Muntanui Spring 2014
Given that a picture's worth a thousand words and we've had very little time to post anything of late, I thought I'd let this say it all:
Incidentally, that hail storm lasted an hour and it took nearly two days for the deepest patches to melt.
Our 2014 lambing season was the best yet -- poor old Spidey outdid himself. He fathered 14 progeny and we only lost one, so there are 13 of the little darlings running amok and keeping us entertained. They're in incredible shape. It's a very graphic demonstration of the difference good pasture makes to the ewes.
Onwards and upwards! Although I'd just like to say that we are TOTALLY over snow, hail, frost and freezing winds -- and we're only two weeks away from the official start of summer!
Posted by Farmer Nik
Two years in
Bantman and Robyn, a perfect Pekin pair
The second anniversary of our permanent move to Muntanui quietly slipped by last Wednesday. It rained. Farmer Wan worked on our sheep yards and I spent the day inside, writing.
Because there's always so much to do here, we're always looking ahead. We don't often take the opportunity to reflect on what we've already done. Usually, that's done for us by people who have visited more than once and remarked on the changes.
Our biggest struggle so far hasn't been our ignorance of farming -- that tends to sort itself out whether you want it to or not. Stuff happens and you deal with it and the outcome isn't always good, so you work out how to prevent it from happening again or how to handle it better if it does. The farm shows us what our priorities need to be and we just get on with it. No, our biggest struggle over the last two years has been learning to work with each other.
That, for me, was a huge surprise. I thought we'd be great -- some kind of super-team, charging implacably, successfully, from one farming challenge to the next. Nah. Not even close. In reality, we've probably fought more over the last two years than in the previous 12 years combined. Neither of us likes being told what to do -- at least, not by each other. We think differently. We approach things differently. We have different levels of energy, stamina and patience. It's a wonder we haven't strung each other up. But when we're trying to solve a problem and we're on the same frequency and it's working -- ahh. It's magic. Until one of us tells the other what they should do next.
So it's a work in progress.
Muntanui itself continues to delight us. We both love this place so much and we have no regrets about moving here. We're firmly embedded in the local community, now. We've learnt a bit about farming and livestock and, once we get some remaining infrastructure sorted out and a bit more experience under our belts, we'll be better equipped to roll with the punches. We're not kidding ourselves that it will get easier (one word: weather) but we'll at least have the basics in place.
Some of the stuff on our To Do list from two years ago still hasn't been started, and we've done a lot that was never on the list in the first place. In our third year, we're getting serious about both renewing our pasture and practising livestock husbandry. We'll be making more changes to the landscape and should also be a lot closer to feeding ourselves. There might even be some surplus to sell.
So plenty to be getting on with, then. Lucky that we love work -- and each other!
Posted by Farmer Nik
Listing slightly to port there, birches.
Muntanui, being situated at the top of a mountain pass, can get a bit breezy at times. Winter's the best season to see the evidence of this. Without all their leaves, it's noticeable how hammered our deciduous trees are by the prevailing westerlies.
We also get smashed by freezing easterlies. And southerlies. The northerlies would probably have a go too, if all those hills weren't in the way.
View from the other end of the diveway
"Bracing!" we said to each other when we first saw the special note on our official house and land information report: "Wind Zone: VERY HIGH".
"How interesting!" we exclaimed when locals fell over themselves to inform us that our property was known around these parts as "Pleurisy Point". Apparently, sheep drovers used to graze their animals here before taking them over the Rainbow Road through to Canterbury. The sheep died of exposure by the score.
And finally, at the risk of labouring the point about the ferocity of our turbulent air, this winter we've had four,10 metre-high eucalyptus trees uprooted by gales. Eucalypts aren't deep-rooted trees, it's true, but the woodlot is situated on one of the more sheltered parts of the property.
Botanical bullies have a hard time too
Previous owners of Muntanui planted shelter belts around the house and orchard. Most of them struggled and continue to struggle because of ... yeah, you've guessed it ... the wind. Even Leyland Cypress, a thug of a tree if ever there was one, has a dismal growth rate in the more exposed areas.
Apart from sculpting our trees into Pisa-like formations, wind causes problems here because of its chilling and drying effects. These stunt the growth rate of our pasture -- with shelter, the grass grows long, lush and green. Without it, grass growth is painfully slow.
The obvious solution is to have more shelter belts so, back in April, we planted what we hope will be one of many. It was a huge step for us because it was the first, big alteration we've made to the landscape.
There were plenty of good reasons to plant a shelter belt composed purely of natives:
Although I've been propagating native plants for a year now, none of them were big enough to survive in our most exposed paddock. We wanted something a decent size and preferably eco-sourced. Enter Bevan and Rachael from Hill Top Native Nursery in Wakefield -- lovely folks who supplied us with 10 varieties of stunningly healthy native plants which, at 70cm high, were big enough to stand a half-decent chance of surviving at Muntanui.
Given the seriousness of our wind situation, we'd asked Bevan to draw us up a planting plan for a shelter belt three rows deep. The toughest and fastest-growing plants -- flax and kanuka -- would face the prevailing westerlies. A couple more varieties would be added to those two to stare down the easterlies. The middle row would contain the climax species -- mountain beech, totara, kowhai, etc.
With permanent fencing to protect the plantings from stock, rabbits and hares, we'd be losing 840m2 (less than quarter of an acre) from the paddock. It's a fair bit of land to take out of grazing but we know the increased pasture growth will balance it out.
In the ground and staked
Marking, digging, planting
We spent a day over Easter measuring and marking out the 200 planting holes. Then Farmer Wan hired a Bobcat with an auger and spent two days happily digging.
Planting had to wait until a couple of weeks later, when we knew we were due for some rain. With help, we managed to get the lot done in half a day.
Farmer Wan had plenty of opportunity to hone his fence-building skills after that. With the fence complete, he then had to rabbit-proof it. And lastly, he hewed over a hundred manuka stakes, using only his mighty hands. And a small chainsaw.
So far, the trees have endured gales, snow, driving rain and last week's swarm of earthquakes. A few of the pittosporums are showing signs of leaf burn but it's nothing too serious. Soon, we'll have an additional 600 native trees and plants that we've propagated ourselves as part of a horticulture course we're both doing. So expect further posts about shelter belts over the next couple of years. And if you want to come and help us dig holes and plant out, all offers of assistance will be gratefully accepted!
Posted by Farmer Nik
Thanks, as always, to our generous helpers: Ciaran for measuring and marking out, Jan and Robbie for planting, and wee Nat for lots of hand-watering.
Sharin' the luurve
If you're visiting Muntanui for the first time because of the feature in last weekend's Nelson Mail (or this weekend's edition of The Christchurch Press), hello and welcome! We hope you'll stop by often. If you're a regular, hello and welcome to you too. Farmer Wan and I, thanks to the afore-mentioned feature, are currently enjoying 15 seconds of fame. Feel free to follow the link, read the story, be mightily inspired and then send us money or something.
We've been beavering away on two major projects over the last few weeks:
Because both involve raised beds and there was no way we could fill them with the compost we're making ourselves, we forked out for 12 cubic metres of the yummy, black stuff. So far, I've loaded about a quarter of it into wheelbarrows and trundled it around the place. This is a very satisfying process, physically speaking. Sandflies now require oxygen when scaling my biceps.
Each project will get its own post, with lots of pics, in the near future. In the meantime, here's a sampling of images to show why we love Muntanui in the springtime.
Coming soon: Compost: the agony and the ecstasy. No, just make that the agony.
Posted by Farmer Nik
If last year's anything to go by, we won't get daffodils until mid-October, so I thought I'd celebrate the first day of Spring by introducing you to these guys. They spent most of June under snow, they've been frosted solid more times than I care to count and yet they've bloomed constantly since January. They're tough little plants and those wee "kitten" faces crack me up. Viva Jolly Jokers! You're wonderful, even though you're naughty old hybrids with useless seed.
Today was balmy and mild, just the way an early spring day should be. The weather's meant to turn to custard tomorrow but it should be mostly fine by Wednesday, which is when our first lambs are due. There'll probably be blow-by-blow accounts of birthing and lots of photos. Be warned.
Our first anniversary at Muntanui has already passed (27 August). I deferred all the feasting and merriment until Farmer Wan gets home for his next R&R break. He's due back on Monday. We'll no doubt spend some time reflecting on everything that's happened in the past year, but to be honest, I'm more interested in the year to come. There are some serious projects on the horizon that will change Muntanui forever -- and, we think, for the better.
Still, we can't pass up an opportunity to drink bubbles and make fulsome toasts because, hey! We actually made it through our first year! We managed not to kill off all our animals -- or each other. And we're more in love with this place than ever. Thanks to everyone who has helped us in any way. You've written yourselves into the Muntanui story and we appreciate your support. Slainte! Kia ora! Cheers!
Posted by Farmer Nik
I’d been looking forward to winter at Muntanui: the natural slowing down that comes with short days and cold weather. Stick-to-your-ribs soups. More time to work on very important projects, like daydreaming about next summer’s vegie garden or how to set up a fully-functional Polytunnel of Love.
With Farmer Wan away for a few weeks, I made ready to implement Operation Reverie. I put together a routine of animal feeding, domestic chores, garden maintenance and trips to town for supplies. I revelled in slow-cooked dinners and sat in cosy snugness every evening while the log burner glowed and the temperature outside plummeted. In short, I lived the winter dream.
Until last Wednesday, that is...
At midday. There were still "Yay!"s to be heard.
Last Wednesday brought frigid easterly gales flinging copious amounts of snow everywhere. Snow! I thought at 9am, when it began to settle on the ground. Yay!
I was still Yay!-ing at midday as the wind hurled snow horizontally over the tree-tops.
At 3pm, when I had to go outside and push a hay-laden wheelbarrow up a slope to get to the back paddock where the cows were sheltering, I quietly put the Yay!s back in their box. Twenty minutes later, when the electricity went off, I padlocked the Yay! box and resolved not to open it again until Farmer Wan returned home.
The power situation wasn’t really a problem – I could heat a pot of soup on the log burner, the candles lent a romantic ambience and our emergency plug-in phone (as opposed to our standard cordless, electricity-reliant phone) meant I could still have contact with the outside world. Besides, the service was restored just under six hours later. The real bummer was when the water went off. In the middle of my shower. On the coldest day of the year. Terrific.
I knew what the problem was: one of the water filters was blocked. I knew how to fix it: next morning, walk up the slope to the tank. Dig through the snow to uncover the pit where the filters are located. Turn off the supply to the tank and the house. Use a hammer and wedge of wood to unscrew the filter housing. Clean filter. Return to housing and screw back on. Turn supply back on. Do the I’m So Capable! dance.
There were some things I didn’t allow for, like turning off the wrong valves. Or watching while freezing water spilled out the top of the tank and flooded the filter pit. Or having to run up and down the slope in knee-deep snow to make four increasingly panicked phone calls to Farmer Wan.
I got everything fixed in the end but was a little too winded for the Capability dance. Anyway, there were still the tiny matters of digging out paths and excavating our front gate.
I knew that winters here are long and harsh. I knew that they damage infrastructure and shut down services. But, despite knowing all of this, I didn’t really understand the implications. This is our first full winter at Muntanui and Farmer Wan will be away for most of it. I knew this would be the time when any weaknesses in our system would most likely be exposed and that our water supply would probably be the culprit.
In hindsight, I was wrong. The problem wasn’t our water system, which only needs regular maintenance to be trouble-free. The problem was my ignorance of how it works. I’d watched Farmer Wan checking the filters but obviously hadn’t paid much attention. Last week’s experience hit home to us both that I need to learn how to do things he’s traditionally taken care of. He’s home for a week, so yesterday’s lesson was how to fit snow chains to our 4WD. In another, improbable universe, it's possible I could even master reversing a trailer.
I’ll get to do that Capability dance yet. And I continue to hope that before the winter’s out, having mastered everything there is to master about the blokier side of farming, maybe there’ll still be some time for daydreaming in front of the fire too.
Posted by Farmer Nik
Farmer Wan becomes Fireman Wan
Part of the Permculture ethos is community and I thought it a good idea to demonstrate commitment to our new community by joining the local volunteer fire service. A simple way of helping out and demonstrating to others that we are here for the long haul.
I joined up in late November and within the first six weeks I was called out five times. Luckily, only one of those was in the middle of the night. However, given where we live, I was always last to arrive at the fire station in the village and every time I got there the engines had already left. That was until this morning at 06:05 when my pager went off. This time I made it and joined the crew in the larger of the two engines leaving the fire station. Off we went.
It was reported as a scrub fire, deep in the back country valleys full of pine plantations, about 45 mins drive from the village. When we got there we found several fires in various locations already going, so it was pretty much a matter of find a fire and start work. It is very dense forest with a thick undergrowth of gorse, so not easy to move around and drag heavy hoses. We were only able to get in so far before the helicopters came and did their job spectacularly well. At one point there were 3 helicopters with monsoon buckets working on the fire directly in front of us. Once we came down off the hills there was lots of standing around waiting to be told what would happen next and soon we were sent home. In this instance, luckily, there was no wind and it was overcast and there had been recent rains. If conditions had not been so kind the outcome could have been quite different. I'm glad I was able to fight my first fire today and not at the end of summer when everything is tinder dry. A worthwhile way to spend six hours on a Saturday morning.
Unfortunately, there was evidence that all of these fires had been deliberately lit, unbelievable stupidity.
Posted by Farmer Wan
So, we've been here exactly five months today, what have we done?
The veggie garden has gone from this in 2010/11 To this in 2012
Our first livestock (worms from Farmer Bob, an organic worm farmer in Nelson) were purchased and are now living happily in the custom built Wormstead, enjoying all of the sawdust/compost/kitchen scraps/grass clippings and blood & bone they can eat.
The Polytunnel of Love was covered in September with much-appreciated assistance from Davidsons, Foxs, Moriartys and Davidson-Foxs
In October, 'No-Gate Paddock' got a new name and a new gate thanks to the tremendous efforts of the Howards, who came all the way from Australia to celebrate the All Blacks winning the Rugby World Cup.
J & M were also instrumental in moving (dragging/hauling/lifting) the old chook house from the pond area to its new home in the recently re-christened 'Chook Paddock' where renovations commenced immediately in preparation for our next new arrivals.
Cinderella and the Three Amigos arrived in early November to great hopes of eggs by Christmas (a little bit optimistic, perhaps). Construction then commenced on the new chook run, closely followed by the new Palais des Poulets, an opulent chook house in the style of Rennie Mackintosh (not the architect Charles; his fictitious brother, Arthur, the chicken farmer). There is plenty of room for future flock expansion.
All the hard work paid off and we had our first egg on 6th January 2012. The shriek of delight from Farmer Nik on discovering the first egg could be heard far and wide.
We are now enjoying the delights of our own produce, including potatoes, broad beans, green beans, pak choy, rocket, shallots, radishes, lettuce (various varieties), snow peas, garden peas, raspberries, strawberries, red currants, black currants and gooseberries with more to come.
Hay cutting (by hand with scythes) took place around Christmas, followed by trials of the soon-to-be-patented Muntanui Baling Machine (commonly known to others as a 'cardboard box with some string'). Unfortunately the day after the rustic haycocks were built we had 110mm of rain. We were able to salvage enough dry hay for a dozen micro-bales, let's hope our animals appreciate it when the they're hungry in the winter.
By the end of the Christmas/New Year period we were "Covered in Bees!!!" and loving it.
All these things we've achieved, along with raising vegetables and plants from seed in the polytunnel, building compost heaps, fixing holes in rabbit-proof fences, repairing fences, building gates and windbreaks, mulching, weeding, pruning, scything acres of grass, pulling up wilding douglas fir trees, cutting firewood, helping out with organising the inaugural local festival, having a stall at the local festival, joining the local volunteer fire service and fixing the water supply.
Plus there's been the arrival of our largest livestock, young Hamish, (see below) with more to follow in the next couple of weeks. Keep checking in for more updates on the ewes, cows, calves and the ram.
In 2012 we are looking forward to planting, growing and harvesting our first saffron crop; remediation of our pasture to encourage healthy, happy new livestock in the spring; increasing our water storage options; investing in alternative power sources; meeting new people and welcoming old friends.
Thanks to all who have come and visited in our first five months and contributed to the results we see today. And to all those following our progress: please come and see us, there's lots to do!
Posted by Farmer Wan
As promised, Bee Boss Alex turned up between Christmas and New Year with bees, approximately 100,000 of them in two hives, and set them up in one of the paddocks facing all the soon-to-be flowering manuka.
Soon, the bees were well settled in and the serious business of making honey was started once more. There are two queens in the hive on the left and heaps of honey boxes at the top of both hives.
We look forward to tasting the fruits of their labours very soon.
Posted by Farmer Wan
True Colours of Muntanui
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.