‘Wonderful’ high-country memories

(Clockwise from top left) former Lake Hawea Station owners Adrienne and Tom Rowley and their...
(Clockwise from top left) former Lake Hawea Station owners Adrienne and Tom Rowley and their grandchildren Jimmy, Scout, Rossco, Eliza and Joe; the station homestead and garden during the Rowley family’s tenure; a recent view of Lake Hawea Station. Photos: supplied/Stephen Jaquiery
For more than a century, the Rowley family farmed Lake Hawea Station before selling the property in 2018 to Geoff and Justine Ross, who have documented their farming journey in a new book. Concerned about how their long-standing stewardship of the property has been portrayed, the Rowley family talk to business and rural editor Sally Rae about their recollections of life on the land.

Anna Rowley can still clearly recall the first time she laid eyes on Lake Hawea Station.

She had been dating her future husband Dougal for a few weeks when he invited her to visit his family property, inhabited by the Rowley family for more than 100 years.

"Driving up the driveway into the farm yard with the chooks and the dogs and farm machinery, it was just a charming, classic Kiwi farmyard," she recalled this week.

They drove up to Dougal’s then home, Gum Tree Cottage, which his parents Tom and Adrienne once lived in for nine years.

"There’s a stream trickling by in the gully and impressive mountains in the background, plus a fantastic view looking out over the lake. It seemed such a peaceful and secluded spot.

"Walking into the house, [it is] quirky and it’s cosy. The main thing I remember is an overwhelming sense of privilege that I might be able to live in this amazing space and become part of this proud farming family."

Anna’s description is a far cry from that of Justine Ross, who bought the 6500ha property in April 2018 with her husband Geoff, and has now penned a book Meet You At the Main Divide, outlining their farming journey.

It is a book the Rowley family — who have never previously spoken about the high-profile sale of their property to the founders of 42 Below Vodka — find unfairly and unnecessarily frames their guardianship of the property in a poor light.

Describing her first visit to the station, Ms Ross writes "it looked like a Boeing 747 had crashed there in the 70s and no-one had bothered to clean up".

"Granted, we were clueless about farming — this place could have been an organised profit-making machine for all we knew — but our gut cried ‘Flee! Save yourselves!"’

Little about the property — which she describes as rundown and neglected — receives praise. Even the woolshed — which hosted a white tablecloth formal dinner for a Rowley family reunion in 2010 — is "woebegone".

But it is the homestead which receives the most offensive moniker, dubbed by Ms Ross as "the Bain House", referring to the infamous semi-derelict house in Dunedin where five members of the Bain family were slain in 1994. "The detritus of the busy Bain House erodes the quality of our lives like the rising sea level causing coastal erosion," she wrote.

Gum Tree Cottage was now a cheerless farmhouselet — "to describe it as a cottage would indicate charm" — and became duly known as Baby Bain.

Anna Rowley finds the descriptions "bizarre", adding it was only Ms Ross’ view. For those that read the book and got the impression the station was previously poorly managed and neglected, the Rowley family wanted to have their say.

Quietly spoken Tom Rowley — referred to in the book as "the old guy" — spent all of his life on Lake Hawea Station; while the book referenced his birth in the kitchen of the homestead — he was actually born in Cromwell — he grew up in the homestead and later brought up his own family in it.

Following his marriage to Adrienne in 1972, the couple lived in "Baby Bain" before Tom’s parents, Jim and Fiona, moved to Hawea and they moved into the homestead.

It remained the meeting place for the extended Rowley family and it was the hub of the family and the station — "and the memories of that are just absolutely wonderful", Tom said.

Tom and Adrienne remained in the homestead until the property was sold and they moved to Wānaka.

Built in 1935, Tom said many houses of the same age would have the same problems and did not try to hide any of them. "We were very happy living in it right until the day we left. We loved it, it was our home."

The family hosted many happy occasions at Lake Hawea Station, from family gatherings, school fundraisers and tourists to American cycling groups, weddings and garden tours.

The renowned Alfred Buxton designed garden — tended by three generations of Rowley wives — featured in books and NZ House & Garden magazine.

"We absolutely loved and cherished that place. We honestly did have amazing times there and such happiness. It was a wonderful life and we worked hard but we had fun," Adrienne said.

Anna said a family that managed the same land for more than a century developed a deep understanding and attachment to it.

They watched and learned how the land interacted with the climate and the livestock and, as a result, were able to work with the land and produce happy healthy animals with minimal environmental impact and on a limited budget.

In the book, Ms Ross spoke about her deep concern about the climate crisis and, although becoming a certified carbon neutral property might ease her conscience, high-country properties generally had a low carbon output and relatively simple solutions were available given the scale of the properties, the Rowley family said.

Dealing with on-farm carbon emissions remained a highly complex problem for more intensive farming operations. The industry was working hard to find solutions but unfortunately not all farm products could demand a premium for carbon-neutral status and many good farmers might be forced off the land, they feared.

Anna felt it was questionable whether Lake Hawea Station, under the ownership of the Ross family, could be compared to other properties "because they have options that most farmer’s don’t have, like choosing not to finish station-bred calves — they can take a financial loss to suit their environmental goals".

For the Rowleys, there were always aspects of the property they hoped to improve, subject to affordability.

Tom recalled getting paid $1.65 for old wethers and $3.40 for cull ewe hoggets.

"We had some tough times but we just worked through them," he said.

But always, there was that love of the high country; a passion for merino sheep and the fine wool they produced, which became part of who they were.

There has been a long-running exhibition at Te Papa called "Blood Earth Fire", which explores Kiwis’ connections with the land.

Farming is represented by the Rowley family and it features spectacular shots of musterers, including Tom, heading out on their beats and then bringing the sheep off the steep and rugged terrain.

Being in those mountains was his "absolute happy place".

When Tom and his brother Jerry took over the station in 1985, they bought a flat-land property which "really changed everything". Previously, there was very little flat land and it was a relatively simple property to farm.

But it was also a store property and the addition of the flats meant they could finish stock. The installation of a centre-pivot irrigator in 2011 enabled them to "finish everything with ease".

By the time they left, meat made up more than 50% of their income; previously, about 80% was wool but they moved to a more dual-purpose sheep.

The Rowley family maintain they handed over Lake Hawea Station in "really good working order". "For a ‘run down property’, we actually did a hell of a good job. We were known to have some of the best lambs in the area," Tom said.

They also had a good working relationship with the Department of Conservation after rare lizards were identified on the property prior to the family undertaking tenure review. As a result, a specific area was fenced off and Doc staff had access at any time.

When the family sold the station to the Rosses, they thought they would have a good relationship with them.

"Falling out over the lease and a water right shattered that dream.

"However, there was hope time would heal those wounds. Justine’s book and her attitude to us, particularly Adrienne and I, makes reconciliation look a very distant dream," Tom said.

Anna, who still lives in the area, loves how the locals gather at the lake front on hot summer evenings.

"We have an amazingly diverse community with some really interesting people in it, and we all come together down at the lake. If the Rosses can find a more careful and understanding approach to those labelled in the book as ‘hostile locals’, it would be nice to meet Justine and Geoff down at the lake some time," she said.

When contacted, Justine said her book was an "honest and raw account" and her personal experience; the experience of moving from a very privileged environment contrasted with "something entirely different".

"My writing style is very descriptive and humorous and it set about to create that contrast and give readers a clear sense, but none of it is embellished. I stand by my descriptions," she said.

Asked why the couple bought the property if they were so dismayed by its appearance, she said they were "so naive".

"We didn’t do due diligence. We fell in love with the region, with the opportunities for farming and, despite coming from these farming backgrounds, we were incredibly naive.

"It’s been so incredibly hard. I think it’s just like one of those moments where you see something, you just bite off more than you can chew."

The purpose of the book was to shine a light on the climate crisis and the obstacles and opportunities the agriculture sector has and there were "more important things in this highly charged world that we live in than this [referring to the Rowley family’s concerns] — the focus needs to be on the climate crisis, on women’s issues, on the opportunities for the ag sector".

She said the state of the property was extensively documented at the time of purchase and lease contract being negotiated and there were "thousands and thousands" of photographs. "We paid $17.5 million for an asset that is very, very thoroughly documented," she said.

"We all have a different perspective on what good guardianship looks like. For us, it looks like planting native trees, it looks like fencing water ways, it looks like gates that function, and it looks like animals that are free of footrot and lice. That’s what good guardianship looks like. For other people, it may be different."

Justine said her family and the station remained at the Rowley family’s disposal.

"We are open forever-more to any member of the family who would like to spend time on the farm or time with us. It would be an honour and a privilege, no doubt about that. The light is always on."

She believed there was a lot of misinformation "about how much money we have or haven’t made".

"I think anyone who did the maths of paying $17.5 million for a farm and then millions of dollars worth of stock and work done for fencing and infrastructure ... realises its very important to us to run a profitable business.

"It’s really beholden on us ... staff to pay, animals to care for, relentless cycles of the seasons. We need to be able to support this property and all the successes and failures have to all wash out.

"It feels a little rich for people to make assumptions about our financial position and, in fact, the farm carries debt. Once you do the maths, you start to get a bigger picture."

Justine said her family’s values and those of the former owners were very different and she hoped they would perhaps become more aligned in the future.

While there was a lot of empathy for letting go of a family property, there were also significant payments made — "so I think there’s a time at which it becomes business and we’ve done everything that we can to make the farm aligned to our values and profitable".

"From the bottom of our hearts, there is no doubt we would like to have the benefits of the extraordinary knowledge and the oversight .. from any member of that family."

sally.rae@odt.co.nz

 

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