Wetland work recognised

A wetland on the Pāmu dairy farm will be given the name the Glider wetland after its creators...
A wetland on the Pāmu dairy farm will be given the name the Glider wetland after its creators Helen and Peter Glider at a ceremony at Waitepeka in the Catlins tomorrow. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
The environmental work of retired farmers Helen and Peter Gilder will be recognised at a wetland naming ceremony in the Catlins tomorrow. The couple talk to Shawn McAvinue about the highs and lows of their farming career, including dire debt, developing a dairy farm and daring to dream.

Emotions will be mixed when a wetland on a dairy farm in the Catlins is given a name tomorrow, retired farmers Helen and Peter Gilder say.

The wetland lies on a Pāmu dairy farm in Waitepeka, about 10km south of Balclutha on the Southern Scenic Route.

At a ceremony on the site tomorrow afternoon, it be officially named the Gilder Wetland.

The Gilders worked for Pāmu, the brand name for state-owned enterprise Landcorp Farming, for more than 30 years.

In 2010, Mrs Gilder created an ambitious goal to develop a 4ha wetland on the "swampy, boggy" land bordering two Pāmu dairy farms, Dunns and Landsdown.

Her vision included the community pitching in to restore a native wetland, to create a spawning area for endangered native fish species including giant kōkopu.

The dream was to have a wetland featuring boardwalks, picnic tables and QEII protection, creating a space for the community and tourists to enjoy and learn and showcase the environmental work on Pāmu farms.

Her plan was to cover half of the wetland in native plants.

People had already pitched in with planting, including local school pupils, Telford students and Fonterra Stirling staff.

The project was "ginormous" and involved several stages of planting.

However, she was halfway to realising her vision when Pāmu shifted how she accessed the budget and how she reported on it.

As she felt she had lost control of the project, she put it in the "too-hard basket" and she stepped away.

A regret was never sharing her vision for the wetland to the Landcorp board after creating it in 2010, to help them better understand its potential.

"I should have presented my vision — that’s my biggest regret."

The ceremony tomorrow would focus more on the overall environmental work of the couple during their time at Pāmu, rather than just the wetland, she said.

Their retirement from Pāmu about 18 months ago was the final chapter in a colourful history of farming for the couple in the South.

Mr Gilder was born and raised in Mataura.

His father served in World War 2, and was given land to establish a dairy farm in Mataura Island.

He was 10 when his dad died.

He and his mother — who sold the farm to his older sister — moved to Gore in 1960.

After leaving high school, he entered the Southland Farm Cadet Scheme, he said.

"They placed you on some pretty tough operators."

He recalled being nervous when his mother dropped him off at a work placement at a farm in Eastern Bush, which was "100 miles from Gore".

"In those days you lived in the house with a farmer and his wife."

Retired farmers Helen and Peter Gilder relax in their home in Jack’s Bay. PHOTO: SHAWN MCAVINUE
Retired farmers Helen and Peter Gilder relax in their home in Jack’s Bay. PHOTO: SHAWN MCAVINUE
As part of the scheme, he received training at Telford, where he met his future wife.

Mrs Gilder, nee Wilson, was born in Balclutha and raised in Stirling.

She was working in the office at the Import Stores in Balclutha when her brother introduced her to some of his Telford mates.

"This one here was among them."

After the scheme, he got a job as a spraying contractor in Balfour and they kept in touch, she said.

"We would write letters on Sunday night and have a phone call during the week. I used to sit in the passage with my feet up the wall and my dad was on the other side and every now and then he would yell ‘that’s enough, get off there’."

On a trip to visit her, he called in to Telford and accepted a spontaneous offer of a shepherd job on the sheep, beef and deer farm for three years.

As he was closer to Balclutha, their love blossomed and they married in Stirling in 1973. She was 19 and he was 23.

The newlyweds secured a five year contract managing a farm in Barnego, near Balclutha.

During their time in Barnego, they had three children — Jason, Karla and Regan.

After the contract expired, they leased two farm blocks in Kelso, West Otago, from 1978 and ran 3600 ewes and 200 beef cattle , he said.

The times were good on the farm.

"We were getting on pretty good."

An owner of a farm they were leasing offered them a compulsory purchase agreement on 160ha of land.

The agreement stated they could buy the land at a fixed price in three years time, he said.

"It was a great opportunity."

As they would one day own the farm, they developed it, planting trees, installing fences and building tracks and sheds.

"The world was our oyster."

Then there was a change in government in 1984 and Finance Minister Roger Douglas removed farm subsidies in a bid to control inflation.

"Farmers were going broke all over the countryside."

In hindsight, the removal of subsidies was the best thing to happen to farming, but land values plummeted, making the agreement they signed much more favourable to the landowner.

"We were in the s... financially."

The landowner could have forced them off the land but he allowed the agreement to be scrapped and for them to continue to lease it.

A decision was made to stay on the land due to their love of farming and they tried to work themselves out of a dire financial situation.

"We were struggling away with horrendous interest rates and debt for Africa."

A wetland on a Pāmu dairy farm in Waitepeka in the Catlins, which is set to be named after...
A wetland on a Pāmu dairy farm in Waitepeka in the Catlins, which is set to be named after retired farmers Helen and Peter Gilder at a ceremony on the site tomorrow. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
In between running the farm, he worked for shearing and tailing gangs.

At the same time Landcorp bought the 344ha finishing farm Dawson Downs, between Clinton and Balclutha, in 1990 and advertised for a manager.

About 50 people applied for the job and the Gilders got it.

Mrs Gilder said walking away from the farm in Kelso "still hurts" to this day.

The debt took them about 15 years to pay off, she said.

"We started all over."

Mr Gilder said the development of Dawson Downs during their eight-year tenure up to 1998 included planting trees, creating lanes and installing cattle yards.

"I like work and I like development. Landcorp were good to us but we worked our arses off."

The Landcorp board funded every business plan he presented for a development project, he said.

In 1998, Landcorp asked them if they would "tidy up" its 500ha sheep and beef farm in Waitepeka.

Mrs Gilder said she had created a beautiful home and garden in Dawson Downs, so she was less than thrilled at the prospect of moving to an inferior home in Waitepeka.

She agreed to move because she knew her husband needed a new challenge.

"I was crying before I walked out of the house."

Mr Gilder said after arriving in Waitepeka, the couple changed the farm from breeding stock to finishing them.

"We did a load of development, a lot of fencing and lanes to make management easier and three years later we were converting it to dairy and we had to pull down all these nice, new fences we had put up."

The conversion included the digging of nearly 150km of open drains and then fencing them, he said.

"We worked humungeous hours."

Mrs Gilder said the conversion also included the building of three new houses, the moving and refurbishing of two cottages and building the infrastructure to milk about 1800 cows.

"It was a lot of hard work, but it was exciting and really rewarding."

As they were managing multiple budgets for multiple farms, running beef, dairy and deer, Mr Gilder was promoted from farm manager to farm business manager.

The couple now live in Jack’s Bay in the Catlins, where his great-grandparents and grandmother came ashore from the shipwrecked three-masted vessel Surat in 1874.

When his father returned from war, he built a crib at Jack’s Bay, where he died.

The announcement of the wetland naming ceremony tomorrow initially stirred negative emotions for Mrs Gilder, but she was looking forward to remembering the good times, including school children learning about the important role wetlands play in an ecosystem.

"That’s what I call sowing a seed about the importance of looking after the environment — we’ve only got it on loan and it has to be passed to the next generation."