Seventy-two acres of hill country with poor soil quality, lots of rocky rhyolite outcrops, 30-odd acres of pine trees and strong winds is close to perfection for lifestyle blockers Shane and his partner Michaela. Which may seem odd, considering all they wanted when they started was a few sheep, chooks and a house cow and a bit of room to feel free.
One of their prized possessions is a small digger. The land is so steep in places that flat areas have to be artificially created. When they took the property on, they discovered that the only existing flat area was too small for their intended 168m2 shed. The cost of commercial landforming was so high, they went out and bought the 3-tonne digger and did it themselves, intending to sell the digger afterwards. But then winter rains washed out the road, Michaela realised she needed a garden (or two), more shed sites were needed, and the digger became part of the family. Shane has just spent a happy three weeks working on their new road to the house and getting a layer of aggregate on the driveway in preparation for winter.
Shane explains this hard slog by saying “Living on a hill is hard work but we do get a huge sense of achievement in what we do. I would recommend others to do what we have, so long as they have the time. If I had to work fulltime in town, it would be a hard task.” Shane shares his time with the property and works off-site for only 2 to 3 days a week.
The steep site might deter some, but Shane likes a hill. As he says, “You get fit on this block – when you walk out the door you either go up or down. If you go up, you start to warm up quickly. If you go down, you eventually have to come back up!” And they accept the reduced productivity as a payoff for the view, the mountain biking and the abseiling. From a safety point of view, Shane and Michaela have completed Farmsafe courses in ATV and 4WD use, which they consider important insurance when working land like this. They also carefully researched livestock breeds and settled on a flock of around fifty Perendale sheep as being the most suitable to their location and needs.
And what about those pine trees – the bane of many lifestyle blockers’ lives? Shane loves his pine forest. For starters, it gets the actual functional area of their block down to a mere 36 acres or so, which he describes as “a nice lifestyle size”. And as he says, with a laugh, he rapidly calculated that they were in possession of a lifetime supply of firewood, which helped confirm them in their decision to go for an off-grid lifestyle (hot water and heating being a major portion of typical power consumption). The trees also provide fence posts, and soon some will become timber for the house they are planning to build. On top of that, Shane is installing a mountain bike track through the plantation, so he can enjoy his “Zen garden” and the peacefulness of being amongst the trees.
The off-grid approach also explains Shane’s positive attitude to the wind that howls around his property – it powers his turbines. Getting power in to the site would have been cripplingly expensive, and instead, Shane took self-sufficiency a step further than many by building his own turbines and his own solar panels. Coupled with access to cheap deep cycle batteries, he has created a system consisting of 400W and 200W wind turbines, four 120W solar panels and two battery arrays of 26 6V 115AH batteries configured in a 12V system, feeding into a 3000W inverter. The block also has a backup 14kW diesel generator for big tasks. At present Shane and Michaela are living in one side of the shed , but once the house is completed they will enlarge the power generation system, aiming at 6kW of solar panels and two 1kW wind turbines, with an upgraded inverter.
In terms of soil quality, the couple doubt that the block has ever had any form of soil conditioning, so they have had to work on it from scratch. Shane expects to see a difference within the next 3 to 4 years, but points out the upside of the initially poor state: it gave them the chance to research options and adopt a more healthy approach to soil conditioning than they might have done otherwise.
Considering that Shane and Michaela value many of the things that would strike a lot of us as disadvantages, what do they see as actual problems with their block? Shane would love to have a stream. They have springs and ponds which mean a generally reliable water supply, but a stream would allow a mini-hydro system for power generation. They would also like more shelter trees, for the welfare of their stock rather than themselves at present, although they will be more concerned once they get the house built. They are in planting mode right now and working to get shelter trees established. The only other issue is the fencing. It was in very poor shape when they took the property on and they knew it would be an ongoing project – the ideal is post and rail fences coupled with decent 8-wire post and batten to control their agile Perendales.
Shane and Michaela came to their property after lives spent in quite different occupations, and made their decision to move to the country relatively late in life. Michaela had owned a lifestyle block many years before, so had more farming background, while Shane had little rural experience but plenty of practical skills. They did a lot of research before buying, deciding what was important to them on their block of land and what wasn’t. Having made the decision, they went for it, with Shane dealing with the infrastructure – “Man shed first, sorting sheep yards, sheep-proof fences, shelter ... imagine my surprise when 35 ewes turned up followed shortly by 15 more (organised by Michaela)... We dived into it big time. I have well-thumbed books on every farming subject and I regularly yarn to the neighbour about “what’s going on”. He’s a great neighbour and very knowledgeable about farming and its processes, so now we have learnt to shear our sheep, dealt with dystocia, collecting eggs, have expanded to include a few calves one of which will hopefully end up as our house cow, and now I wonder how much land I need to not ever need to work in town again, just shear sheep, sell lambs and calves, and live the good life!”