Happy New Year! 2013 was a cracker of a year at Muntanui and we're hoping this one will be even better. I think it will be -- if we're able to overcome our biggest challenge yet.
In 2014, the last of our savings will run out. Without that financial backstop, we're facing the very real prospect of being broke. Impecunious. Fiscally challenged. Impoverished. Indigent. Penniless. Insolvent. Poor.
A little scary, I'll admit.
It's easy to play around at farming and being sustainable when you know that if it all goes belly-up, you're covered. Sell a few eggs here, flog off a couple of plants there, make your own bread from scratch and feel virtuous and proud that you're living the dream.
And we are living our dream, no doubt about that. We're as happy as tiger worms in a bathtub full of additive-free cow shit. We just have to work out how to make it pay more. So, before our impending penury forces Farmer Wan to do anything desperate (like this or this), we'll get creative. We'll ruthlessly cut our expenses (all future visitors to Muntanui: please bring alcohol and lots of it), we'll barter and we'll make the most of hitherto-unexploited opportunities. We've put together a couple of cunning plans and we'll share them with you, in good time.
Meanwhile, here are some pretty pictures taken around the garden in early December, back before it started raining and didn't stop.
Posted by Farmer Nik
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
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
Basically, our first experience of lambing was pretty horrendous. We’d sort of prepared: we had supplies of colostrum and milk powder, two feeding bottles with lamb teats, an elastrator with rubber rings and a woolly lamb jacket. As it turned out, those things were vital and we used them all, so yay us. But in other respects – especially where shelter was concerned-- our preparation was woefully inadequate. It didn’t help that the weather was absolutely the worst we’ve experienced here to date: gales, snow and freezing, lashing rain for the better part of ten days.
In a nutshell, ten lambs were born and we lost four, plus a ewe. Two of the lambs were lost because of our inexperience (we didn't get enough colostrum into them after their mum rejected them) and two because of the weather. We lost the ewe because we didn’t have the medication she needed. Oh, the lessons we’ve learned.
We had lambs in our laundry for almost three weeks. Two died, two survived. When we started running out of newspapers and floor-mopping energy, Farmer Wan constructed the LAMBorghini (see pic below) to contain them. It saved a lot of work but it also meant we could no longer hear little hooves clattering around the place, which was kind of a shame.
On the plus side of the affair, the two weeks of lambing coincided exactly with Farmer Wan’s R&R break home. I really don’t think I could’ve managed on my own. We also had a lot of support from our neighbours and friends: spare newspapers and drop-sheets for the laundry floor, extra hot water bottles, two beautifully-built sheep shelters, alternative teats for the bottles, help with feeding the laundry lambs and even some muffins to feed us!
So... with the laundry lambs now roughing it in the great outdoors, we have six little ovines bouncing around the place. Every afternoon between three and four o’clock they go mental, chasing each other around and finding the highest piece of ground as a look-out. I’ve taken some film footage and I’ll try to post it here sometime soon. In the meantime, enjoy the photos. And for the sake of posterity, the full, day-by-day account of our lambing travails can be found here.
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
On the day I discovered the limping ewe, my heart plunged into my boots. Being a diligent heart, it continued to do its job but you could tell that its own heart wasn't really in it. The poor thing had been slowly getting heavier over the previous weeks, weighed down by an assortment of stresses, including an injured back and Farmer Wan's absence.
The ewe didn't look too happy either.
I waited a couple of days to see if she'd come right by herself. Nope. She got worse. I, in turn, got more stressed and bleated long and loudly over the phone to Farmer Wan in Oz. He rang one of the local farmers back here, who then rang me. (If this sounds convoluted, that's because it is. I suck at asking for help, especially from people I don't know.)
"Sheep are the biggest wimps of all farm animals," the farmer told me. "They're the first to let you know when something's wrong with them. Cows are really robust, deer will just drop dead on you without warning, but sheep act as if they're going to cark it for the least little thing."
This was reassuring but it didn't help with my herculean problem, which was how to catch Hopalong and get her into the paddock where the livestock yard is, ready for the vet. Our paddocks are all 1.6 hectares (nearly 4 acres), and the one relevant to this story has manuka scrub on the northern boundary. The sheep are half wild and I, if you recall, have a bad back.
My knight in High Vis and polar fleece appeared in the form of our neighbour, Andreas. He's a strapping young German bloke who gets a kick out of chasing livestock around paddocks and rugby-tackling them to the ground. I saw him in action back in February, when we needed to separate Spiderbuilder the Ram from the rest of the flock. Andreas ran him down, hoisted him up and heaved him over the fence. It was beautiful, I tell you.
So, thanks to Andreas, we got the ewe into a trailer on the back of his 4WD, drove to the other paddock and installed her in the yard. After my sheep wrangler left, I realised I needed to fill the yard's water trough. There was a 25-litre container full of water in the shed. I could put it in the 4WD and drive it up to the yard. Great idea!
I crunched my back so badly lifting the damn thing that for the next five days, I had to get dressed sitting down. I couldn't bend over at all.
By now, I was in so much pain and so strung out generally, that I was half-expecting the vet to have a go at me for not knowing how to care for our sheep's feet. He didn't, of course. He was terrific.
"A bit of advice for the novice farmer," he said. "If you have to yard a sick sheep, always put another one or two in with it. If you leave it alone, it thinks it's the last sheep left in the world and it panics. If you have two or three in together, they keep each other calm and they're easier to work with."
Duh. It was obvious as soon as he said it but I doubt I'd have come to that myself.
He checked Hopalong's teeth, confirmed that she was approaching four years old and then had a look at her foot. He showed me how to compare the feet, then the toes, to isolate where the problem is. One of Hopalong's toes was swollen but there was no obvious cause. The diagnosis was "bad bruising" and he gave her two injections: an antibiotic and an anti-inflammatory. He demonstrated how to clip the hooves. He talked about foot-baths. And then we discussed the need to section off one of the paddocks for lambing.
Farmer Wan came home the following week and, with Andreas and his family helping, built a mighty fine set of sheep yards. Hopalong slowly healed, over about ten days. My heart climbed laboriously back into my chest and my back improved.
"But what about the herpes?" you ask. "That was in the title. What's that got to do with any of this?" To which I reply:
"An episode of shingles, dear friend. The wages of my stress. Very painful and un-fun. I don't recommend it."
So I've decided I need to change the way I view things. We came here to escape a certain type of stress, not to incubate horrible mutations of it while living in a charming alpine setting. I'm in a place that I love, with a life that I've chosen and new experiences that I've invited. It's time to relax a little, rest a little and look forward to the arrival of new life at Muntanui. Lambing's due to commence in the first week of September. Stay tuned!
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
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
Tuesday's forecast was for snow, which was just wonderful because Tuesday was also the day our worldly goods were due to arrive by truck.
"Can't you get them to put it off 'til tomorrow?" I asked Farmer Wan.
"Nay," he replied, in a style reminiscent of Tenacious D and assorted people from antiquity, "They're loading up the truck right now."
So we waited for both snow and truck, wondering which one would get here first, and amused ourselves by watching our flying dog.
Predictably, the weather and the chattels arrived at the same time. Farmer Wan got to stand outside, directing the guys where to put the hundreds of boxes. I made coffee and baked them a fruit loaf. Overall, I think they liked me more.
Thirty more boxes arrived yesterday, having passed their MAF (Ministry of Ag & Fish) inspection. When the truck pulled away, Farmer Wan was seen to be tearing out his hair and mumbling brokenly about "too much stuff". Having spent the last four days unpacking and sorting JUST the kitchen, I'm inclined to agree.
If you're wondering when the interesting permaculture, farming-type stuff is going to feature, fear not. It's a-comin'... as soon as I can work out where to stash that box full of food containers.
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.