Wednesday, July 6, 2022

School’s in at Whangaruru

Having 200 people for dinner may not be most people’s idea of fun, but for the Bennett family of Northland it’s not unusual. As Hugh Stringleman discovered, the family is as focused on giving school children a taste of farming as it is on dairy production. Northland dairy farmers Michael and Ellen Bennett live in the midst of apparent chaos, but wouldn’t have it any other way. Their large extended family, perhaps 10 or more Willing workers on organic farms (Wwoofers) from Europe, 60-80 intermediate-age schoolchildren, their supervisors and numerous casual visitors or customers are to be found at The Farm, Whangaruru. An elongated complex of converted and extended buildings in which up to 200 people can, and do, eat and sleep at one time is surrounded by motorbike tracks and horse trails, reaching down to a private foreshore on Whangaruru harbour, on Northland’s east coast below Cape Brett and the famous Hole in the Rock. About 40kms of bike tracks cross the 450ha coastal property, split between pasture and native bush.

Long-serving farm manager Craig Shortridge and the Friesian herd of 200 cows have to work to the background noise of trail bikes, along with parties of children in the farm dairy for hands-on-teats experiences. Michael believes The Farm is New Zealand’s only “bike park” with accommodation, to which young and old enthusiasts can drag their own machines, or learn on dozens already there.

“City people get out on the farm roughing it at an affordable cost of $50-100/night for family accommodation.” 

School experience 

The Farm dairy herd on some valley floor land.

Michael and Ellen have seven children, four of their own and three adopted, ranging from 14 to 22 years. Most now work on The Farm full or part-time.

The peak of the milk production was 70,000kg milksolids (MS), under sharemilker Bernard Goodhew, when the Bennetts moved into Whangarei for educational reasons and began a horse-riding arena and stables at Kauri.

In the past 10 years they have been mostly living at Whangaruru, the dairy herd has been reduced and put on to once-a-day (OAD) milking and alternative streams of income have grown.

Annual milk production is around 35,000kg MS from the small herd, now quite a distance from the nearest neighbouring dairy farm. The Farm is on two-day pick-ups by Fonterra and while it might seem remote is only 45 minutes from its Kauri plant on a sealed road.

Farming and non-farming income sources are almost equally productive and Michael and Ellen’s energies go mostly into the non-farming side. They began by taking backpackers, lured along the back road to Russell and the coastal attractions.

“But with backpackers, you put all your marketing effort into attracting once-only customers,” said Michael.

Bikes and horses

A keen motorbike rider all his life, Michael represented NZ in enduro-riding in Europe while he lived overseas. As he, Ellen and the children extended the farm trails for bikes and horses, the commercial opportunities for repeat business became apparent.

Michael looks after motorbikes and Ellen after horses, and the children are multi-skilled and very willing and confident.

The accommodation grew like Topsy and now consists of dorms and bunkrooms for the schoolchildren and the Wwoofers plus cabins for guests and clients.

Four large separate kitchens and dining rooms are busy social hubs with couches, televisions, computers and masses of bookshelves. All meals are communal, with family, friends, employees and guests together.

“This lifestyle would drive most people mad, but we love all the interaction.”

About 10 years ago RaweneSchool called, looking for a school camp location, and the Bennetts agreed and put on a few activities. That was just the start. Now all Whangarei’s intermediate-age children go to The Farm once a year along with children from rural schools in the region.

While the average size of camp is 60-80 children plus teachers and parents The Farm can cope with 150 at a time.

Michael said a school camp facility like theirs is required within close proximity to every urban centre in NZ.

“It ‘s so important for kids at that impressionable age to learn something about farming and the skills and attitudes required.”

“You don’t want to send them to the sanitised motorcamp-type facilities, but a real working farm with hands-on experiences.”

Environmental pride

The Farm is not certified organic, despite the Wwoofers, as Michael and Craig need to wage war against gorse to keep the pastures productive.

“Spraying is sometimes a necessity but mulching is our preferred control,” he said.

Some more difficult slopes have been left to revert to scrub and native trees and the bush zones fenced off, but they are not covenanted because the Bennetts want to retain bike and horse access. The streams arise in native bush areas and the adjacent RussellForest and have only short runs through the property to the harbour.

“In terms of wetland conservation and riparian protection, we are pretty unique because the whole length of the waterway is on our property.”

He proudly pointed out a brown teal (Pateke), which is an endangered native bird found only in Fiordland, Northland’s east coast and offshore islands. Apiarist Andrew Whithead brings hives in every summer for the manuka flowering.

With the equity in land, cows and Fonterra shares the farming side of the business is self-supporting despite a low production. Michael, son Ben, 18, and Craig are the farm workforce. That leaves the Bennett family free to follow their recreations and passions and, most importantly, share those with hundreds of schoolchildren.


Farm: The Farm

Location: Whangaruru, Northland

Owners: Michael and Ellen Bennett

Area: 450ha, 200ha effective

Herd: 200 Friesians

Production: 35,000kg milksolids (MS).

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