farmer Nik actually walked all the way to Blue Lake. She agreed.
Buying lots of gear (boots, jackets, gas cooker, freeze-dried meals). Climbing to the top of Beeby's Knob (1441m) one Saturday to make sure we were actually fit enough to attempt a four-day walk.
Thanks to the generosity of neighbours Chris and Jean, we were able to avoid the high cost of a water taxi to the head of Lake Rotoroa. Chris took us all of the way up the lake in his tinny and dropped us near the Sabine Hut at around 10:00am. This was the first time that either of us had had sizeable packs on our backs for many years and it took a bit of getting used to. The sign said “West Sabine Hut 5 hours”. No worries, we thought, these guide times are always on the generous side. Eight hours later, just as it was beginning to get dark, we arrived at the river crossing close to the hut. The swing bridge had been washed away the previous year, but a convenient log enabled a shaky crossing to the other side of the river. We were alone in the hut that evening and soon realised that the first item to be added to our “List of Things to Take Next Time” was candles.
The next day dawned beautiful once more and after our (interesting) re-constituted freeze-dried cooked breakfast we set off to Blue Lake; according to the signs, a four-hour walk. Crossing several avalanche paths, we made our way further up the valley and then started the final climb up to the lake. This time we managed the four hour walk in five hours, but it was well worth it. The Blue Lake is the clearest recorded freshwater in the world and a very special place, surrounded as it is by an amphitheatre of mountains. To read more about it, look out for Farmer Nik's article, we'll post when it is published and where to find it. That evening we shared the Blue Lake Hut with three Kiwis, an Englishman and a lone Israeli tramper.
In the morning we stayed long enough to see the sun once more on the lake before heading back down to West Sabine Hut. Going downhill has never been my favourite part of walking and doesn't do much for the knees. However, having neglected until now to use the walking poles we had been lent, we both decided this would be a good time to try them – good idea, wish we'd thought of it sooner. We both had this crazy idea that walking poles were related to walking sticks, i.e., for the infirm or old. No. Using one pole each was more like having a third leg, especially when it came to descending steep slopes or crossing streams, very useful and took some of the strain from the already weary legs. (Note to Farmers Wan & Nik: Buy walking poles before next tramp). The descent to West Sabine Hut signposted at 3 ½ hours took us only 4 ½. We were definitely getting better at this.
We enjoyed more company in the Hut that evening with Diana the volunteer warden and Sandra and Markus from Switzerland all passing the night there before they headed up to Blue Lake and beyond. We were up early and crossing the river again by 07:30am. This time we had a deadline; we had arranged for Chris to pick us up at the head of Lake Rotoroa, (perhaps optimistically) at 2:00pm. We did the five-hour walk in six hours and arrived at the head of the lake just as Chris and Jean motored into view, bringing with them a very welcome flask of hot tea. We hadn't walked particularly far in four days (approx 40km) but it was one of the hardest walks we had both ever done, well worth the sore feet and knees.
The Swiss are coming
When we met Sandra and Markus during our last night on the tramp we had said to them, "Come and have hot showers and a meal and stay over", knowing they had four days more walking to do after we left them. We expected them to stay the night and head away the next day... how wrong we were! They arrived at our place mid-afternoon a few days after we got home and immediately offered to help with any work around the farm, so they were tasked with digging up the main crop spuds, a job they completed at a rate of knots. Next morning, they requested more work and we set about relocating the cattle yards in the front paddock, a job that took longer than expected. Their third day here was spent cutting firewood, building compost heaps and weeding in the vegetable garden, these guys are machines! We very much enjoyed their company and cannot thank them enough for all the work they did whilst here. As I have said to Farmer Nik on several occasions, I have never met a Swiss person I did not like and these two were certainly no exception.
So, a busy and most productive month and certainly the best and most settled weather we have experienced since arriving here. We have completed our first harvest of a saleable crop and look forward to finding out how much it is actually worth.
Finally, we were interviewed for the local free newspaper. Please excuse the several mistakes in the article, don't believe everything you read...see here on Page 22. (The Leader Richmond-Waimea, 26 April 2012)
Here is a selection of photos of April fun:
Posted by Farmer Wan
“I’ve got a 100% mad cow for you guys,” said the guy from the Southland transport company. “She should be in Blenheim tomorrow morning.”
“Do you have deer fencing? You’re going to need it for this one,” said his colleague.
“Your very friendly cow should be arriving around 7:30pm,” said the guy from the Nelson transport company.
“I wouldn’t get in a paddock with her,” said his driver. “I’m just glad she’s off my truck.”
Mad, murderous and Scottish... it seemed only natural to name our replacement Highland cow, Lady Macbeth.
She arrived on Thursday evening last week. On Friday, she was quiet and seemed a little dazed. On Saturday, Farmer Wan noticed her staggering, seemingly unable to hold her own weight. We rang the vet in Richmond. He said she had either ryegrass staggers (unlikely, because all our other animals were fine) or a condition that’s uncommon in New Zealand, known as transport tetany. The symptoms are the same as those for staggers but the cause is different: stress from long-distance travel, along with a lack of regular food and water.
Farmer Wan made the two-hour round trip into town to collect a bag of medication. Although Lady M was obviously ill, we still couldn’t risk getting near her. We had to wait.
On the Sunday morning we found her lying on her side. We spent 11 hours in the paddock with her, trying to keep her alive. We gave her the medication, poured almost 50 litres of water down her throat and, with the help of one of our neighbours, propped her up into a more natural position. She struggled hard to get to her feet but her back legs kept buckling. In the end, Farmer Wan built a frame around her to prevent her falling back on her side. There was nothing left to do but hope she’d make it through the night.
That learning curve just kept getting steeper. We now knew how to give our cow subcutaneous injections (cowhide is as tough as, well... leather) and how to make her open her mouth (hook fingers in the nostrils, pull up and back) but we had no idea how to dispose of her carcass. We couldn’t leave it where it was – in the middle of a paddock fronting the road. We don’t own a tractor or a digger and even if we did, our ground is too rocky to dig a substantial enough pit. The vet suggested hooking her up to the 4WD, towing her somewhere less conspicuous and letting nature take its course. That’s what we did. We bought some agricultural lime to spread over the carcass to hasten decomposition and we’ll cover the remains with branches. Vale, Lady Macbeth.
It felt disrespectful to dispose of such a magnificent beast in this way but there wasn’t much else we could do. The meat was no good and we didn’t have the knowledge and resources to remove the hide. Farmer Wan took off the spectacular horns and we’ll use them in future when we convert our conventional orchard to biodynamic. It still seems such a waste, though -- so much energy expended down the long chain of human involvement in that animal’s life. The feed, the transport, the veterinary care... thousands of hours, huge amounts of fossil fuel, just to end as a rotting carcass in a gully. We had a vague, theoretical understanding of what's involved in producing our food before, but now we actually get it. And that’s the biggest lesson we learned from Lady M.
Posted by Farmer Nik
Hamish the bull was lonely. He'd gotten to know us a bit, was happy to let us hand-feed him carrots, but he was a lone bovine in a big paddock and he needed company.
Two weeks ago, it arrived.
The story of how Hamish's new family finally got here is something of an epic in itself. Suffice it to say, it took four days to take the animals by road from their original home in Southland (bottom of the South Island) to Muntanui (near the top of the South Island) and one of the cows died in the process. I should stress that this wasn't the supplier's fault. There were three different transport companies involved and one of them messed up.
It was 9:30pm and pitch black when the truck eventually rolled up our driveway. Farmer Wan directed the driver to the appropriate paddock and, because we don't yet have a loading ramp, the animals either leapt (sheep) or lurched (cows) out accordingly.
We were now the proud owners of the following certified organic livestock:
We've named the cow Senga, the heifer calf Sonsie and the steer calf -- who's destined for the freezer -- Stew.
They've settled in well. Unlike Hamish, the newbies aren't very interested in making friends with us. They seem immune to the seductive allure of carrots. And last week, we got the first inkling that the honeymoon could be over for young Hamish and he might be craving some extra-marital excitement. He spent an entire day at the fence, bawling forlornly at a solitary cow in the neighbour's paddock over the road.
Posted by Farmer Nik
OK, it wasn't quite as dramatic as that ill-fated camping trip in remote West Australia when we spent eight hours trying to dig our 4WD out of a river while an electrical storm raged overhead, and Farmer Wan had to walk out the next morning to call for help from friends in Karratha, 100km away... but it was still pretty big.
Firstly, we had guests in the form of BLT, dear friends from Oz who we hadn't seen in six years. Their gorgeous little girl quickly made Buddy the Dog her willing slave.
Then, on Saturday, we launched Muntanui onto an unsuspecting public at Festival Nelson Lakes.
The Viva Muntanui! stall featured a select range of produce, mostly donated by kind souls who'd heard me moaning that I didn't have anything to put on it.
My unique sales patter ("Welcome to the Muntanui Festival! I don't know what all these other people are doing here but feel free to check out what we've got!") seemed to strike the right kind of note. Farmer Wan's more subtle approach was a huge hit as well. Meaning, people actually bought things.
After taking out the cost of the stall hire and the money owed to friends on whose behalf we'd sold stuff, we made a grand total of $30. Factor in the time we spent in the lead-up, not to mention the cost of the promotional material we had printed, and we're deeply in the red. So we're not going to do that 'factoring in' thang. At least, not for our very first market stall. We prefer to bask in the thought that we made 30 bucks. Yay!
The absolute wonderfulness of the weekend culminated in the arrival of a handsome, hairy, red-haired Scotsman called Hamish.
We've arranged for two Highland cows and their calves (a steer and a heifer) to join him in early February. We're also getting ten Wiltshire ewes, with a complimentary ram thrown in.
2012 is the year of livestock at Muntanui. It's the year we become proper farmers, rather than the glorified gardeners we've been over the last five months. This year, it gets serious.
Posted by Farmer Nik
About Ewan and Niki
Scottish mechanical engineer with a deep and abiding passion for good food. Outstanding cook. Builder of lots of stuff. Cattle whisperer. Connoisseur of beer. A lover rather than a fighter.
Kiwi writer and broadcaster who hates cabbage, even though she knows it's good for her. Chook wrangler. Grower of food and flowers. Maker of fine preserves. Lover of dancing and wine. Definitely a fighter.