It has been a circuit through the wide-open spaces and high-country expanses that led Brett Harmer and Louisa McClintock to head back to Brett’s family farm at Methven. Between them they share a love of farming, hard work and energy to build a farm enterprise together, but in a way that enables them to each make the most of their own skills and talents.
Until February this year Brett had spent much of his working life as a shepherd, initially in the South Island’s high country, enjoying running a big team of dogs in the country’s stunning landscapes. Those stations included Flockhill Station, Glenthorne and his last southern job at Glynn Wye. After finishing up at Glynn Wye he thought it would be interesting to spend some time up on the North Island, taking in some different landscapes, farming methods and people in the process. That circuit included a year spent at Piquet Hill, one of Waikato’s largest sheep and beef units located near the Raglan Harbour on the Waikato’s west coast.
“It was very intensive after being in the high country down south with Corriedale and Merino fine wool flocks. Piquet Hill has Suffolk, Romney and Composite studs, two commercial ewe flocks, and 1,800 lease bulls, there was always plenty going on.”
After then spending time on iconic Whiterock Station on the Wairarapa Coast, he decided it was time to come home to Methven.
“Whiterock was quite a place, very much dictated by the weather, quite isolated but in an exceptional spot- I am a mad keen free diver, and there was always plenty of Crayfish, Blue Moki and Blue Cod out there to get after work for dinner.” Meantime he had also grown closer to Louisa, until then an acquaintance he knew through mutual friends.
“So it all just seemed to be the right time for use to come back home. We could see the potential here, and the opportunity on the family farm. I never expected to be able to take on the scale we have, but that was really thanks to being with Louisa, it seemed more possible, so we did.” Louisa has spent time working as a sales rep for Pure Oil NZ before having the opportunity to return back to her grandfather Graham Stratholme’s Farm at Cheviot to help him out late last year.
“At 1,000ha the property is a big one for an 85 year old to run, but he has kept it up, crutching his own sheep and doing all the usual jobs, but it was good to be able to come back and help him out.
“He has helped us hugely to get back here with the partnership, and he continues to be a great source of advice,” says Louisa. Her relationship with Graham is a special one, captured a couple of years ago in a Country Calendar episode, and Graham’s commitment to helping his granddaughter has been as great as his passion for the fine wool half breds he continues to farm.
The Harmer family property comprises 600 effective hectares of un-irrigated country on the north side of state highway 72 south of Methven. It is blessed with good summer wet conditions that contrast quite sharply with the land just across the main road that requires irrigation. The couple have leased the farm from Brett’s parents Jack and Jeanette, incorporating part of the farm with his brother Jon and sister in law Emma.
They have embarked on a mission to re-develop the property, working on fencing, fertiliser and re-grassing in a gradual, measured and self-funded approach to enable them to grow their stock assets over time. “At present we are running 30 head of deer, and with some more fencing we can soon increase that to 80. Meantime we also run 80 Angus breeding cows, white face cattle and some straight Angus. We hope to lift the cow numbers to 100 next year also.”
They have also sourced some quality Hereford genetics from Matariki Stud at Clarence and an Angus from Woodbank Stud to boost the performance of the whiteface cattle they keep. Next year they are also hoping to stock up on breeding ewes and at present run lambs for fattening.
The couple are happy to work growing the farm at an organic rate as they re-develop it over time. “The flats are a relatively small percentage of our total area, with the rest being largely foothill and steeper country, so we can’t just go and re-grass the whole lot. “We will spray out a portion each year, put it into turnips to be grazed in summer, then annual grass for balage in autumn and into permanent pasture after that. We will slowly get there.”
They enjoy the extensive nature of the property, unencumbered by the need to irrigate it means they have significantly lower overheads to worry about, and are tuning the farm’s stocking rate, livestock rate and pace of development to match the demands of its terrain and seasonal growth patterns. Other improvements scheduled in future budgets include new yards and a shearing shed. “But until then our neighbour has offered us the use of her yards. The support from the community has been very welcoming, they seem to appreciate seeing us come on as the new generation.”
Brett’s Dad’s other business also provides a valuable facet to help the couple get ahead on the land. Jack’s life-long passion for heavy earthmoving equipment and particularly bulldozers has him heading up Jack Harmer Contracting. Meantime Brett’s brother Jon is also into heavy equipment in a big way, as owner of Harmer Earthmoving, employing 50 staff and multiple machines at Methven. Oldest brother Kurt is not such a heavy machinery fan, he and his wife Emmily run a 2,000 cow diary farm north of Ashburton.
“Dad started his contracting business in the 1980s, following his passion, he’s always been a bit of a bulldozer fan, then he got hold of a digger and a truck. Then Jon started in 2008, bought part of the business off Dad and expanded it from there - he’s gone big while Dad has just hung onto the bulldozers.”
The families work in well as needed, with Jack’s bulldozers sometimes called in to help Jon in some jobs. Brett shares the family passion for big machinery and is also working with Jack, building on his bulldozing skills every week since he has been back, while also providing some valuable off-farm income. “It provides a nice balance to the farm work and having access to the equipment is handy for the development work we need to do on the farm.” Jack’s machinery includes a couple of daunting D155 40t bulldozers and two ‘smaller’ 25t D65s. The machines are well employed across the family’s other business ventures that include three quarries, two selling lime and one clay for building farm races and for sealing pond or water storage areas.
The two lime quarries are at Mount Alford and up the Rakaia Gorge, with the clay quarry up the Ashburton Gorge. The surge in dairying experienced through Mid Canterbury up until about three years ago gave the quarrying business a valuable boost, and even with the decline in dairy conversions, business continues to be strong through all three. “We have found that the calcium level in our lime is very high, at 97% it means the amount you have to put on to have that liming effect is lower, making it more economic, while we have also found a basalt seam through the Mt Alford quarry, trading as Mt Hutt Lime.” The basalt has proven to be a valuable addition to roading mixes, once screened and applied it hardens well after crushing.
The heavy clay extracted from the Ashburton Gorge quarry has proven to be relatively unique in its water sealing ability, making it a good seal for ponds where environmental demands require no losses through porous linings. Between him and Jack, Brett can run that operation and they rotate as needed across the two lime quarries. They also provide a good alternative income source when the earthmoving work drops off, with autumn lime demand keeping the heavy gear fully utilised. The quarries have good reserves ahead of them, meaning there is plenty of work ahead for the heavy gear, and for Brett as he and Louisa work to ultimately be able to buy Jack out and into retirement in years to come.
Meantime Louisa can bring her own ability to contribute off farm to the partnership. She works part-time with local contractor Nick Cromie on his sheep conveyor, and between the team they work flat out at up to 1,500 ewes an hour drenched and injected, and 300 an hour getting capsules. “It is a great job, we travel south and all through Mid Canterbury, and I absolutely love meeting farmers along the way, and seeing the different techniques they are using.” She will also continue to spend time working grandfather Graham’s farm near Cheviot. “Fortunately too, Louisa is pretty savvy, she’s good at saving and letting me know about where I should, or should not, be spending money, it’s a great skill to have in a partner who is as capable at looking after the books as she is in getting out and helping me out on the farm,” says Brett.
There is a strong sense of optimism between the couple about where they are heading, and the future farming holds for them, with the usual challenges repeated so often in the media regarded as more background issues to navigate than obstacles to get in the way. They are hoping that with some careful saving and good decisions in the coming years they can gradually buy into Jack’s earthmoving business, and in the next 10 possibly own a share of the farm. Louisa says setting up the partnership was a daunting task, signing up on account applications and commitments, but urges anyone keen to take on farming not to be put off, to take the leap and enjoy the opportunities that will arise.“We have had a lot of support, and that includes from the likes of Ruralco where staff have been hugely helpful, whether it’s been in opening an account, to just getting some good advice when we need it, it’s very positive when you are starting out.”
Leasing is proving to be a good vehicle for getting them off the ground. Keeping commitments to land purchase a minimum means they can focus on putting equity into livestock, an asset proving increasingly valuable as commodity prices stay firm. “It has been a bit hard getting numbers up this year, given the price of livestock, but it is also good to also see the returns finally come right for beef, velvet, venison and sheep. The values just mean it will take a bit of time, and you do get those ups and downs that may give us some opportunities into the future,” says Brett.He admits he still has a yearning for the wide open spaces that the high country offers, and he has managed to keep three of his original 12 dog team for work around the farm.
To get a high country recharge he also gets to spend a week every few months up at Esk Head Station near Hawarden, mixing up some hunting with some shepherding work while there. “It’s all a pretty special place, and we have been very fortunate to also have this chance to come back home, the support from everyone, family and community, it’s been quite overwhelming really.”