Saturday, December 2, 2023

Some useful lessons from the in-laws

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Phil Weir takes insights from renovating the family home and extends them to the borders of his farm.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

For half of 2023, we have been renovating our family home. What began at duck shooting will conclude at Christmas. Looking around our almost-finished house, woollen carpets, insulation, double-glazing and off-white walls balance out the Huntly Brick exterior and rimu floors – the last remnants of the 1960s home. 

Being a farmer, taking a bulldozer to the house and starting again was never an option. Farming is about working with the imperfect legacy of the land. We farmers are always renovating (I am not brave enough to call it regenerating). 

Undertaking such a project meant moving out and finding flatmates. Nanny and Grandad complied and the arrival of three children under nine proceeded to blitzkrieg their retiree routines.

Quiet winter mornings of porridge, Hosking and iPad newspapers were swapped for lost socks, lost knickers, lunchboxes and noise. At the end of the day, the noise continued as child-friendly midweek meals of nachos or wraps were swapped with three vegetables and meat procured from the farm.

All the flatmates were on edge all of the time. Children and retirees tend to work well in small doses, but full immersion created what felt like a simmering tension. Stuck in the middle were Mum and Dad, observing two worlds colliding – the tech natives vs the tech addicts, nacho lovers vs salt and pepper.  At the heart of it, children create a complicated mess, and retirement likes to be past such messes.

A month back to normal and the challenge of a different arrangement is forgotten. What also becomes apparent is that the experience of renovating will be cherished by children and grandparents alike. Memories – like Grandad’s daily lambing beat of 20 ewes, potting out native seedlings, frost-protecting plants and of course all the random cuddles, kisses and affection that only young children can administer to their grandparents – will be cherished. 

Also remembered will be the daily grandparent example, that hard work and discipline applies to all forms of life and is a lifelong habit for success. These lessons and memories will endure. Complaints of mess and continuous carrots and peas for tea will not.

Renovating the house your wife’s dad was raised in carries emotions. The work of turning kitchen into bedroom, or bedroom into lounge, makes one think about those who will next live in these walls. The choices we make about the physical environment will change the memories of the people who call it home. That is a big responsibility, maybe even a burden.  

What became apparent through the renovation and living with in-laws is that living up to that responsibility means doing hard things now. It’s paying more for the tap that won’t leak in 15 years or the double-glazing that will make 5:47am on August 3 2032 that little bit more bearable. 

As a farmer, my home stops at the boundary fence, not the front door. The things I need to protect and invest in for future generations to benefit from are Significant Natural Areas (SNAs). 

On our farm, SNAs are not poorly mapped bullrushes among our permanent pastures and techno-wired bull systems. In our case they are significant pockets of native bush and streams that provide connectivity for native birds to a neighboring Department of Conservation forest park. 

Contrary to Facebook opinion, these SNAs have not made our farming business go broke. Through protection and enhancement (via the QEII covenant) these areas have become Environmental Benefit Lots, as defined by our district council. These lots have created rural residential sections, which have value and provide options for farm succession. 

I am not saying that SNAs are being classified or managed consistently or correctly across the country. But I am saying they should have significant value. The market incentive for conservation is only going to get bigger. Biodiversity credits are likely, but maybe nationally consistent incentives such as the long-standing Environmental Benefit Lots linked to SNAs could help. 

Who knows, the rural residential lifestyle block owners of the future may look less for a slice of paradise derived from productive food producing soils, and rather select for one created and linked to the protection of a Significant Natural Area. It might help the fanciful rural-urban divide.

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