Ties to land endure as corporates come and go
When Rob Stokes gives directions to Richon Station, at the top end of Lees Valley in inland Canterbury, they sound quite exotic. ''We're 14k past the Banana Bridge,'' he says.
And after a good half hour of twisty, barely two-lane gravel road, up and down, through the steep hills that back the plains near Oxford, the curved bridge that spans the Ashley River comes into view. Beyond it, the landscape opens up, revealing a wide, flat valley.
''It is different – you're only 40 minutes away from Oxford but it's just a basin tucked away before you get into the Alps really. Compared with the rest of Canterbury, it's like going through another door,'' says Stokes.
The third generation of his family to farm Richon, with its homestead at 480 metres above sea level, Stokes knows how challenging this country is.
''Winter's probably the limiting factor of the whole thing for the access of getting stock out at certain times in the winter. It's such a short growing season that we all farm towards and that ain't going to go away.''
Split into nine stations after World War I and balloted for returned servicemen, Lees Valley was a self-contained community until about a decade ago when corporate farmers began merging all but three blocks into one. Only Richon, Glenburn (now run together with Richon) and Cromdale were left separate.
''It's unreal and it just happened so quick. You had a lot more families in here and that's changed. Corporate farming has tended to come and go a bit, so people went and no-one really stayed,'' says Stokes.
''We used to know everyone and you grew up with them all – parents would have been there for 20 or 30 years up till 10 years ago, and all of a sudden it was just gone.''
The other stations are now owned by a US investor and have been renamed Lees Valley Station. In its application for Overseas Investment Office approval the new owner said it planned to convert the land for dairy support.
But Stokes has no intention of leaving Lees Valley, or of changing to dairy support, and has found a way to profitably run sheep and cattle in the often harsh environment, moving stock between the 2500ha home block, the slightly higher but warmer 3600ha Glenburn and the 80ha irrigated farm run by his father Ian out on the plains.
The ewes are wintered on the sunny faces of Glenburn and if there's snow in the forecast they're hunted down off the tops to safer country. In early August they're brought back to Richon for scanning and will stay there for about six weeks.
''We'll feed them up and then shear them and vaccinate them.
They'll get a drench before they head back up into Glenburn for lambing. It's got a lot of cover and it's really good.''
After lambing in October the lambs are weaned back at Richon and the ewes are sent off to a high country block on which Stokes has a DOC grazing licence.
''They'll stay there for six weeks so all our country is being saved through that summer period. That's where those high altitude areas are brilliant in a drought or anything, they just relieve all our country.''
Stokes reckons the short sharp spell of grazing is good for the high slopes too, even if not everyone in DOC seems convinced.
''We've probably got the biggest intake of natives since the sheep have been over there.
It's pretty impressive what's happened. They've kept it clean, kept the woody plants out of it.''
Most of the lambs are finished on Richon, though in dry years they're sometimes sent out to the plains.
''You can put another $20 a head on your lambs just by finishing them.''
The traditional halfbred sheep have disappeared from Lees Valley, replaced everywhere by better-performing crossbreds, and Stokes now runs perendales.
''We got disillusioned with the wool and we were in the yards a lot with foot problems and a lot of worm burdens. But changing to a crossbred means we're drenching just once a year, have pretty easy management at lambing and we've found them a lot easier to move in the snow.''
Stokes also operates Richon Hereford stud. Like the sheep, the cattle are moved between three properties at different times of year.
Preparing for Lees Valley's long winter is central to the whole farming operation on Richon. Every year about 1000 bales of baleage are made, along with 800 big round bales of hay.
''We'll do that every year, regardless of whether we've fed everything out the year before, so we've always got quite a bit of surplus up our sleeve.''
All young stock, hoggets, steer calves and a few bulls are trucked over the hill to the farm near Oxford, before winter takes hold.
''You've got to be wary, the road could be out for a month.
We've got to make decisions really early, otherwise you could get caught here with all the hoggets and that wouldn't be a good feeling.''