“Where do you live,” she asked him.
“We’re on a lifestyle block just outside of town,” he said, “But my parents think we live on a farm.” She chuckled as she knew just what he meant.
My wife, Sandy, and I admit to being happy lifestylers after decades of dwelling in the city. We’re enjoying the space and the quiet, our regular outdoor ‘chores’, and the abundant fruit trees and garden. We’re happy being shepherds, too, if managing a flock of seven qualifies us to use that title.
At the outset of the adventure when we told our younger son Charlie of our plans to shift to an old farm house on four acres in the country, he said, “Is this one of those back-to-the-land things?”
I have always done what I could in the interest of environmental sustainability. I have done it through dietary practices, vehicle choice, keeping my air miles to a minimum, choosing quality products that last and purchasing them from local suppliers, shopping for clothes only when I need them, those sorts of things.
But no matter how much I have done over the years, it never seems like enough. Shifting to the country, I felt, would allow me to do more.
It started with the vegetable garden. The first season we ran a small test plot, following directions in the book Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. To a great soil base we added 12-layer sheet mulch – promoted as ‘bomb proof’ in the book. The result was an explosion of growth.
Next season we developed a full garden on a sunny, gentle slope. We edged the paths with bricks salvaged from an earlier renovation of the old house, and we relied on the bomb-proof mulch, of course.
From leeks, strawberries and tomatoes to eggplant, kohlrabi and yacon, we have turned garden-to-plate “food miles” into food metres. Neighbours share in the bounty and we have contributed to the local food bank as well. We enjoy jams and preserves throughout the winter.
Beyond the garden, a dozen 100-year-old English oaks, a towering tulip tree, ‘volunteers’ in the understory and other trees and shrubs are an oasis in the surrounding agricultural countryside. A kaka from a nearby reserve drops in to feast on the apples. Tuis cackle in the Banksia and kowhai trees. A resident morepork appreciates the cover.
The sheep enjoy their days while serving as friendly, low-impact lawn mowers in three small paddocks on the perimeter. Annual sale of their offspring makes it a breakeven affair.
Two gates found in the underbrush now have their place and old bricks and pavers form the new landscaping. The native plantings are thriving.
A couple of things learned recently have strengthened my resolve to make the most of our small bit of paradise. Landcare Research notes that about 10 per cent of New Zealand’s most productive farmland is now occupied by lifestyle blocks. And a Fieldays presentation confirmed that our property is blessed with elite soils – the best of the best in our region.
We have been here three years. It’s a short time, but I know for sure it’s where I’m meant to be. I feel more a sense of stewardship than ownership. The place is ours to nurture and appreciate and enjoy for now. Others will follow.
Gord Stewart is an environmental sustainability consultant. He does project work for government, industry, and non-profit organisations.