It's drizzling outside.
That simple fact makes me want to leap about and drink lots of wine and dance and sing because it's the first rain we've had since 14 August.
With more on the way, I'll remove impending drought from my list of Things To Lose Lots Of Sleep Over and focus on telling you about our winter.
1. Earning a crust
Not content with merely being an enthusiastic consumer, Farmer Wan is now officially a contributing member of the NZ wine industry. He's personally responsible for pruning 9,870 of Marlborough's 24 million grape vines, a feat that took all winter.
I, in keeping with my role as a damned fine writer, spent the frigid months in my stuffy, overheated office and surfed the Net under the pretense of working.
With our finances back in a semi-liquid state, we immediately bought a sprayer, a wood chipper and food.
2. 2014 saffron harvest
It wasn't a good season. Last year, we ended up with just under 41 grams. This year, we didn't even reach 20 grams. But we had reassuring feedback from Mark, the guy we grow for:
Although your volume wasn’t as much as you want/expected, the quality is exceptional. Beautiful colour and aroma and it has a really nice feel to it indicating that the moisture content is spot on. . .
So we must be doing something right.
3. Fodder willows
As part of the permaculture strategy of "many elements for one result" we're aiming to future-proof Muntanui against drought by planting alternative sources of livestock fodder.
I've done a fair bit of research into fodder trees and shrubs, both native and exotic. I decided to start our planting this year with something relatively easy: Japanese fodder willows (Salix schwerinii 'Kinuyanagi').
This is a vigorous shrub willow, reaching 3-4m and producing up to 10 tonnes of edible dry matter per hectare per year -- perfect over summer.
In July, we planted 60 willow poles in a trial plot on our worst bit of land (it's unproductive anyway, so good for experimental stuff). Farmer Wan's sister was staying with us at the time and helped with the planting, so we named the area Fiona's Block in her honour.
If the poles strike well -- and they're doing okay at the moment -- we'll plant 300 more next winter.
4. The Bionic Hound
It hasn't escaped our notice that Buddy The Dog seems to have a strange effect on people. Confirmed dog haters, frightened little kids, nervous older parental types -- they all end up enchanted with him.
I've just discovered that he has snuck into the boot room and scoffed all the cat's food, so I am most emphatically not enchanted with him right now. However, there's no denying that the Buddy Effect is a real and powerful phenomenon.
With that in mind, I thought his fans might like to see how he brought us three thousands steps closer to bankruptcy this winter.
This medical procedure has a long name which I've blocked from my mind and an even longer price tag which I can't for the life of me forget. It's what happens when your stupid dog ruptures a cruciate ligament.
For the first 6-8 weeks post-surgery, he was confined to quarters and only allowed out on a lead for five minutes a day to do his business. We really loved that bit when it was snowing.
He goes for his next x-ray in a week. I'll keep his devotees posted.
5. Third anniversary at Muntanui
Our third anniversary slipped by on 28 August. After a frosty start, it was a sunny day. One of our heritage faverolles chooks resumed laying and produced her first egg of the season. The plovers returned from wherever they go over winter (Western Australia, I think) and started attacking any other birds that came near them.
It was a good day. We were happy. And there'll be plenty more of that to come.
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
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.
Our first snow of the year fell yesterday -- enough to cover the ground, before rain washed a lot of it away. A little more fell last night and then froze. That's it there, that white stuff amongst the grass, all icy and slippery and un-fun.
Our highest recorded temperature today was ... wait for it ... 3.4degC at 11:23am. Woohoo! That's effing freezing! And at 5:23pm with a wind chill factor of -5, it felt like -6.6degC. It really did. Trust me.
Snow showers are forecast for tonight with a couple of fine, frosty days ahead.
I'd write more about the impending winter but I'm starting to shiver just thinking about it. I need red wine. And a woolly hat. And a cuddle from Farmer Wan.
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
Today's date is 5 November. Summer officially begins in 26 days. And here's what we woke up to this morning:
We covered our early cropping spuds with frost cloth last night, so I'm hoping that was enough to save them. As for the rest of the vegie garden, we'll have to wait and see. Most of what's in there is pretty hardy: lettuce, pak choi, rocket, broad beans, etc. The tomatoes are still too small to be planted out -- just as well, as it turns out.
For more artistic, snow-filled images... well, just look below. And enjoy.
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.