Farmer's love of trees spawns forest utopia

Last updated 05:00 28/02/2013
Tom Hartree
JON MORGAN
LABOUR OF LOVE: Tom Hartree enjoys his 'piece of paradise'. 'I spend a lot of time in this gorge, thinning trees, cleaning up, transplanting matai seedlings.'

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An environment award-winning farmer with a lifelong love of trees tells Jon Morgan of his tough early life and the rewards of hard work and a loving wife.

Tom Hartree is a vigorous 78 and has no intention of being culled for dog tucker anytime soon. But he knows what he wants to happen when his time comes.

He wants his ashes to be mixed with those of his dearly missed wife Dora and scattered in a grove of 45-metre tall redwoods.

He and Dora planted the redwoods in 1969, at the bottom of a deep gorge carving through Te Motu, one of three farms he and son Greg and his wife Rachael farm at Dartmoor and Patoka in the hills west of Napier.

The gorge was cleared by his grandfather and father earlier in the century and he remembers mustering sheep on horseback as a young shepherd.

He also has memories of finding the broken bodies of cattle that lost their footing on the heights and plunged to their deaths.

"It got so all the work and the stock losses weren't worth the extra grazing we got from it. I decided it was best to fence it off and let it regenerate," he says.

While the native kanuka quickly reasserted itself, he and Dora got to work, planting matai, totara, kowhai, cedars, eucalyptus, redwoods and cardiocrinum lilies, 2.5m tall with distinctive huge heart-shaped leaves and a powerful fragrance.

Now the 67-hectare gorge, protected by a QEII Trust covenant, is a green mosaic of bush studded with thrusting trees and echoing with birdsong.

In the redwood grove that will be his final resting place, Tom stops to lean against a tree and look upward. "Isn't it amazing," he exclaims. "I remember when this tree was just a tiny seedling; now look at it."

The smell of wild mint fills the air and tui and bellbirds can be heard calling in the bush.

"I love it here, it's a little paradise," he says. "I'm not a loner but I'm happy in my own company and I spend a lot of time in this gorge, thinning trees, cleaning up, transplanting matai seedlings - it's a labour of love."

He spreads his arms and looks around him. "I've had two great loves in my life - Dora and this land. I've been very lucky."

He grew up at Te Motu, the youngest son of a cold, distant father. His father William, known by everyone as Boss, was a World War I soldier invalided home from Gallipoli badly injured. For the rest of his life he harboured a deep grudge against the British he held responsible for the war.

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His bitterness was so well-known and understood that when he walked out into the Napier main street to stop the motorcade carrying the Queen and Prince Philip in 1953 he was just ushered away by police without consequence.

"He was a driven man and in the 1930s and 40s he and my brothers worked like slaves," Tom says. "We were very poor, living like peasants. It was very tough on my mother."

New land was taken on at Puketitiri and when two of Tom's brothers returned from World War II they farmed at Patoka, killing 100,000 rabbits in their first three years - income that saved their farm.

The financial pressure eased in the 1950s wool boom and in 1956, when Tom was 21 and had been working on Te Motu for five years, his father told him curtly, "I'm sick of living here, I'm going into town. You can run the farm."

"He threw me in the deep end, but I didn't mind. I was glad to be rid of him," Tom recalls.

But his father didn't let go of the reins completely. He kept control of Te Motu's ownership and used it as a weapon.

"I took over the debt, £20,000 [$40,000], enough to make me sweat, and leased the livestock from him. He used his selling power over me, threatening to sell a couple of times. It made life difficult."

Always with a fondness for trees - at 16 he had brought home from school in Napier a carefully wrapped sycamore seedling which is now a huge, healthy tree - Tom began planting in unruly corners of the farm.

At 23, he added £50 ($100) savings to contributions from his father and three brothers and bought 200ha of bush reserve at Puketitiri that is now a QEII Trust covenant of rimu, matai, totara and red beech. He attributes the reason for its purchase to "a guilt feeling" for all the bush the older men had cleared earlier in the century.

He and Dora married in 1960 and together began to add to Te Motu's plantings and to create huge dams. They also looked after kiwi rescued from the encroachment of farming on the bush, eventually breeding the first to be hatched in captivity anywhere in New Zealand. Later, they formed the Hawke's Bay Wildlife Trust and transplanted kiwi from Napier's sanctuary.

In 1970, the opportunity for more tree planting and wetlands came when he and his brother John bought a neighbouring farm, Ngaroto, from their Uncle Jack.

Ngaroto, meaning "the lakes", is aptly named. Carbon dating of buried totara logs reveals much of the land slumped around 2000 years ago, creating four lakes, the largest of which covers 4.5ha. The Tutaekuri River runs along a boundary, adding to the recreational attraction.

The extra pastures made sheep and beef farming more economic, good timing as they were about to encounter tough times in the 1980s. Droughts, high interest rates and the loss of subsidies cut into profits and the couple, who by then had two children, cut firewood to sell in town to help get through.

Dora's contribution was crucial, Tom says.

"Without the stability she brought to the family things wouldn't have turned out nearly as well as they have."

Fencing and planting on lake and river edges, and elsewhere on Ngaroto, got under way, including 40ha of radiata pines that are now ready for milling.

By the 1990s, they were "starting to see daylight" financially, Tom says. They bought John's share of Ngaroto and when he died they inherited Deep Creek, his farm at Patoka.

This enabled an integrated farming system. Young sheep and cattle are run at Deep Creek, freeing up the two home blocks for mature stock, crops such as lucerne and maize and the opportunity to take in dairy grazing and trading lambs.

Greg, who gradually took over in the 90s, has carried on the plantings. He describes the changing of the generations as a symbiosis.

He doesn't have to travel off-farm to take his two young sons fishing, hunting or camping. "From fishing for trout in the Tutaekuri to camping in the redwoods, the pleasure we get from this land warrants the attention we can lavish upon it," he says.

With the help of Donald Hunter at Deep Creek, they run 1000ha between them.

They winter 3222 romney sheep and 555 angus cattle and the lambs start leaving the farm in October-November, all contracted through Anzco for Waitrose supermarkets in Britain.

Tom helps where he can and keeps a close interest in the three farms' 123ha in QEII Trust covenants and 130ha in forestry.

Though Dora died in 2006 her legacy lives on in events like the Cranford Hospice fundraising garden and dam walks. Other groups to use the land include hunters, fishers, Riding for the Disabled, orienteering and Puketapu School.

The couple's years of hard work, and the ongoing contribution of Greg and Rachael, were recognised last year with two prizes at the regional farm environment awards.

The judges said: "Visiting these properties one sees the result of four generations of a family that live and breathe the land and all it means to them. At the same time as building up an extremely healthy and well maintained business, nothing has been spared in ensuring that the essential elements of soil and water have been nourished and protected."

Tom says seeing the farm looking so beautiful is its own reward. "To be able to live in one place for 78 years and see it evolve like this has been a gift beyond my wildest dreams."

Underlying it all has been a desire to be a good father.

"I've tried desperately hard to be different from my father and get on well with my son. I've done that. Greg's great, we talk together a lot and we wouldn't have had one serious argument. I've been very lucky."

- The Dominion Post

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