Family ‘farming for the next generation’

Dan Devine and Jaz Mathisen, pictured with their young daughters Ava and Ida, are focused on...
Dan Devine and Jaz Mathisen, pictured with their young daughters Ava and Ida, are focused on farming for future generations on Awakino Station. PHOTO CREDITS (FROM BOTTOM LEFT): REBECCA DWYER/STEPHEN JAQUIERY/KATE WILSON-NEW ZEALAND MERINO COMPANY/SALLY RAE
In rural North Otago, a hard-working high-country family is working to preserve their slice of paradise for future generations. Rural editor Sally Rae reports.

Back in 2004, Dan Devine’s image went global.

After he hoisted the newly-found Shrek, the hermit merino wether discovered on Bendigo Station in Central Otago, on to his shoulders, the subsequently-snapped Otago Daily Times photograph sparked a world media frenzy.

These days, Mr Devine is managing Awakino Station near Kurow, with his partner Jaz Mathisen and their two young daughters, Ava (4) and baby Ida, who arrived in February.

Awakino Station, just a short drive from Kurow and yet in a world of its own, was purchased by Tom Fraser, Dan Devine’s maternal grandfather, in 1988.

His life goal was to own a farm but he moved into the family produce business in Dunedin and his dream was not realised until he retired.

Mr Devine was the first Fraser/Devine to farm the 7500ha property which previously employed managers.

Born in Kaikoura, he grew up at Redbank Station at Macraes, although he was off to boarding school when he was 8 years old.

Always with a desire to be a farmer, he worked mostly on high country stations throughout his career.

He spent six years at Tarras — two years fencing and four casual mustering — and three years at Molesworth mustering.

He also drove tractors in Australia for several seasons and spent four years professionally breaking in horses.

Mr Devine was working at Cleardale Station, in the Rakaia Gorge, when he met Ms Mathisen. Originally from the Wairarapa, she moved to Hanmer Springs when she was 15.

Her parents’ farm neighboured Hossack Station, where Mr Devine was working, but the couple did not meet until she was 22.

After studying agriculture at Telford, she worked on dairy farms and then travelled around the United States before getting a job at Cleardale as a shepherd.

She later progressed to stud manager for the Todhunter family’s fine wool sheep and Angus cattle.

Five years ago, Mr Devine was offered the job of managing Awakino. The couple moved south and Ms Mathisen continued to work remotely for Cleardale until Ida was born.

Awakino is a sheep, beef and deer property, wintering about 24,000-25,000 stock units. It has a team of six full-time staff, including Mr Devine.

Asked the biggest challenge he faced running the property, Mr Devine quickly responded with "Government legislation".

His job had changed from being predominantly a stock person to spending three or four days a week in the office.

"It’s challenging and it’s taken a different mindset approaching the job. We’ve had to become better at business and rely on having stock managers and others.

"The biggest worry for me is the Government taking land off us. We do a very good job of trying to protect our significant natural areas, flora and fauna, that sort of thing. To have the rules change in such a quick way is very, very hard to keep up with.

"I think farmers do an incredibly good job of managing what they have. The Government’s one-shop-fits-all scenario isn’t working for us," he said.

At Awakino, there were swamps and wetlands, altitudinal sequence, native falcons and a variety of native plants and broom.

They did not overgraze. Some areas were not meant to have stock on them and they realised that, he said. They were also looking at doing some QEII National Trust covenants.

But it was "quite difficult" dealing with bureaucracy, Mr Devine said, adding that he believed the Government needed to better manage the land it had.

Particularly since having children, the couple were a lot more aware of the future and trying to improve the farm and the environment, making it a "little haven" for future generations, Ms Mathisen said.

"We realise we are custodians of the land. We’re not farming for ourselves now, we’re farming for the next generation, farming for the future."

And that meant their planning was not short-term decisions, as what they were doing was setting up the next generation, Mr Devine said.

For fairly hardy young Ava, who was usually sporting bare feet — even in winter — it was an idyllic rural upbringing, surrounded by various pet animals, including lambs and at present , Gavin the piglet and Rein the fawn.

Described by her mother as ‘wild and free", with so much space to explore, Ava takes delight in checking the possum trap daily.

With a reasonable amount of noise herself, her mother joked Ava would not need a huntaway dog when she began her own shepherding career.

"So much better than growing up in town," Mr Devine said.

When the couple first moved to Awakino, the property ran merino and Romney sheep but they have since been breeding the Romneys into the halfbreds, looking for more of a dual-purpose sheep.

They tended to align themselves with companies with similar views and they were supporters of the New Zealand Merino Company and its marketing. They also supplied the Silere alpine origin merino programme.

They needed dual income from each stock class; cattle were not just bred for beef but also sold, in-calf and bulls, to dairy farmers.

Deer produced venison and velvet, as they tried to cover as many bases as possible to spread their risk.

Asked what stock class he preferred working with and Mr Devine laughed, "I don’t like working with wapiti elk stags."

He had no real preference, but acknowledged the best days he ever had were sitting way up a mountain somewhere behind a mob of merino sheep, where there was a "real feeling of peace of tranquillity" — "and you feel like you’re the only person in the world."

But he also acknowledged that the increased paperwork component was part and parcel of the farming business operation now.

While Ms Mathisen missed heading out with a team of dogs, roles changed throughout life and she was getting enjoyment from her role as station cook, providing a cooked meal for staff every lunchtime.

Having the workers in their home every day also meant that they got to know them and they became part of the extended family, she said.

They employed like-minded people, so they knew they would fit in the team. Recruiting staff was not an issue, they said.

They ate very seasonally — lamb in summer, beef in winter and also pork and venison.

They refused to buy meat from the supermarket and, while a lot of urban people would go and buy ingredients for a meal, Ms Mathisen looked in the freezer, saw what meat was there and created a meal around that, fortified by her extensive garden.

She now had about 4500 followers on her Instagram page which highlighted farm to table and the meals, bread, baking and preserves she created using her homegrown produce.

The couple loved their local community. Ms Mathisen said there seemed to be the next generation "coming home now" so there were lots of young families and it was easy to fit in.

Mr Devine played rugby, which he joked was a "stupid game". However, that came hot on the heels of playing for Kurow in the North Otago president’s grade final — in plenty of mud — where the clock read 113 minutes by the time the final whistle blew.

This, he reckoned, was his last season, but he said that most years. He also reckoned it could be his last season competing in strength games.

Ten years ago, when Mr Devine was working for John and Tish Ballagh, who were founding members of the Hororata Highland Games, they suggested he have a go.

Since then, he has represented New Zealand against Australia at the Rural Games in Queenstown, a teams event won by New Zealand.

Strength games attracted a strong following around the world, much of it stemming from power lifting, and there was good prizemoney on offer, Mr Devine said.

"I love it how these men, it’s their life ... Dan’s just this farmer who waltzes on in on the day, stands his own and actually can win," Ms Mathisen said.

Asked what he enjoyed about it, Mr Devine said "absolutely nothing" before adding it was probably the challenge.

He had a gym in a shed and also what his partner described as a "giant pet rock"— weighing in at 145kg — at the dog kennels, sitting on top of the chest freezer which held the dog biscuits.

That did make it a bit awkward if she needed to get into it.

Generally, strength athletes were considered old around the age of 38.

"Most of the guys I compete with, as they get older, their bodies are really done and dusted. Ligaments are gone in their arms, they’re constantly on painkillers. A lot of them started young," Mr Devine (41) said.

Ms Mathisen said there was a great atmosphere at events. Despite being competitors, the strength athletes all got on well together and were supportive of each other.

Mr Devine’s worst experience was during a competition in Dunedin last year, when he had to lift five balls, weighing up to 140kg, while wearing a kilt and suffering the aftermath of a decidedly dodgy breakfast.

Mr Devine still had a lofty goal — to go to Scotland and tackle the Dinnie Stones; two giant granite boulders in Aberdeenshire, weighing 144.47kg and 188.02kg, which had to be picked up together.

He would probably look at training for a year before attempting that. The key to heavy lifting was to start slow "and go slow right the way through" to protect the body as much as possible.

So what about that landmark day in April 2004 when Mr Devine was mustering with the late Ann Scanlan on Bendigo Station and Miss Scanlan found a woolly hermit, soon to be dubbed Shrek?

He carried the wether down to the truck for her, thinking it would make a great specimen for the window of the Merino Shop in Tarras. There was a discussion about "ethically killing him" and getting the animal stuffed, he recalled dryly.

When it was later suggested by Otago Daily Times illustrations editor Stephen Jaquiery that he lift Shrek on to his shoulders for a photograph, he thought nothing of it.

The next day, the image had gone around New Zealand and by the following day, world.

It was a feel-good story and it turned out to be a great opportunity to support Cure Kids, he said.

Mr Devine reckoned he was rated 64th sexiest man in Canada —"and I’d never ever been there ... maybe I should have gone" — and he was interviewed by the world’s media.

Because he was young at the time, a lot of the attention went "straight over my head".

"I didn’t realise how lucky I was to be part of it.

"I’ve had a very fortunate life, I’ve been very lucky some of the opportunities that have happened to me," he said.

It lead to him competing on reality television series Island Wars and he also took part in a New Zealand’s toughest man competition, but may have been slowed down by running up the stairs of Auckland’s Sky Tower in his cowboy boots.

Living in the high country, he had some "terrific" mentors, as he cited the likes of John Perriam, from Bendigo Station, and Ben Todhunter, from Cleardale Station.

He felt fortunate to have always had very good bosses and he tried to replicate that with his own staff at Awakino.

The family tended to holiday on-farm, although Mr Devine headed to Fiordland twice a year, relishing the lack of cellphone coverage.

It was good to do things off-farm which made him switch off from "what’s going on here". He already has his fixed-wing pilot’s licence and was quite keen to do his helicopter licence.

Their family — including Mr Devine’s brother and sister — was looking to keep Awakino Station in the family for future generations.

Family returned for holidays and it was always a "real treat" for people to get away from every day life and retreat to Awakino — "to just come back and chill out", Mr Devine said.

sally.rae@odt.co.nz

 

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