Nestled in the upper Waitaki Valley, adjacent to the small town of Kurow, Westmere Farm is a hive of activity. It is home to the Campbell-Laugesen household - Sam Laugesen and husband Luke Campbell, daughters Daisy (9) and Sylvie (7), and latest addition, Dusty (8 months). Alongside the 1,300-cow dairy farm, they also run a busy accommodation business servicing the Alps2Ocean (A2O) NZ cycle trail and a small lavender farm.
Between the farm, the children and both businesses, life is “super busy”, but somehow Sam has also found the time to turn herself into a self-publishing children’s author. “It was part of no great business plan, it just happened. It’s a busy life, but it’s a wonderful life,” says Sam.
Farming runs through Sam’s genes. She is a fifth-generation farmer. Although she grew up in New Plymouth, every holiday was spent visiting their family dairy farm. A self-confessed animal lover, for as long as she can remember Sam harboured dreams of becoming a vet but having taken a year out on leaving school, she fell into a career in IT in New Plymouth.
Looking back, Sam wished she had considered farming as a realistic option, straight off the bat. At 25, she made the move south to Ashburton to milk cows for her uncle on a new conversion. “I thought this is the life. I loved being outside and working with the animals,” she explains. “I never really knew how much it had to offer. At school, I wasn’t told it was an option for women. You need brains, you need business skills and you need to be good with people.”
It was there that she fell for her partner, Luke Campbell, who at the time was managing the property, forging a life together.
After sharemilking in Dunsandel for seven years, they moved south to Kurow in 2013, working in partnership with Sam’s uncle Andrew, who runs the Canterbury farm. At the time, they could have gone anywhere, but they looked outside the square. With land a little bit cheaper, they saw the Waitaki Valley offered “more bang for your buck”, and the water supply was more certain than in Canterbury, or the Waikato, where Luke had begun his dairy farming career. Kurow was also blessed with its own microclimate. “We miss the snow and ice further up the valley, but also miss the easterly they get in Oamaru,” says Sam.
But with a mean annual rainfall of just 480mm, before irrigation delivered the first water to farmers back in the 1970s the Waitaki Valley was dry and unproductive. Irrigating 16,000ha, irrigation transformed this drought-prone area into some of the most productive and valuable farmland in the South Island. Recent expansion and modernisation of the Kurow Duntroon Irrigation Company have seen a further 5,500ha irrigated.
Sam and Luke farm 1,100ha, milking 1,300 Jersey Friesian cross cows. Four seasons ago they opted to go down to once-a-day milking, and they have never looked back. “The jerserys are better suited to once-a-day. It’s better for the cows and the people,” says Sam.
While Sam’s priority is raising their growing family, she also plays an integral role in the farm, especially during calving time when it becomes a full-time job. Sam raises all the calves. Most years she has raised more than 1,000, but with the birth of Dusty, she’s been forced to step back. This season she will raise between 500-600 including jersey bulls, calves for the beef market and their replacement stock.
During the summer months, her attention turns to their lavender patch and busy farm stay accommodation.
When they took over the farm, Sam inherited a huge lavender patch which had been planted back in 1999. The lavender had been neglected, but with its attractive foliage, beautiful purple flowers and delightful scent, Sam saw huge potential. Situated on a busy tourist route, she was continually being stopped to ask if it was open to the public. “It got me thinking. I thought, I could do this,” says Sam.
Although she was an avid gardener, she happily admits that when it came to lavender, she had a lot to learn. Boasting more than 1,200 plants, in all, there are 10 varieties to tend to, but the main plantings are of the rich, pungent Italian Grosso and the French Super, both known for their superior multi-use oil. Pretty hardy, the lavender is quite labour intensive. It requires lots of weeding, and regular pruning, but is also quite productive. Last year, they harvested 30 litres of oil, which is distilled in nearby Waimate.
Having YouTubed and Googled numerous how-to videos, she started making soaps, balms, fudge, hand cream, scrubs, body butter and essential oil handmade in her kitchen-come-factory. The only product she does not make onsite is the soap. The girls are on-hand to help with labelling. No two batches are ever the same.
She then purchased an old railway signalman’s hut off TradeMe for $100, which had formerly been used to store hay in and before that, had been used as an aviary, painstakingly sanding, painting, restoring and decorating its rimu and Matai walls, to turn it into a tiny little shop.
For three years Westmere Lavender was open to the public during the summer months with local teenagers on hand to help with running the store for the never-ending of campers, cars and cyclists. Sam ran it alongside a little petting zoo with animals she’d collected complete with Highland cattle, miniature ponies, a Kunekune pig, chickens and peacocks. She was also a regular at the Oamaru Farmer’s Market.
But as life has got busier, the lavender has taken a back seat. They’ve been closed to the public since 2016. “It got to the point where I couldn’t spend every day down there and it didn’t make enough money to warrant paying someone to be there,” explains Sam. “But she hasn’t ruled out opening it again in the future.”
The opening of the A2O cycle trail, which covers more than 300km from Mt Cook village to Oamaru, also yielded new opportunities for the couple. The move to once-a-day milking had freed up some accommodation on the farm, so Sam and Luke put on a container house and also converted their old woolshed to provide accommodation for up to 12 cyclists, as well as supplying them food for breakfast and lunch.
Initially, Sam was also cooking main meals for guests every night, but now the local pub runs a courtesy van. “It seemed like a great idea at the time, but it’s just too much work. It’s getting busier and busier, every season,” says Sam. Last year they hosted more than 600 guests, and they expect the numbers to keep growing.
And if she is not busy enough, somehow amongst the chaos, Sam has remarkably managed to forge a career as a self-published children’s author, drawing inspiration from everyday happenings on the farm and her childhood memories. She has now printed more than 42,000 books.
Her first book Stuck In Poo, What to do? was the first in a series about the adventures of a cheeky young pukeko named Luke The Pook. It came about when Skellerup introduced their line of Junior Red Bands a few years back. “I was thinking someone should write a book about them, and then I thought, I can write a book about them. I had always enjoyed writing and was pretty good at English at school. The story was simple - farms are covered in dried cow poo and kids love jumping in it with their gumboots on,” says Sam.
Her first draft just sat in a drawer while the children were young. However, after moving to Westmere, she decided to dust it off again and sent it to a script accessor for some objective feedback. The script accessor was positive but made some great suggestions. Although accepting criticism was hard initially, in time she could see the basis for every suggestion the script accessor made.
Finding the right illustrator was also an enormous part of the process. “It’s really important, the script has to resonate with them too,” says Sam. She was lucky award-winning illustrator Kat Merewether, took on the project, bringing the classic Kiwi tale to life through her vibrant illustrations. “I really just believed in myself and backed myself. I knew I had a good idea - I knew my target audience because I was my target audience.”
Without trying her luck with a traditional publisher, Sam published the book herself locally in Oamaru. Her first print run of 1,000 copies sold out in a week, so she ordered a further 1,000 copies and they too, sold out. “It just really struck a chord with the rural community and they went crazy buying it before Christmas. I remember thinking if I could sell 500 that would be great, but it exceeded all expectations.”
Since selling those initial copies, Sam has started her own website and a Facebook page. She has also published a second book in the Luke The Pook series, Gumboot Stomp, as well as new offering Trevor The Smelliest Dog Ever about a loveable pooch who hates to be clean illustrated by Scott Tulloch, which was released last year. This month (October) she released her fourth book, Porkie Schnoodle, about the hilarious ridiculousness of designer dogs. All are available in the Ruralco Gift & Homeware store.
With so much else going on at Westmere, Sam says she has little time to spend writing. “I don’t go looking for new ideas, they just come to me. I don’t sit there for hours writing, the first drafts come really quickly. I’ll just get on a roll, the put it down and come back to it in a month or so. And then I will send it to a script accessor.”
From concept to getting the finished printed book takes about six months; with Sam aiming to release one book a year. She has more Luke The Pook adventures waiting in the wings to be brought to life. While she has been approached by large scale publishers, Sam remains committed to keeping her books printed in New Zealand, allowing her to have better control over the whole process. “I’m really excited about them. It’s great to have these little projects when you’re a mother,” she says.
Sam is grateful for the unwavering support of her husband Luke, who is always on hand to help with the children when needed, or be the guinea pig for new lavender products. And also, for the supportive community in which they live.
Luke the Pook books available at your local Ruralco store or online.