The farm next door

ALEX FENSOME
Last updated 05:00 04/01/2014
wellington farm
KENT BLECHYNDEN/FAIRFAX NZ
RURAL LIFE: Farmer Warren Bryant with some of his Ohariu Valley sheep. He is the sixth generation of his family to run Huia Farm.

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It's muster day and Warren Bryant is busy.

The sheep are easy to herd with his dogs and get into the pens next to the woolshed, but there are a lot to get through. They are bleating and braying and squashing up against the fence every time he walks towards them.

The dogs are barking and the woolshed buzzes with the sound of shears, and rap music on the gang's radio. The farm's 3000 ewes are being crutched - having dirty wool cut away from their privates.

It's a typical scene repeated across rural New Zealand, even as sheep numbers dwindle with the rise of dairying.

You might think we are somewhere out in the backblocks. But just 10 minutes' drive and you can enjoy a trim flat white and a tofu burger in Johnsonville.

Ten more on a good day and you can be strolling along Oriental Parade.

"We're extremely fortunate to be farming so close to the capital," Mr Bryant says.

"I love the city. I don't go into town a lot on work days - there's always something that needs doing - but do with the family on weekends."

The Bryant family have run sheep on the Huia Farm in Ohariu since 1857. Warren is the sixth generation.

It is one of the oldest of 64 farms recognised by the Wellington City Council.

His ancestor, James Bryant, came from Devon in England. He bought the land off the New Zealand Company and the family have been here ever since, even as Wellington became a bustling capital city.

Warren knows the opportunity to have a working farm 20 minutes from the Beehive is not open to many.

But when he was growing up, Ohariu was properly countrified. It felt even more remote from the city over the hills than it does now.

"We were more country kids compared to my kids. We knew every little bit of the farm, it was our playground."

His father Len, now 75, is also helping out with the crutching. He remembers even further back.

"Our whole life was rural," he says. "Mum used to go into the city once a month and come back absolutely buggered."

As a schoolboy, he used to cycle to Johnsonville, take the train to Wellington and then tram up to Wellington College in Mt Victoria.

"I left at 7.20 and didn't get home until quarter to five at night so I didn't do much homework," he laughs.

Access to education is another reason why they feel privileged to be where they are.

Many farmers are well-served by rural primary schools, but secondary schools are thinner on the ground.

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The heyday of the Ohariu valley school was when Warren was a boy - the valley had seen an influx of new families as land was parcelled off and sold.

He was one of a group of lads the same age who got up to lots of fun together.

Being close to the city means he won't have to send his children to boarding school - he has five - as so many farmers do, he says.

When it comes to the mechanics of farming, Wellington also has advantages. It's similar to coastal Wairarapa.

"It's a healthy climate to farm in because of the wind - you don't get humid disease, facial eczemas in your sheep, the worm burden is not so bad, [flies are] not so bad . . . they get blown away."

However, one of the disadvantages of being a city farmer these days is the lack of farming neighbours to talk about farming with.

The valley has eight commercial farms - it is not like Taihape or Southland, Len says. When he was younger there were 13 dairy farms.

Sales at the yards in Pauatahanui used to be one occasion when the farmers would get together, but they closed in the 1990s.

The Bryants don't mind the influx of lifestylers and the like, though they have noticed a few things are different. Driving standards have fallen and the roads are busier - and more dangerous.

"You could bike into Johnsonville to get some lollies safely," Mr Bryant says. "Today I wouldn't let my kids ride. We used to have trolley races down the road and just go through the crossroads blind."

IN the woolshed, a gang based in Porirua are making their way through crutching the herd.

Richard Taiaroa and his family have worked the valley for decades.

That comes as a bit of a surprise to South Island shearing gangs they meet, who think Wellington is just buildings.

On one beam in the woolshed, Taiaroa's father-in-law's name is stencilled: he was first hired by the Bryants in 1970 and finished there in 2004.

"The older people have taught us their skills and this is the next generation coming up," Mr Tairaoa says, gesturing to his neighbouring shearer Cruz.

"There have been hard times . . . the money doesn't seem to be around at the moment. Wool's not worth a great deal and there is more money in meat."

The number of farms and sheep has also fallen.

"They are slowly disappearing - people are getting into trees and carbon credits. We used to do 70-80,000 sheep just in this little valley."

Whether farming continues out here remains to be seen.

Mr Bryant would love to see one of his three sons succeed him to keep the Bryant name going.

"Provided the land holdings remain big enough to be economically viable, I think there'll always be a future for traditional farming.

"It'd certainly be my wish one of my sons takes over . . . I'd be devastated if they didn't."

- The Dominion Post

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