Words by Richard Rennie
The Bethells have been synonymous with North Canterbury farming for almost as long as there have been farms in the region. It is a history that stretches back to the purchase in the 1800s of Pahau Pastures, first farmed by Hugh Bethell’s great-grandfather Marmaduke in 1899.
Today the family continue a tradition of exceptional dry stock farming in the region, taking the demands that go with modern farming in their stride, and adapting to the challenges the North Canterbury climate in particular brings with it.
The Bethell’s history starts on the 2,400ha Pahau Pastures block east of Culverden (see accompanying article) but today is based around the 1,200ha Hugh and Tanya Bethell own in the Waikari Valley district.
Shifts in family needs 10 years ago prompted a reluctant sale of historic Pahau Pastures, whose value had also taken a lift thanks to the surge in dairying the region was experiencing at the time. It was a tough decision, but one necessary to deal with the challenges succession can bring to family farming operations.
“We wanted to stay in the district and initially moved to a 20ha block in the Waikari Valley. Then the Shellrock block came up, and another alongside, making a good sized pastoral block to own.”
The property has spent this season getting back on its feet in terms of stock numbers, having weathered the tough North Canterbury drought that only ended last spring.
“This year we are back up to what we should be running. We were down to 4,000su at one stage, against our usual level of 7,500-8,000su.”
The incessant drought had forced them to not only send cattle as far south as Otago, but to also quit about 1500 ewes and drop the breeding cows they had been running.
In response to the drought’s impact, Hugh has decided to opt out of breeding cows and focus on bull beef, buying in 100kg weaners finishing them through as two-year olds.
With the beef schedule remaining relatively buoyant through the season, the bulls provide greater flexibility when dry weather starts to bite in terms of how many he quits, and when.
Similarly, with the sheep side of the operation the focus is on getting lambs up to weight as early as possible, aiming to quit them at the annual Glenmark Drive in late November – early December. Most years they are selling about 3,000 lambs out of the Romney flock, keeping the smaller ones and hogget lambs.
Lucerne has come to play a key part in helping the stock get to weight in the lead up to the drier weather with about 50 ha planted out each season. They are working up to having 100-120ha over the next two years.
As a crop Hugh finds it relatively easy to grow, provided paddock fertility is adequate and it is not grazed too early.
His focus with his ewe flock has been on quality rather than quantity in recent years, as numbers have been pegged back from 4,000 to 3,200.
“We have just been focusing on trying to get ewe weights better and consistent through the season. We have also been looking harder at the wool returns, the most disappointing aspect of sheep farming at the moment, and how we could possibly fine our wool up a bit.”
The Romney flock consists of strong performing Wairere genetics, and he is conscious there are multiple options when it comes to seeking out a finer wool profile.
“There is always the risk there though that you will go too fine and affect lamb growth rates too. The property is well suited to growing lambs out early.”
“We basically want to keep a simple operation here, working on getting better weights on the stock we do have, and hopefully the bottom line will improve every year.”
Despite the proliferation of dairying through the Amuri district, Hugh has stuck with dry stock, conscious of the high feed demands dairy stock can bring with them in country that can be compromised by weather patterns. He has however started to rear some additional Hereford bulls for dairy mating use.
When Hugh and Tanya took on the property a decade ago it needed some investment in time and capital, and two years of tough drought conditions have inevitably slowed down their rate of progress.
A key focus has been better subdivision throughout the farm, and much has been accomplished with a couple of bigger blocks remaining to be split up. The drought also revealed how adept stock could be at pushing through older fences into neighbouring paddocks, also requiring some investment in improving.
Fertility is also being gradually improved, and the optimistic prospects for red meat returns at least in the medium term are a good incentive to continue pushing productivity within the block’s 1,200ha footprint.
Inevitably the least controllable variable in North Canterbury is rainfall, and even in early spring the country can dry out by mid-October.
The farm has irrigation to 40ha from the Weka Pass water scheme. It is not a significant area, but sufficient to grow some fodder beet for finishing stock on.
Hugh and Tanya’s property would not have a large area captured under the proposed Hurunui irrigation scheme whose fate is now hanging in the balance after the government pulled the plug on the Crown Irrigation Investment fund. The scheme is presently being reviewed in terms of alternative funding that could be sought out to see the $200 million-plus project.
Hugh is unsure if the family will continue farming, but his oldest son Richard is studying viticulture at Lincoln. The Waikari district is one of four distinct sub-regions for grape growing in North Canterbury, but it can be tough country to get consistent yields from, with late frosts a risk.
“I do think if he wants to continue, he might find he’s better off in Marlborough, it’s a tough crop here, but can be done.”
Longer term Hugh is happy with the operation’s current size, he and Tanya have broken the back of the block’s main development needs, and the focus remains on getting more off the land they have.
“We are aiming to keep things simple – we have interests off the farm with children at school in Christchurch, and I enjoy skiing when we get the chance.”
Long legacy in north Canterbury
Hugh Bethell’s great-grandparents Marmaduke and Thyra Bethell bought a sense of aristocracy and good grace to the Amuri region that had them respected and liked by local settlers and Maori throughout.
Marmaduke returned in 1899 to farm the 2,400ha Pahau Pastures block his father had bought and leased out some years earlier. He was far from an aloof only son on the land, and soon established a reputation as a skilled sheep farmer.
His wife Thyra was bestowed a special Maori name by local leaders, Ruarauhanga, with Maori attending her wedding and bestowing gifts upon her children in years that followed.
Marmaduke quickly rose to the rank of Amuri council chairman, and the historical encyclopaedia site Te Ara notes he ran a tight ship with rates held down, minimal public services and he even regularly cleaned up Culverden’s main street himself.
He must have cast a character across the landscape, with a distinctively English wardrobe, a tendency to address men by their surname and a strong sense of dignity and courtesy.
It was an influence that remained well after his 18 year-long chairmanship ended, leaving a legacy as a district well served, and with minimal debt.
Meantime his wife Thyra also left her own indelible mark on the Amuri district.
She was a tireless leader, establishing a local Red Cross at Hanmer Springs, and spent 50 years heading up the Culverden centre. She also fought to establish the Amuri hospital in 1922, and fought equally hard to keep it open fifty years later.
The Culverden branch of the Women’s Division of the NZ Farmers Union owed its existence to her hard work, and she was the “go to” women when a local cause needed a champion. But her talents did not stop at leadership.
She was an avid horsewoman, tennis player and golfer, and today Maori motifs carved by her can be found on the homestead fireplace.
Thyra outlived Marmaduke by 17 years to die in 1972, ending the reign of a couple who provided leadership over an incredible length of time in the community, undertaken with grace and dignity.