Jay and Josh Tyrell, both in their early 30s, had both been primary school teachers for more than five years when they decided to trade in the school-bell routine for a life on the farm. But it wasn’t just any farm – their seven acre property in Kairanga houses three large sheds and is home to nearly 70,000 free-range chickens, grown for their meat. And there was another catch – neither of them were farmers and they’d barely even set foot on a farm before.
In 2020, the pair – who had started their relationship as high school sweethearts – had just welcomed their third child. They were in the process of doing up their backyard in Palmerston North to host a ‘quick’ wedding when a phone call from Jay’s parents planted a seed that would dramatically change the course of their lives.
“We’d recently got engaged, I’d just given birth to our youngest, Saskia, and Josh had been promoted at work. Mum and Dad rung us and mentioned their friends needed a manager for a chicken farm. We just looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do it!’ Within three weeks we’d moved from our quiet cul-de-sac house to a farm ten minutes out of town, and we had no idea what we were doing!” Jay laughs.
“Everyone asks if we did it because we were sick of teaching but we weren’t, it truly was completely spontaneous. We are both so passionate about education,” says Josh (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa, Te Aitanga a Māhaki). “But when the opportunity arose to go farming, we thought we may never get the chance to learn and experience the country lifestyle again. So we just thought we’d have a crack at it!”
Moving their young family away from the city was a surprise for all involved, not least the couple themselves. The self-proclaimed ‘townies’ both grew up in Tawa, Wellington, and could count on their hands the number of times they’d visited farms, mostly going to see relatives who had lifestyle blocks.
The pair can’t stop laughing while reminiscing about their first few weeks at their new job. “When we first told people about our decision to move, they would laugh and say ‘Do you even own gumboots?’” remembers Jay. “And the smell!” she laughs. “We couldn’t breathe. We were both walking around holding our noses, it was horrendous. I think we had been there a week when we rung the owner and asked what our days off were, and who covered us on public holidays. They just laughed!” she says.
“When we first started there was an issue with one of the sheds one Sunday morning. I remember being so gutted to be scooping up chicken poop on a weekend, I just wasn’t prepared for that. Now, it’s all part of our lives and those sheds are the centre of a lot of our decisions,” says Josh.
“The physical side of farming can be a bit relentless. There have been a few times when we’ve thought about throwing the towel in, but we had that with teaching too, when it all gets a bit hard. We’re so pleased we’ve stuck at farming,” Josh says. And sticking at it has paid off. Nearing the end of their second year on the farm, the family couldn’t imagine going back to their life in town and are hoping to sign on for many more years.
“We never could’ve imagined our day-to-day lifestyle could be so amazing. We have so much time with our kids – Declan, Carlo and Saskia. Farming can be stressful – don’t get me wrong – but overall our stress levels have dropped immensely. The kids have learnt so much and had so many hands-on experiences they never would’ve got in the city. Both of us being able to be around for school drop-offs and pick-ups has also been incredible,” Jay says.
While they may not get the school holidays off anymore, their new farming lifestyle has given the young family flexibility neither parent could have dreamt of before donning their gumboots. “It’s just time,” says Josh. “Time with the kids, time we will never get back. We are lucky enough now to be at all their events, be around for every meal. When we’re home we are present, whereas when we were teaching we would’ve been on our devices planning for the next school day. Having energy to spend on our own kids at the end of the day has been huge,” he says.
When the young family initially made the move, they weren’t sure how long their new farming gig would last. So the decision was made to keep the kids at their school in the nearby city rather than moving them to a closer country school, to minimise the disruption. They both agree their decision has paid dividends, especially in keeping a social lifeline alive.
“Out here we are quite isolated, as we’re the only ones on the farm. So it’s good that Jay can still go into town and socialise at playgroups and with other parents. That’s one thing I miss about teaching – I was always with so many people. There were nearly six hundred kids at my school, and you’re the kids’ super hero,” says Josh.
“And now you’re the chickens’ superhero!” teases Jay. “He sings waiata to them,” she adds. But she agrees: “Declan, our oldest, had that classic cul-de-sac childhood – playing with all the neighbourhood kids until dark. It has been hard to watch him adjust; he did miss his friends.”
While initially it was a challenge, Jay and Josh say the life skills their three children have picked up already has made the social adjustment all worth it. “They have a much better understanding of life now. They know that the chicken on the shelf at the supermarket didn’t just come from the sky,” says Josh.
This story was written by Jessica Dermody and photographed by Tess Charles for Shepherdess magazine. Shepherdess magazine was started around a kitchen table on a dairy and beef farm in the Horowhenua. We continue to come to you from this kitchen table, and from many other farms, home offices and lounges across provincial Aotearoa. The magazine is here to connect, empower and inspire women across rural New Zealand, by offering a place to tell stories of our rural communities. Find out more about Shepherdess here shepherdess.co.nz