Ewe hogget award winner beats brain injury
After he was hit by a car and seriously injured, John Harrison was told by doctors he'd be unlikely to be able go back farming but he defied the odds and now he and his wife Jane have won the New Zealand ewe hogget young achievers award.
Growing up on a small farm in Southland, it was John Harrison's dream to manage a high country station for overseas owners. He was on track to realise that dream with a job on Glenthorne Station in Canterbury until one day seven years ago he stepped onto the road to better see the dog he was working on the hill above.
"It was just before Christmas, and he was on a corner. It had been raining so there was no dust and a car came round the corner and bowled him at 80kmh," says his wife Jane.
John, who has no recollection of the accident, takes up the story: "You know the pillar down the side of windscreen? – it got my skull. You know when you break a hard-boiled egg with the back of a spoon? – that was my eye socket."
It was too windy for the rescue helicopter to land and the first ambulance sent to the high country near Lake Coleridge broke down so another had to be sent but eventually John made it to Christchurch hospital where he was in a coma for a month.
Jane took seven months off from her job with FMG Insurance on the West Coast to be with him and help with his recovery.
"I was given a 5 per cent chance of getting him back as he was, so he's a bit of a freak," laughs Jane. "He's done very well. He's a bit of a miracle but we don't tell him that too often. He had to learn how to walk and talk and do everything all over again."
Today, the only obvious effect of the accident is that John's voice is soft and husky, his left hand is shaky and he gets tired easily. But that doesn't stop him doing full days on-farm, spending five hours a day feeding out this winter.
When he left hospital John went back to Glenthorne Station to recuperate but he soon got sick of doing nothing and started to help out part-time. Then he and Jane were offered a job on David and Nicky Morrow's farm at Montalto, in the Mid Canterbury foothills.
A year later they spotted an ad for a 400ha farm nearby which Jane's parents, who own two arable properties near Chertsey, out on the plains, bought and put the couple on as managers. It was just the challenge John was looking for.
"I like challenges, I have my whole life, right from school. I was head boy, all through school I played rugby and hockey, and when the doctors said, 'No, you won't be back to yourself', I said, 'Right, a challenge, I'm in for this'.
"They said, 'You won't run, you won't do this again', so I went and did the Motatapu Miners Trail, (a 15km mountain-running race in Central Otago) to prove those buggers wrong."
The foothills farm they took over four years ago was quite well set up but there was scope for improvement.
"The youngest grass was 15 years old and they didn't finish anything so we got stuck in and regrassed a lot of the place and we've done 50 per cent and now we finish everything," John says.
"Last year we averaged 19.3kg for our lambs. We were quite lucky because the schedule stayed up so we kept them and put more weight on them. In previous years they were all gone by the end of February but this year we were getting 50 per cent away off mum at 20kg. Yeah, that young grass has made a big difference."
They've steadily increased their lambing percentage too. In their first year they scanned 163 per cent and tailed 150 per cent and they've got that up to 185 per cent at scanning and 174 per cent tailed. This year they scanned 191 per cent so they're hoping for a spring as good as the past three have been to achieve an even better result.
As well as 1100 ewes and 300 hoggets, the Harrisons have 80 angus cows, 90 angus-hereford cross calves, 85 R2 cattle, 170 R1 hereford-friesian calves, 30 velveting stags and graze 55 cattle on liveweight gain for the Five Star beef feedlot in Mid Canterbury. The also grow barley and winter 1000 dairy cows. Last year Jane reared 250 hereford-friesian calves and plans to increase that to 500 calves this year, including 300 friesian bulls that will be sold at 100kg.
"John started off saying, 'I don't want this dairy stock', but after the first year it was, 'Oh no, it's not actually that bad, they do make a bit of money'. I was just going to do 20 and it was, 'If you do 20, you may as well do 100', and that's where it went from."
Starting in late July, Jane will pick up four-day-old calves and milk from neighbouring dairy farms. A German au pair will look after sons Ryan, 4, and Lochie, nearly 2. A Welsh farm-exchange worker starts soon too; he'll help Jane in the mornings and John in the afternoons.
"I'm quite looking forward to it but I won't say that probably a month in – it might be, 'What the hell am I doing this for?'," says Jane.
John's farming philosophy is to have his fingers in a variety of pies, including sheep, cattle, deer and cropping. "I want to try and make money and if one thing is down, something else is good," he says.
But despite his success in improving production and getting the farm humming, John didn't feel challenged and that's why he decided to enter the New Zealand Ewe Hogget Competition.
"I kept thinking, with my accident, I was getting stuck in a rut and I just wanted a new challenge. I was getting a bit sick of farming, I guess, and then this came along and it's sort of revved me up. I've got a challenge to try and win it one day."
In their first year in the contest, the Harrisons won the Young Achievers Award.
"I reckon with everything farmers do, it's 90 per cent feeding, 10 per cent genetics. You have to feed your hoggets well. My neighbour Nick France, he's a good hogget man, so I pick his brains and, basically, I'm just doing what he does.
"My challenge now is the ewe hogget competition and we'll try to work towards higher honours one day. We've got quite a bit to work on to get there."
The farm is a separate entity but run as part of Jane's family's wider business. They share some gear and Jane's father brings up a header at harvest time and supplies straw to help feed dairy cows in winter.
"It's worked out well, we're very lucky that Mum and Dad were able to do it and it's meant that we're nice and close, only 40 minutes to their other places."