From Seychelles to farming at Toko Mouth

Overseas visitors are flocking to this rental cottage nestled between the farm and the sea.
Overseas visitors are flocking to this rental cottage nestled between the farm and the sea.
Logs await removal from the property.
Logs await removal from the property.
A bull eyes up a farm visitor.
A bull eyes up a farm visitor.
Flowers at the house.
Flowers at the house.
Farm visitors are advised to watch out for sea lions and seals before they walk the beach.
Farm visitors are advised to watch out for sea lions and seals before they walk the beach.
Wrapped baleage overlooks sheep and cattle grazing with native bush in the gully.
Wrapped baleage overlooks sheep and cattle grazing with native bush in the gully.

Toko Mouth farmer Simon Davies swapped seafood for sheep, as Sally Rae reports.

It's a long way from the Seychelles to Toko Mouth.

The path to farm ownership for coastal South Otago farmer Simon Davies has been an interesting one, including working in the seafood industry both in New Zealand and abroad.

Mr Davies (45) and his wife Joanna, with their two young daughters Georgina (3) and 7-month-old Juliette, farm Coombe Hay, a 750ha sheep and beef property boasting spectacular sea views.

Toko Mouth, 50km south of Dunedin and 15km southeast of Milton, is at the mouth of the Tokomairiro River and has about 70 holiday homes.

Brought up on a Taranaki sheep and beef farm, east of Stratford, Mr Davies completed a food technology degree at Massey University.

He wanted to do to the red meat industry what the dairy industry had done to milk - add value to it - but ended up being ''shoulder tapped'' and asked if he wanted to go into the seafood industry.

He spent four years with what was Crop and Food Research in the seafood unit in Nelson, followed by six months at Sealord.

That was followed by five years travelling around the world, working in seafood processing plants.

It culminated in working as a shift controller in a tuna cannery in the Seychelles which was producing 400 tonnes a day, with a staff of 1500 and operating 24-hours a day, seven days a week.

Simon and Joanna Davies with daughters Juliette (left) and Georgina at their Toko Mouth farm, Coombe Hay. Photos by Stephen Jaquiery.
Simon and Joanna Davies with daughters Juliette (left) and Georgina at their Toko Mouth farm, Coombe Hay. Photos by Stephen Jaquiery.

On returning to New Zealand, Mr Davies went back to Sealord to run a wet fish plant in Nelson and had just been put on to night-shift, which he loathed, when his parents asked if he was going to return to farm the family property.

So he got the plant up and running and then left to run the 485ha property, which was running sheep and moving into dairy support.

While at home, Mr Davies bought a small food processing business in New Plymouth which produced hummus and feta
dips and spreads and supplied Progressive Enterprises supermarkets.

But when that was taken over by Woolworths Australia, suppliers were told to reduce their prices or no longer supply, and it became uneconomic to continue. He managed to ''escape with half my shirt'', he said, reflecting on the financial loss.

Mr Davies met his future wife, Joanna, through mutual friends in Christchurch. Originally from Berwick, she had been going between working as a journalist and teaching English as a second language.

He was getting a little frustrated, knowing he would never be able to afford to buy the home farm as a sheep farm now the heart of it had been sold and cows were being milked on the land.

His parents also bought their local pub, the Stony River Hotel, which was somewhat of a landmark in Taranaki.

Financially, it was a ''disaster'' but they shut it down and were now running an early childhood centre in half of it, with one of his sisters, which had proved very successful.

It might have disgusted the small number of regular pub-goers but it had been to the ''absolute pleasure'' of local families with young children. The other half was leased out and the arrangement was working well.

Mr Davies was keen to head to the South Island, believing there were better opportunities in sheep farming there, and Mrs Davies was also keen to move back south.

He spent about three years looking for a suitable farm, with a very specific set of criteria. He visited Coombe Hay on his last trip south, three hours before he was due to catch a flight home.

Simon and Joanna Davies' farmhouse, which they bought without stepping inside it.
Simon and Joanna Davies' farmhouse, which they bought without stepping inside it.

He almost instantly decided that he wanted to have a go at buying it. He had looked at about 30 farms from Nelson to Bluff and it was the first one that he thought, ''Yeah, I like this''.

The property, which was 600ha effective, was running 4200 stock units with potential to run 6000, which was about what they were running now.

The couple, who farm it in a 50:50 partnership with Mr Davies' parents, shifted south six years ago in August.

While Mrs Davies had assured him the climate was ''quite mild'', four days after arriving, a southerly wind blew over seven macrocarpa trees that had been in place for decades.

There was no question the climate was cooler than Taranaki but it was something he had got used to, he said.

His biggest concern about moving south had been snow, as he had never dealt with it. Since moving, there had been snow every winter on the property but it had not been a major concern.

Weather conditions were something he had to be much more aware of than up north. And, as a rule, it was usually about 5degC cooler at Coombe Hay than at the next sheep farm up the valley.

Mr Davies enjoyed fencing and had done a lot of it on the property. He also did about 90% of the stock work himself, bringing in contractors for the likes of cultivation and spraying.

''I'm a doer, I'm a bit of a workaholic. I can go on holiday once I've finished all the jobs on the farm. Unfortunately, a sheep farmer will never have all the jobs finished.

''I probably work too hard. I'm not good at doing nothing. I like a tidy operation,'' he said

Given its public location, Mr Davies was very conscious that there were ''lots of sets of eyes'' on their operation and that was not a bad thing.

''We are getting more and more public. This road is getting busier and busier,'' he said.

Agapanthus line the roadside at the Coombe Hay farm entrance.
Agapanthus line the roadside at the Coombe Hay farm entrance.

At weekends, from about October through to late April, it was almost not worth trying to shift stock along the road, as it was so busy.

In hindsight, he was not sure if it was the right decision to go farming from a financial perspective.

The medium-term outlook for sheep and beef was always looking ''wonderful'' but the short-term was always poor.

''When does short-term become medium-term? When does medium-term become reality?''

Six years down the track, Mr Davies said he was in a far worse financial position than when he arrived.

His lamb weights might have increased and his mean kill date was earlier, but lamb prices had dropped. ''In four years' time, if things haven't substantially improved, I'm history,'' he said.

Realistically, farmers needed to be getting $120-$140 a lamb, while wool had been an ''utter disaster''.

The New Zealand economy depended on agriculture and he had a ''horrible feeling'' that 60%-70% of the population was unaware of that.

''One thing that really concerns me is towns like Balclutha, Milton and Gore to some extent, if sheep and beef farmers disappeared forever, you could kiss goodbye to [them].''

Mr Davies was a big fan of contracts, saying it enabled farmers to farm to the best potential of the property.

Signposts at Toko Mouth give directions to nearby towns.
Signposts at Toko Mouth give directions to nearby towns.

''It just makes farming so much easier; it gives an indication of what you're getting for income and you know what you can spend,'' he said.

Mr Davies, who is a director of the Clutha Development Trust, had governance aspirations and would like to get on the board of Silver Fern Farms. He was very much in favour of SFF's joint venture with Shanghai Maling.

He had done a To the Core course for SFF shareholders, which he highly recommended. Being among very forward-thinking, progressive farmers was a highlight, he said.

He had also completed a Federated Farmers leadership course this year, recognising that he needed more governance experience.

With his different background - ''I feel I'm not a typical farmer'' - he had a tendency to look at things differently, he said.

If he had more time, he would like to ''play around'' with meat processing, saying there were so many opportunities that were not being looked at.

Mr and Mrs Davies were seeking resource consent to subdivide eight sections off their front paddock, seeing that as a way to help ''survive to go forward''.

The couple also rent out a three-bedroom farm cottage which was running very well. While they were initially targeting Kiwi families, surprisingly it was attracting more overseas tourists. A farm tour was also offered.

A walkway on the property, open to the public, had also been developed and it was intended to make it into a loop.

Mr Davies said farmers wanted to look after the environment and their animals. That was the reason he had put in 50-odd water troughs, 12,000 shelter belt trees and fenced between five and eight kilometres of waterways.

However, for farmers to farm environmentally sustainable, they needed to be financially sustainable as well.

''Generally for sheep and beef farmers currently, this is not the case. Hence the conflict between aspirations and reality for most sheep and beef farmers. A comment often spoken is 'you have to be in the black to be green'.

''Perhaps if a few more urban consumers considered the environment and bought woollen carpets, rather than synthetic, and bought more red meat, we could afford to be more environmentally sustainable,'' he said.

Farmers living in Otago were very lucky with the Otago Regional Council, saying its approach was ''so much better'' than other areas, he said.

The view from the front lawn.
The view from the front lawn.

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