Musical interlude for farming family

When they don’t have their hands full with farming at their South Canterbury property Wairangi...
When they don’t have their hands full with farming at their South Canterbury property Wairangi Farms, Gary, Charlotte and Oscar Talbot can be found thinking, talking or making childrens’ music. PHOTOS: TIM CRONSHAW
A creative streak goes beyond farming for a South Canterbury family, writes Tim Cronshaw.

Music is a family affair for the Talbots who run a dryland arable and finishing operation at Waitohi, just outside of Temuka.

Wairangi Farms can be traced back to four generations with its 120-year-old homestead nestled in between established trees and implement sheds built long ago.

Husband Gary leads the grain and seed operation, while wife Charlotte is the creative force behind Cee Bee Teatime and her farm-inspired "music and movement" for children.

Daughter Emily, an Auckland University student, provides the vocals, son Oscar the musical production and Gary the hand-on-chin final critique.

They all seem to play at least one instrument. Charlotte and Emily — a former member of the New Zealand Secondary Students' Choir — both sing, play the piano and flute, while Charlotte also plays some ukulele.

As well as being a dab hand with production software, Oscar plays the drums, guitar, bass and can also turn his hand to the piano and keyboards, while Gary prefers the acoustic guitar.

Equally talented is middle son Louis, who has yet to be involved in the songwriting process.

He has gone from playing the guitar and French horn to become possibly the only baptised Sikh in the army and now plays the sitar, tabla and rubab.

The songwriting for mainly pre-schoolers evolved from English-born Charlotte performing weekly music and movement sessions for many years for Temuka Plunket.

Initially, she would turn up with a playlist of music from New Zealand and overseas childhood creators.

At each session, the under 5-year-olds enthusiastically bounce, weave and carry out the many arm and leg actions to music. The demand led to more sessions at Timaru Plunket and a special programme for babies.

And then Covid-19 came along.

"My first thought when Covid stopped everything is maybe we should put something online so the children can still have their weekly sessions and funnily enough the people at Plunket were thinking the same thing," Charlotte recalls.

The music went on a Facebook page, and she was delighted when the live sessions were warmly received. Before long, though, invisible algorithms by the online giant put silencers on the posts to avoid running foul of copyright breaches.

That was the catalyst for her putting pen to paper, with words accompanied by her own music.

"I thought, how am I going to get around this? I realised the way was to make up my own songs. I’ve always had rhymes and words in my head so that came quite naturally. I play the ukulele and some basic songs came on to paper."

Fully expecting no reply back, she contacted well-known children’s entertainer Suzy Cato, who encouraged her to branch out into her own music and to join the Facebook collective, Kiwi Kids Music, which helped her with advice and many tips.

Oscar happened to have returned home to work on the farm after harvesting stints in the United Kingdom and North America when Covid-19 arrived in early 2020.

He had recording software for his own musical needs so his technical nous was put to good use and Emily was a natural for the vocals.

Mother and son, Charlotte and Oscar Talbot, spend a lot of their spare time in the music studio...
Mother and son, Charlotte and Oscar Talbot, spend a lot of their spare time in the music studio cutting children’s entertainment tracks.
A following developed and the musical production grew from there.

When the Temuka Plunket sessions went live briefly again a regular mother of four children asked for the artist responsible for the interactive Piwakawaka song.

Charlotte explained it was her song and unavailable online. That got her thinking about ways to share the music more widely.

So she plucked up the courage to release some of them on Spotify and Hands has so far been the most popular with more than one thousand streams.

Piwakawaka was released last week, and will be followed by Good Night (Farm Lullaby) on April 8 and Toast a fortnight later.

More lately, the playlist has been more farm-themed, bringing in the countryside, farm animals and agriculture machinery.

Gary says the songs are helping city children get closer to rural life at a young age.

"It’s not a bad thing educating city people about where their food comes from or what the farmer does. That’s one way to get education across to people — via songs."

There are times when both parents vie for the multitalented Oscar, but there’s mutual agreement that the farm comes first.

GARY’S great-grandfather, John Talbot, arrived in the district in the 1860s and bought a block of land on the nearby downs. The landholding was increased to about 5000 acres, not including Wairangi.

Much of this was for livestock farming, but a lot of wheat was grown at the turn of the century. A steam traction engine used to be parked inside a nearby old shed with a mill for threshing.

When Gary returned to the farm there were 3500 Romney ewes and they were morphed into firstly a Border Romney cross flock and then Coopworths.

Little by little they got pushed to the margins by cropping.

"Typically, I’ve always been interested in learning the agronomy of a wide array of crops against the advice of just about everyone I know," he laughs.

"Sometimes experimenting with crops doesn’t play out very well, but the flipside of that is there’s a number of specialist small seeds over the years that have been very profitable and I’ve really enjoyed growing them."

It is in this field that Gary’s creativeness shines.

The challenge is building his agronomic experience with these tricky small seed crops on the Waitohi district’s often unkind country without irrigation.

He always likes trying new crops rather than sticking with the status quo and this keeps him stimulated with growing. A long list includes carrots, radish, coriander, linseed and phacelia, sunflowers and chrysanthemum and one year there were about 14 crops sown and grown.

Among the successful experiments was a profitable one hectare crop of salad rocket that was valued at $30,000 a tonne. Gary would have loved to get his hands on more seed.

Typically, about 150ha to 250ha of feed wheat is grown in the minimum-tillage operation, 50-100ha of barley and 80-90ha of ryegrass seed in a general ratio of 40% cereals, 30% break crops such as pulses and oil seeds and 30% specialist seeds.

Gary, Charlotte and Oscar Talbot divide their passions between music and farming at Wairangi...
Gary, Charlotte and Oscar Talbot divide their passions between music and farming at Wairangi Farms in South Canterbury’s Waitohi.
Dryland yields range from 8-11 tonnes/ hectare for feed wheat, spring barley 7-8 tonnes and as high as 11 tonnes, peas and oil seeds in the "high threes", grass seed 1.5-2 tonnes chrysanthemum 1.5 tonnes, carrots 650kg to 1 tonne.

This season the mix included wheat, barley, grasses, red clovers, peas, radish, choisum, oil seed rape and hairy vetch — an annual legume that firmly fits in the regenerative multispecies pastures for its nitrogen-fixing.

The first attempt at growing vetch yielded a bumper crop during a normal dry season. Seven hectares of it are in the ground this season for the niche market of regenerative farmers needing seed for their cover crop mixtures. In his latest experiment he’s also put it with an oat mixture for grazing sheep over winter.

He’s trying to work out its place in the system as it didn’t get through the wet December particularly well.

Conversely, a block of lucerne grown as a cut-and-carry crop for dairy farmers, or kept as "one of our cover crop brews" for winter finishing, has performed beyond expectations. A four-cut season has produced surplus lucerne baleage.

Another block of oil seed rape struggled to establish after a late germination because of a dry autumn.

"So we came through to the Spring and thought what are we going to do? There had been some discussion about maize and I thought mmm why don’t we try some maize. Well it’s about eight feet high now, and an absolutely wonderful crop."

The temptation is to feed this to the lambs too, and that’s an attractive proposition when maize yields 17 to 20 tonnes a hectare compared with kale’s 9-12 tonnes/hectare typically produced in their area.

"Chrysanthemum is an interesting one because everyone thinks flowers, but the people who want chrysanthemum multiplied in New Zealand are typically the Vietnamese. When we were in Vietnam years ago we were curious to know what it was being used for. They grow a variety vegetative to about thigh-height and they lop it off, bind it up and send it to the fresh market. The local householder will strip the leaves into a broth and blanche it much the way we would have silver beet."

This crop is best sown in autumn and perfect for an early harvest. They’ve got the seed ready to go, but the ground is so saturated over a wet season that they’re struggling to get it in.

"We’ve got something like 25ha of carrots to go in this season if I can get them in the ground and another 25ha of chrysanthemum. If we find we blow out too much we will pull the pulse area back. Rotationally it’s not bang, bang, bang — every year I sit down and think about the field, how it’s performed, what its fertility is like, and your weed spectrums you have to be careful about."

Phacelia is grown as a nectar provider for bees and used as cover crop by regenerative growers.

"It’s quite difficult to grow as it has these big exploding pods and you have to use pod-lock to try and stop the seed from popping. There’s a bit of a balance with playing with high-value experimentals which are high return and high risk and bread-and-butter crops. Ironically this year even the bread-and butter-crops have taken a pounding."

Gary’s been interested in the regenerative movement and its soil-first philosophy appeals to him. They’ve cut away from a lot of fungicides, used biology in some seed treatments and while introducing mycorrhizal-fungi and trichodermas is not cheaper, it’s better for the soil.

At one stage he was cropping 1000ha of leased and privately owned land, but has refined this to Wairangi’s 630ha.

Breeding stock have been replaced by 3000 to 4000 finishing lambs over the winter depending on how many feed crops are available.

Previously, they planted a lot of milling and Durum wheat when there was an active mill in Timaru, but have focused on feed wheat.

Gary’s the manager of the New Zealand Grain Growers Society, a co-operative initially started about 20 years ago mainly to export malt to China.

This was reactivated with a database of 100 to 150 growers who pool their grain together when the conditions are right to optimise prices or co-ordinate often back-to-back deals with grain merchants.

In between all this farming, the spare hours are consumed by music.

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