Monday, April 22, 2024

Learning from experience

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Working the land is a challenging business at the best of times and for Central Hawke’s Bay farmers Ben and Libby Tosswill it’s important to focus on what they can change and try not to lose too much sleep over what they can’t, as Colin Williscroft found.
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Ben and Libby Tosswill have been farming at Birch Hill Station for about 10 years, having returned to New Zealand from London where they worked in corporate finance and banking.

Trading the bright lights of the big city for the open landscape of Hawke’s Bay hill country has been a big change but the couple relish the lifestyle it’s provided them and their three boys – Fletcher, 8, Alex, 6, and Jack, 2.

That’s not to say it’s always been easy, with challenging times accompanying the good. But they have learned from their experiences and enjoy running their own business, adding their own flavour and take on life to the property they lease off Ben’s parents, Bruce and Julie.

Ben grew up on the property that his grandparents bought in the 1970s.

Bruce and Julie transformed it from mostly scrub and gorse into a 1300 hectare (765ha effective) sheep and beef farm, planted 150ha of poorer land in pines, fenced about 350ha of bush and left plenty of trees and bush around the farm to prevent erosion and ensure stock have access to shade and shelter.

It’s work Ben, Libby and others who have worked on the property have continued, fostering a feeling they are longstanding custodians of the land – a privilege that can be passed on.

The couple say Birch Hill is a coming together of land and people that operates as a co-operative or big family unit with a philosophy of what they put in determines what they get back.

“The people who work here work with us not for us,” Libby says. 

“They treat Birch Hill Station like it’s theirs. It’s an opportunity to add their footprint.”

Having worked in pressure-cooker situations in financial institutions with a lot of other people’s money Ben and Libby understand the importance of having a positive mindset, focusing on what is in their power to influence and accepting what they can’t.

That means knowing what they can and can’t control then working out strategies to make positive change. That drives what they do.

On-farm it’s being aware there will be tough times, whether that’s through drought or fluctuating prices for what they produce.

“Sometimes it’s best to accept that shit happens, process that then get back up and get going. Otherwise it will knock you over.”

Glamping is proving to be popular at Birch Hill station. Photo: Tessa Chrisp

Visitors can see as much of the farm as they like with kids able to free range, exploring a gully behind the site and building huts, while whole families can walk a network of farm tracks.

Max and Andy have developed a wildlife tour where people can see wild deer, feed eels, and visit a weta hotel and turkey roost.

Horse riders are also welcome to take their own mount to enjoy the scenery on horseback.

Glamping visitors are invariably from urban lifestyles and staying on the farm lets them gain a better perspective of the primary sector, where food comes from and how quality food is grown.

It also gives an insight to the work done on farms to protect the environment.

The focus is not only on providing a relaxing place for their guests to stay but also bringing town to the country, to help increase an understanding of rural life.

On top of that the glampsite brings people to the Porangahau area, with its nearby beach and village featuring the rustic Duke of Edinburgh pub, a coffee cart and fish and chip shop.

Having lived overseas Ben and Libby are aware of the appetites consumers in those markets have for quality products that are ethically produced, which they say New Zealand farmers are known for.

They say NZ farmers should feel proud of what they are achieving.

Farmers in general look after the land around them and produce natural, pasture-based, antibiotic and hormone-free products from farm animals that lead the nicest life possible.

Every farmer they have met and, they are sure, the vast majority of others as well, wants to leave the land better than they found it.

For Ben and Libby it’s about taking an inter-generational view, steering the ship in the right direction by turning challenges into new solutions.

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