Thursday, July 7, 2022

Island farm offers quality life

Standard of living or quality of life?

To most people they are closely-linked concepts but to Chatham Island farmer Tony Anderson they are very different and he’s chosen the latter.

“To me, as you increase your standard of living, you decrease your quality of life.

“No one here is asking for cell phones. We talk to the Government about wharves and airports and better roads. But people ask ‘Do you want a cell phone?’ Well no, it’s only bad news when someone rings you anyway.”

Anderson’s station covers 4500ha, of which 3500ha is effectively farmed.

It is a low input, low output operation with 4500 ewes lambing about 110-115%. Stock is sold at store sales in Hawke’s Bay or Canterbury.

“The problem we have is getting the lambs off the island to the market,” he says

“There are constrictions on the ship and with the high cost of shipping, which is around $35 to get an animal out and get it sold, what we tend to do is sell on the shoulders of the season.”

This means that instead of sending stock to New Zealand in March or April when a lamb is worth $65-70, Anderson sells them in June-July-August, when they’re worth $100.

“We can’t farm in the most expensive part of NZ on $35-$40 net yield at the farmgate.”

The station also runs 700-800 cattle though there are a lot of wild cattle still roaming.

Anderson admits it’s tough going farming on the island.

“It’s a terrible model where we grow a lamb, ship it across a rough sea and sell it to another farmer.

“It’s probably about the worst business model you can have.

“It’s the best place in the world to grow a sheep and the worst place to sell them.”

There has been talk of trying to start processing facilities there but the isolation and lack of resources have meant it’s hard to get an idea off the ground.

“We’ve thought about vertically integrating our product here but the problem is that here we have to do it ourselves.

“In NZ someone else will solve your problems but doing it here takes you away from your core business, you’re pulling resources out of something that can’t afford to have resources pulled out of it anyway.

“You’re risking your business to try and solve a problem outside the farmgate.”

So Anderson, like most on the island, keeps his focus on the things he can control within the fences of his farm.

“I’ve got a saying — grow another turnip. That’s how I solve all my problems in life, I grow another turnip.

“I stay within the confines of my station to solve my problems because I’ve been pulled away from it too often in the past.”

He admits that’s a shame considering Chatham Islands lamb is known for its great taste.

“The taste of our animals is good – in blind taste testing our animals are identified 75% of the time as the nicest of the cuts.

“It’s a Catch-22, the island needs to grow and it needs outside resources to solve these problems but what comes first?”

That inward focus is important, though.

Expertise and spare parts are often weeks away so the island’s farmers tend to spend a lot of time fixing machinery and keeping things running both on the farm and at the farmhouse.

“The whole thing with the Chathams is that you try to simplify things as much as possible.

“You get in the truck and a rat’s chewed the wiring loom and the truck won’t fire up. So you’ve got to rewire it but where do you get the wire from? Where do you get the solder?”

Anderson said the autonomy and self-sufficiency of island life is both its curse and its appeal.

“You have to know why you want to live here because you’re a fool to live here for commercial reasons.

“It’s not a flash lifestyle, it’s not a lifestyle of pretentiousness. Everyone knows everybody and it doesn’t matter how you’re dressed or how you look. We fight like cats and dogs but whenever there’s a problem everyone comes together without question. I’ve seen some incredibly brave and selfless things done by people.”

As well as farming, fishing is the other main industry there and Anderson fished the island’s waters before taking on the family farm.

He said there is a distinct difference in the way the two think.

“A fisherman is a hunter. Your boat can be on the beach one day or you can have a big catch on your deck.

“Farmers are more risk-averse. The reason why is because a fisherman can fix his problems tomorrow. If something goes wrong today he can go and catch a ton of crayfish tomorrow.

“A farmer is only going to get that one yield and he’s got to wait that whole season to get it.”

But Anderson wouldn’t swap his lot for a farm in NZ.

“It’s all been done, that land’s been ploughed 100 times and you’re just a manager.”

He also believes Chathams life has other advantages over a life in the city.

“I think NZ has become bizarre.

“Everyone is so worried about so many things in life that they’ve lost sight of the reality of life — the fundamentals of who you are and what you do.

“That’s what the Chathams can still give you. It’s still a real life.”


Handling hardships

Chatham Islands farmer Tony Anderson was one of a number who attended the Farmstrong Healthy Thinking workshop on the island.

The workshops featured Dr Tom Mulholland, who gave tips on how to identify unhealthy thinking and strategies for turning those thoughts into healthy ones.

He delivered the workshop to farmers across New Zealand at almost 40 events in the past year.

The strategies were based on cognitive behavioural theory, which helps people challenge the negative thoughts they might have so they can change the way they deal with adversity.

Anderson said the unique island lifestyle gave its inhabitants a certain resilience to life’s roadblocks.

“You can find your soul here.

“I enjoy the challenges, they’re not problems.

“It can get you down and you’ve just got to realise that. For me, there’s always a crisis, that’s just a normal thing of life. But there’s no sense in sweating it. It’s going to happen to us all.”

The Farmstrong team was also collecting stories from farmers talking about their businesses and how they dealt with stresses and challenges.

Anderson’s and other NZ farmers’ stories are at

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