From riches to dags

FOND FAREWELL: Christine Fernyhough has sold Castle Hill Station.
Kirk Hargreaves
FOND FAREWELL: Christine Fernyhough has sold Castle Hill Station.

More than anything, Christine Fernyhough will miss the sky when she closes the farm gate for the last time at Castle Hill Station.

The big, open skyline is the backdrop to craggy ridges descending down steep shingle screes to the station's broad tussock country, limestone outcrops and productive pastures.

Live long enough at Castle Hill as Fernyhough has and the overhead vista takes centrestage. Its intensity at dusk and dawn is matched by the evening star show and during the day she never tires of its ever changing canvas.

It's been nearly 10 years since she came to have a look at the South Island and fell in love with the sky.

"John and I have never got blase about the beauty of Castle Hill because we have these two big windows at front, and in the morning and the evening . . . we look out of them. But now you find, knowing you are leaving, that you are looking even more keenly at the sky."

This will come to an end on March 31 when she and co-owner husband John Bougen hand over the keys of the 4050-hectare station between the Torlesse and Craigieburn mountain ranges to a local family.

It will be a wrench. Castle Hill was a place of healing for Fernyhough who retreated from the bright lights of Auckland after losing her husband and father, their funerals within three days of each other.

A decade later, its sale for an undisclosed sum was prompted when the couple was approached by a Russian and Australian owned company looking to expand development of the Porter Heights ski field into their property.

"We thought why not have another reinvention? And then it all quietened up. When [an agent] approached us with some clients we left it on the market. What is so cool for us is that a farming couple from Darfield called Jos and Catherine van de Klundert have bought Castle Hill. Jos was in the search and rescue [team] for Waimakariri Valley, which includes Castle Hill, and just loved it. Selling it to people in the area with a family was neat to happen."

This is tough country and when Fernyhough bought the farm in 2004 the doubters came out in their droves.

It's not often that a well-heeled widow turns her back on Remuera's dine and dazzle lifestyle for the hardships of running a high country station.

The Auckland philanthropist showed, however, that she was made of sterner stuff.

She arrived lonely and listening to Bob Marley and knowing little about farming.

Discovering whisky was the high country drink of choice, she was befriended by local people who admired her spunk and began recommending a good ram breeder, a good stock agent, and prices she should expect to receive for her merinos.

Fernyhough was accepted by the earthier farming set as she kept pace with the hard slog of farming, learning its tough lessons and keeping her humour.

Two years later she met John Bougen, a businessman arriving to take photographs of the high country. They hit it off, marrying in 2008 during a dog trial competition on their own property.

"John just works every hour God gave him," Fernyhough gushes.

The couple knuckled down to do an enormous amount of development and regrassing on the property with the assistance of manager Chris Tapp.

Fernyhough's farming education came out of the school of hard knocks, as she entertainingly documented in the account of her urban to rural journey in The Road to Castle Hill.

They had to reconfigure the farm and put in many kilometres of fencing after a previous land deal gave a "No 2 haircut" to much of its iconic landmarks, now maintained by the the Department of Conservation.

The big deer block was like the "Serengeti" with five generations of stags, hinds and progeny interbreeding. New deer yards were built, deer were placed in mobs and the solitary block was subdivided. Summer feed in the shape of winifrend rape has been introduced and is being fed to the hinds and weaner deer, with weaner deer sold at the end of February.

More cattle yards were built alongside covered yards in the sheep area. The merino link with the property was strengthened with new blood and a meatier carcass was put on them to broaden income.

There have been lessons along the way. One of them was a flirtation with perendales and dohnes. She discovered to her distress that every decision made in farming has long lasting effects.

Dohnes were brought in because of their better structure and finer wool, but not as fine as they would have liked, and they are still coming through today with the merinos averaging a fleece of 18.3 microns.

Finding the store market difficult and wanting to carry on their stock as much as they could, they bought Glenrowan farm near Sheffield in 2007 at the peak of the market. The thought was they could finish and trade lambs, but they soon discovered everything had to duplicated: New sheep and cattle yards rebuilt, another farmer hired and more machinery bought.

Taking their perendales down there was only a mixed success. Furthermore, the merinos kicked up their feet about being brought down to lower country, and trading sheep they bought had lice.

Fernyhough began calling the property the "run off with our money block". The bank took a dim view and it was sold in 2010 as they retreated up the hill.

It was a lesson in loss but no less valuable. "Nothing is easy and there are people on the flats that are used to farming there and can be complementary to what we produce. We are really breeders and we need finishers. It looked fine and it was facing northeast and it was lovely rolling country and not big so we learned it's hard to run two places however close they are and duplication is costly."

Feeding her merinos with 20 tonnes of high-quality sheep nuts so she could market their lamb to Auckland mates was another costly exercise. The nuts ended up going to field mice when she couldn't get killing space in the meat works. The next year was a triumph as she persevered with branding and she featured in Cuisine magazine with lamb recipes. The year after, high lamb prices put a dampener on this so she had to put that one down to experience, again.

Then there was the time she sunk a well to market the highest natural water in the high country until she learned Frucor and Coca Cola had cornered the market. Other ideas of varying success were her ewe picker-upper and fence standard basher which ended up being too heavy and never made the market.

She learnt through this to not be afraid of telling people about her failures. She's learnt that farmers have this "wonderful facility" to climb mountains, walk up fencelines, ford rivers and muster their stock. She's learnt the art of always looking and predicting what stock will do next. She's become handy with a dog whistle to shift her merinos and cattle. She's learnt that sheep are quite intelligent.

Wisely, she learnt to pick the brains of shearers, drenchers and any contractors at smoko time.

The couple have turned Castle Hill into profitability, aided by the good 2012 year, but their "extravagant chardonnay drawings" remain self-funded.

In doing so, Fernyhough has become a died-in-the-wool farming disciple.

Be warned, any salesman arriving in a plastic polar fleece jacket - they will be shown the gate. Merino wool is the preferred garment of choice.

A source of pride for her is repairing the heritage buildings on the station and knowing she will leave the farm in better condition, despite its smaller boundaries.

The entrance of Bougen not only healed the heart, but encouraged her to stay at Castle Hill longer than many of her struggling predecessors.

The couple take seriously the responsibility of being custodians of such a beautiful place. They won the land and life section of the Ballance Farm Environment Awards and have a covenant over the farm safeguarding its tussocks and black beech.

Their dog kennels and pig sty have septic tanks. Among Bougen's responsibilities is removing the "the corporate yellow and green colours of DOC" - gorse and broom - along their boundary with DOC land. They hold 60-year grazing concessions on Prebble Hill and Gorge Hill - former Castle Hill station land now returned to the Crown - and would like to see more of this land returning to farming production through grazing leases.

The main change Fernyhough has seen in the last 10 years is the creep of dairying along the highway to Castle Hill.

She has reservations about its dominance at the expense of sheep and beef farming.

It's with sadness that she sees capital ewes from five or six farms on the catalogue for next week's Sheffield ewe fair. They are the victims of dairy conversions.

"That to me has been an enormous change because I always envisaged your kids would wake up with my kids and say we must go see a sheep today and they have to drive across the Canterbury Plains and over Porters Pass to Castle Hill to see any sheep, probably. I think that's life, but at the same time I'm mindful . . . the more we are a one-business country the more we have to manage any shortcomings."

Sheep and beef farmers are under pressure, she says.

Everyone had a good year in 2012 but it has become a struggle to consistently make a good living. Their merino lambs are kept over the winter because of a poor store lamb market. A no-agent deal to supply their merino fleece to the Rod & Gunn chain ended, they aren't on long-term merino fleece contracts and the wool price is down. Additionally, the meat price is flat and beef returns haven't hit their straps.

Cropping farms on the Canterbury Plains going to dairy grazing has cut demand for store lambs, and the market was bloated by lambs coming down from the North Island drought last year.

Farming was never meant to be easy and Fernyhough takes deep satisfaction in having transformed Castle Hill to a high-producing property.

Sometimes you make your own serendipity with the help of family, friends and hard work.

"The other analogy I have learned quite a lot is this idea that life's like the drafting race because you learn quickly, farming, all the things that begin with D like drenching and drafting, docking and dagging, getting into debt and dealing with DOC. If you go up the drafting race, even for a ewe you have to look good: You mustn't limp, head up, eyes forward don't show your teeth if they aren't terribly good, clean bum, good digestion, good tits - the whole way - because you want to go to the right, to the mixed age ewe mob, because [then] you get kind dogs and good food. Straight ahead is not much fun because you will end up a chop on the table.

"Left and yellow stripes and they are the ones that need a little bit more work in the zinc bath or food."

This is the same analogy she takes to jobless youths - "WINZ case people". She helps them upskill themselves for the workplace, in her appointment representing the primary sector for the Territorial Forces Special Employment Fund. Many of these youths have made a success of themselves, and she would like to see a halfway backpacker house developed to prevent others from slipping through the cracks.

Other challenges lie ahead post- Castle Hill for the philanthropist who received an ONZM for services to the community and education in 2000 and a CNZM in 2011 for her work as an author and speaker to increase the understanding of rural life.

Fernyhough and Bougen will travel after the sale goes through and she wants to spend time with her ailing 97-year-old mother.

Her time will be taken up improving the prospects of wool as a member of the Wool Advancement Group which is charged with looking at the wool industry from all sides to grow its base.

Fernyhough will continue with the University of Auckland Creative Thinking Board and champion creativity in universities and society as more onus goes on students to take more career-orientated papers. Farmers are creative every day, but probably don't realise it, she says.

High on her agenda will be telling city people about the importance of the country. This work continues from her own account in The Road to Castle Hill and subsequent children's books Ben and Mark, Phylys the Farm Truck and Dart of Castle Hill.

She's unsure if there is another book in her - she sold 30,000 copies of The Road to Castle Hill - but is still committed to the Books in Homes programme that she co- founded, encouraging kids in classrooms to read books.

Critical for her is reminding city people that a good chunk of our export income comes from 6 per cent of the population.

If she has any regrets it's that she has not learned more of the geology of the Caste Hill area, didn't master trout fishing and that she got between a cow and calf which has left her with a limp to this day. Otherwise there are no complaints.

Helping with the inevitable withdrawal symptoms that they will suffer when they leave is a "bolt hole" that the couple have bought in Castle Hill Village.

And farming will not lose the couple. Fernyhough is already talking about buying a farm at sea-level up north. Farm property closer to Auckland is more expensive and she will need to sell two houses to finance this.

This farming lark has proven hard to get out of the system.

The Press