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The Story Of “Highfield” -
A Stud Sheep Farm In The
Nelson Province

Dorothy - 3/4/98

An interview with Thomas John Hunt - Thomas 4 - known as John

Highfield has been farmed for 125 years and John can say with pride that

John and Dorothy Hunt at the Highfield entrance
John and Dorothy Hunt at the Highfield entrance
the farm has been passed directly down the Hunt family to this day. Currently John and his son Richard manage the farm.

The beginnings
In 1858 Thomas and Ellen Hunt came to Wakefield, Nelson, New Zealand from the village of Shutford near Banbury in England. They ran the Forest Inn and a butchery in Wakefield. Life for them both was tough, involving long hours of hard work with the responsibilities of the businesses and the birth of nine children, two of whom died in their early childhood.

The eldest son, Thomas 2, wanted a farm. Like his parents he began a life of long hours of hard work. Leaving school at the age of twelve (like his father) in 1862 he began developing his father's land in 88 Valley inland from Wakefield.

This was a daunting task for the young pioneer. The bush is said to have been burnt off the land by Maori in earlier times and the land was covered with bracken fern. Thomas began the back-breaking task of clearing the land and planted extensive border and shelter trees. The pines he planted along the fence lines he later used as timber for building. He ran stock on the areas suitable for grazing. In 1889 on the death of Thomas 1 the Highfield house and farm known as the homestead block were left to Thomas 2, and other blocks to other members of the family.

The Highfield farm
This farm is at the headwaters of 88 Valley, 40 kms (25 miles) from Nelson. The homestead is 260 m (850 ft) above sea level, and the hill country to the east rises to 610 m (2000 ft). The soils vary from clay to loam and gravels. At the east is an area of native bush which has been reserved as a watershed for the 88 and Quail Valley streams. The rainfall averages 1020 - 1145mm (40-45 ins) but is subject to prolonged summer dry periods.


The Highfield woolshed built in 1868
The Highfield woolshed built in 1868
The first house was built on the property in 1865. Unlike many of the houses in the district it was not a cob house, but built of pit-sawn half- round timber. This house later became the back part of the larger family home. Unfortunately the use of white pine proved not to be a wise choice as it was prone to borer. In 1868 the woolshed was built and continues to be in use to this day.

Establishment of the Romney stud flock

A Highfield Romney sire
A Highfield Romney sire
In 1875 the Romney stud flock was established. This makes it one of the oldest in New Zealand, being seventh in the N.Z.R Flock Book. They are based on the Record strain. There has been the same bloodline for nearly 125 years. Highfield relies on line breeding, not in breeding. This bloodline showed outstanding results in 1910, and the 1910 sire has set the type and style for the breeding of rams since that date. Romney stud rams developed at Highfield are alert, open faced with clear vision, have a good consitiution, vigour and vitality and good conformation. They show a good fertility rate and satisfactory wool weights.

Highfield studmasters belong to the Romney Association and the stud sheep are registered. At present they run 1140. The stud rams feed on pasture and are not grain fed.

The studmasters at Highfield have not aimed to sell their rams through winning prizes at shows. Their aim has been to meet the needs of their buyers. The return to the farm of the same buyers from the far north and the far south over many years shows that this has been done successfully. They sell rams listed as flock rams to commercial buyers. Stud rams when sold to another breeder are certificated.

Developing the land and the business
In each generation Thomas Hunt has made a significant contribution to the farm.

  • The first Thomas funded the purchase.
  • Thomas 2 opened up the land and developed the stud flock.
  • Thomas 3 extended the sales to the North Island.
Transport was a problem. The rams were taken by rail to Nelson and then by scow often to Gisborne in the North Island. Thomas would sleep on the boat for the two nights of the trip to Gisborne. By his care for the rams he developed the reputation of Highfield in the Poverty Bay area.

One great advance was the use of electricity in the shearing shed instead of the noisy motor which had earlier provided power to drive the shearing machines.

In 1947 two new houses were built from timber grown and sawn on the property - a new main homestead and a house for his son, Thomas John. Only the heart of the pine was used. The remainder was sold.

Bringing in unproductive land
Thomas 4, known as John, was concerned that although there was a fertile strip of land running through toward Nelson much of the farm was unproductive clay. He remembers being criticised for "wasting good seed", but he went ahead and prepared the ground, applied lime and fertiliser and sowed red clover which thrived. The sale of the seed provided funds for further development.

At that time - in the early forties - the land was turned over by a large plough pulled by a tractor. This brought clay up to the surface. The modern method is to use discs to make a mulch and run a fire over it, so avoiding bringing up virgin clay.

These successes led to increases in pasturage, stock, wool and work! It is a constant challenge to keep this land healthy.

Air strip and aerial top dressing
The next project was the development of an air strip and aerial top dressing to increase the area of productive land. Roading was put in to the eastern country so that a large block could be subdivided by a major fencing operation. After researching what would be most suitable John chose blue borage. It is regarded by most farmers as a weed, but it is easy for stock to eat and does not require high fertility in the soil. The stock eat the plant and the root. He tried sheeps burnett which had been recommended to him, but found that the stock ate it out.

Water for the block was tapped from a spring a mile away.

The increased stock numbers mean additional staff. There are now five houses occupied by staff, John Hunt and son Richard and three other staff. There are also two staff who come in by the day.

Ram hoggets on the Highfield farm
Ram hoggets on the Highfield farm

Problems in the nineties
John explained that one major challenge for the farmer is selling the stud sheep with the reduction in the number of stock agents - one where there used to be five.

Another problem is weed control on the hills. Without it the land would have to be given over to forestry. On the eastern hill country and the clay gorse is a major problem. Aerial spraying half does the job, but for success it must be followed up with saturation hand spraying. Without it rats tail, an unpalatable grass, explodes. Ragwort and old man's beard also have to be controlled.

John's views on the types of farmers
John believes that there are two types of farmers - those who farm and develop the land and those who buy and sell.

John belongs to the first group, but emphasises that this is done at considerable cost. New Zealand farm products are only just competitive. The grass grows well naturally, but there are high costs getting the products from the farm gate to the consumers. Farming costs are so high that it is difficult to make a good income to support the two families. John takes no holidays and no days off and estimates that he works for NZ$6.00 an hour.

Farmers on a farm like Highfield who are worried about profits have two choices to reduce expenses - cutting fertiliser and cutting weed control. If that is the choice the future of the farm is being sacrificed.

What of the current drought?
John explained that Nelson is geographically situated neither east or west which tends to keep people guessing with regard to long term weather changes. This current drought has actually been of longer duration than most with very low levels of streams and creeks. It has reduced stock conditions to a point where it will have a long term effect with regard to lambing percentages and wool weights.

Highfield runs mostly capital stock which cannot be sold or replaced according to the season. It is therefore always necessary to have considerable reserves of feed, which this year has been taken to the limits. Hay cuts this season were meagre, making management only hope for a kind winter in 1998. Nelson is not as well placed as some districts where stock, i.e. cattle, can be moved from east to west as seasonal conditions dictate.

John's view of his role
John sees himself as a guardian of the farm and has no ambition to sell. He aims to build on the past, he respects the past and realises the challenges faced by earlier owners of the farm, and he worries about the future of New Zealand farming.

Impact of the depressions
Each depression has had a major effect on Highfield, as land was sold at other family farms at Brightwater and Wantwood to balance the budget. Comparatively the current down turn is probably more serious than previous ones as costs continue to be high and increasing and prices are on the downward track, while wages and salaries for city folk continue to rise. John says, "One must wonder what New Zealand will have to export to create overseas funds if production from the land continues to decrease.

The satisfactions
With all the challenges and difficulties and the long hours of work John still prefers being a farmer to other careers he could have followed. He takes a pride in the achievements of Highfield, loves the land, gets a sense of fulfilment from the satisfaction of the clients and from seeing them return, and feels that it is an honour to deal with New Zealand's sheep farmers.

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