Fresh start in NZ

COUNTRY LIFE: Corporate refugees Niki and Ewen Morrell have started running a permaculture farm in St Arnaud.
COUNTRY LIFE: Corporate refugees Niki and Ewen Morrell have started running a permaculture farm in St Arnaud.

A year ago, Niki and Ewan Morrell bucked the usual trend by giving up their well-off Australian lifestyles to develop a permaculture farm at St Arnaud. Just one problem: they don't have any farming experience. Naomi Arnold visits Muntanui to see how the Morrells' first year has gone.

It's a good thing thing the Morrells have a wicked sense of humour. It comes in handy when your cattle drop dead in the field; when you lose a ewe and four of your 10 first lambs during lashing spring weather; when knee-deep snow knocks out your power and water in the middle of winter; and when your first year's income crop nets you a whopping $114.40.

But it's all in a year's work for Niki and Ewan Morrell, who happily confess that they are "flying by the seat of our pants" as they learn to become permaculture farmers.

Maybe that's to be expected at a place named Muntanui, initially a joke name that's now stuck. Mrs Morrell, who grew up in Christchurch before moving to Australia in 1998, explains that they coined the term after they bought their farm in 2009 but could only spend a few months there at a time to fulfil Mr Morrell's demanding oil and gas construction work back in the red-earth Pilbara region of Australia.

"The place wasn't munted, but we normally were when we came here," Mrs Morrell says. "We're trying to do this light-heartedly. You can get really zealous if you're following a belief system or way of doing things, and we're not really like that. Merriment is a big part of what we're trying to do. It's just drudgery otherwise. There's nothing sustainable about drudgery."

But for all their light-heartedness about their new project on their 25-hectare farm, they're determined to make it work. They've reversed the typical Kiwi flight to Australia, shunning the extractive industry they made their money from to live in greater harmony with the earth.

Until they bought Muntanui, they lived in Karratha, a booming iron-ore and natural gas hub 1500km north of Perth that is, Mrs Morrell reports, "full of Kiwis".

"It's kind of ironic that that's how we got the money to pay for the place," Mrs Morrell says. "As soon as we got interested in living more sustainably, it hit home to us how incredibly unsustainable life in that place is."

Her Kiwi accent has developed an Aussie twang. An accomplished broadcaster, Mrs Morrell, 49, developed programmes for Australia's national public broadcaster ABC and presented ABC's Mornings show for northwest Western Australia. She is now freelancing, as well as chronicling their adventures at Mr Morrell, 47, was born in Scotland but worked in Karratha as an engineer building natural gas plants. The pair met in Sydney, and since then have lived all over Australia, travelling with Mr Morrell's job. "The lifestyle was party central - it was great," Mrs Morrell says.

But then Mrs Morrell got cancer. It was 2007, she was 44, and she hungered for a healthier lifestyle.

"When you get sick, all that kind of stuff suddenly gets important again," she says. "We realised none of it could carry on forever. You start re-evaluating your priorities."

She recovered, but after treatment she went back to work too early, burned out, and had "a meltdown", she says. "Panic attacks and all that. Basically, doctors said to me: ‘You'll be fine as long as you don't go back and do what you've been doing'. I was at this point where I was wondering what the heck I was going to do with the rest of my life."

"We were just going from one construction job to another," Mr Morrell says. "It's like: ‘When does that end? What are we doing it for? Why are we earning all this money? How are we going to enjoy it?"

Always interested in horticulture, Mrs Morrell started looking for correspondence courses and came across one for permaculture, a loose definition for a style of agriculture that is productive as well as self-sustaining.

"I thought: ‘This is really good. It makes a lot of sense'. Then I attacked Ewan with missionary zeal, and he went, ‘Yeah, this is awesome; this is the way of the future'. After that I started looking seriously for somewhere to settle."

In 2009, on a 32-degree August day in Karratha, she was sitting in their airconditioned house surfing the internet for properties in Tasman.

A photo of a snow-covered house with wide, Queenslander-style decking popped up first on the list, the Raglan Range towering behind.

To the refugees from the red top half of Australia, it looked like paradise. "I went ‘Oh, my God'," Mrs Morrell says. "‘I showed it to Ewan and he said, ‘Oh, my God'. Two weeks later we'd flown over from Oz and bought it."

Friends thought them mad, to walk away from the money and lifestyle in Australia, but farewelled them with a patchwork wall hanging, each creating a panel to remember them by - among them a broadcast microphone, a gas flare, and the silvery moon ladder, which stretches along the mudflats of Western Australia when the tide is out and the moon full.

Still tied to Mr Morrell's job for another two years, the Morrells travelled to New Zealand every four months to start preparing their farm, cutting back growth, laying weedmat, and planning. They left Australia for good in August last year, right about the time of the Rugby World Cup.

"We've been through a year of it now; we've been through every aspect of the cycle, so we know what to expect," Mrs Morrell says.

Triumphs and disasters followed as they settled in. They lost two highland cows - one thought to be from transport tetany - then there was the "traumatic" lambing. "Everyone keeps saying to us: ‘That's farming, you've got livestock and you've got deadstock'," Mrs Morrell says. Neighbours proved supportive as they juggled the atrocious weather and lambs in the laundry. "They brought round extra newspaper, teats for the bottles, dropsheets for the floor, extra food for the lambs, and muffins for us," Mrs Morrell says.

For the first year, savings enabled them to live without either of them having to work. But in May, Mr Morrell got a phone call asking him to go back, and the offer was too good to refuse.

He returned to the Pilbara on a fly-in, fly-out basis for four months, earning enough to keep them going until the end of 2013 - and leaving his wife behind to get through the farm's first winter.

"I was dragging hay bales up to the cows thinking, ‘I'm staunch, I'm a farmer, I can do this'," she says. "I did end up with a dose of shingles from the stress. But I kept thinking to myself: ‘Would you rather be anywhere else? Would you really rather be doing anything else?' I kept thinking ‘No'."

But although they replenished their coffers, Mr Morrell working back in the mining industry was a concept totally against their new direction. "The irony isn't lost on us," Mrs Morrell says ruefully. "We are going to have to wean ourselves off this knowledge that we could go back to Oz and make as much dosh as we wanted, in time. The whole aspect of recycling and learning to re-use, rather than just buying new; things like that are a big part of being sustainable but it's an aspect we've never had to worry about before. But we're getting there."

"Anything that stops me having to go back to Australia is good," Mr Morrell says. "It's not sustainable, and not healthy for me or for Niki. You can't really call yourself sustainable when you fly off and pillage the earth somewhere else."

Attempting to live from their land has required a substantial injection of cash and some compromises on their ethics, at least to start. "A lot of it does involve compromises and you can't afford to be too purist about any of it," Mrs Morrell says. "One thing I like about permaculture is it's not meant to have any sort of dogmatic approach. Every place is different, so every approach is different and every solution is different. So we can live with it."

Places like Golden Bay may have an active sustainability and permaculture network, but St Arnaud, a curious mix of farmers, absent bach owners, retirees and a few other locals, does not. They don't have much farm equipment - no tractor, ploughs, not even a lawnmower; they scythe the backyard by hand and will use chickens and pigs as "tractors" to improve their pasture. They sell free-range eggs to locals, and this year bought their highland cattle: bull Hamish, calf Flora McFauna, cows Senga and Bonnie, heifer Fonsie, and steer Stew (he's destined for the pot). They're developing a polytunnel to produce vegetables to sell. They're both doing a horticultural course through Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology in Blenheim, have installed beehives, and have started growing the world's most expensive spice, saffron, for Hawke's Bay company Terraza Saffron.

They discovered it, Mrs Morrell says, while researching for a high-value niche market that wouldn't be too hard to grow.

In January, they planted 1000 corms in 20 square metres of specially made beds. Although it's one of the few crops you can plant and have a harvest from in the same year, it's incredibly labour intensive. The autumn harvest requires pinching off each purple flower in the cold early morning, before the bloom has opened, and extracting the bright orange stamens, keeping all three of them together. The stamens are dried in a food dehydrator, slowly turning bright red, and packed off to Hawke's Bay.

"It grows well," Mr Morrell says. "Again it's one of those things with a high capital investment up front, but hopefully eventually we'll actually get the money back and make something out of it. But it's going to take a few years."

With the way the corms multiply underground, they could get up to 500 a day next year, although doubt they'll ever make a living from it.

Along with the saffron, eggs, wool, honey, vegetables, livestock, they're still working out exactly what they're going to do with their patch of land "before we get old and creaky", Mr Morrell says.

Eventually, Mrs Morrell aims to become a permaculture designer of other people's gardens, running courses on their property for families and individuals: "farming people", one friend called it. "We want to make it accessible to people, so you don't have to have 25 hectares near St Arnaud to have a permaculture or sustainable way of going about things," Mrs Morrell says.

In the meantime, they're slowly learning how to make a living, doing everything themselves; and both are enjoying work that's more physically demanding, with more permanent results than their previous jobs.

"Here I do everything and it's really satisfying work," Mr Morrell says.

"Way more than what I was doing in Australia being stuck in a construction site office for 15 years.

"It's for us; it's real.

"As long as we leave the land better than when we found it, we'll be happy."