Family find new solutions

Covid and floods forced a pivot for farming family, writes Kem





The Country

What a roller coaster the last two years have been for the Birt family. Based in Staveley at the bottom of the Southern Alps, close to the Rakaia River . . . and for those like me who had to dig out a map, the family live about 90 minutes from Christchurch. Before Covid, Nigel and Myriam Birt and family were running a successful hunting and fishing guide business catering for high-end Americans wanting an experience of a lifetime. Their clientele came to hunt and fish on their 470ha high country games estate, loving the scenery and enjoying the atmosphere of the historic accommodation. When Covid arrived and border closures were put in place, the decline in visiting tourists made a huge impact on their guide business. They were able to keep treading water with a reduced income from their Red Cottages accommodation, which they promoted as a domestic destination for Kiwi tourists at www. While Covid continued impacting the country, there was more chaos to come. In May 2021, ravaging storms followed by windstorms took a devastating effect on their property. There were major slips and washouts, fences wiped out and the Birts lost 80 per cent of their farm tracks, only avoiding flooding into their home and cottages by a mere 2cm. Just two weeks after starting their clean up and fence repair, another flood event hit. Even though rural people are tough and resilient, this was a hard blow for the family. Not to be beaten, they decided the only thing to do was to bring their 10-year plan to the forefront and strategically look at what opportunities they could use to their advantage. They utilised good advice and gathered as much information as possible in order to help them make good, informed decisions as to where to now. They used Covid support to activate consultants and tapped into farm and financial advisers. WHERE TO NEXT? The family looked at what assets they could expand on and the most notable was land and manuka coverage. What could they do with all the manuka that they had at their back door? They came up with an idea to research manuka teas and other products that could be sourced from manuka. Three weeks later they were watching a programme on TV on manuka oil, and they realised some of their ideas had real potential. This was a start of their 18-month discovery journey into learning and researching essential oils and their production. After finding a couple of willing engineers to assist, including with the harvest, the next step saw them installing a manuka extraction still on their property and oil testing of the manuka began in October 2021. Samples of the oil were tested in Auckland and reviewed by a scientist at Canterbury University and showed promising results. Myriam has been learning how to develop products with the oil and this is their focus for 2022. The longestablished business Deflux Design in Christchurch assisted greatly in supporting the development of a brand concept which is nearing release into the marketplace. As with all high-country properties, it is a challenging landscape for extensive farming, but has the advantage of vast native and scenic values. LOOKING TOWARDS THE FUTURE Their focus is now on coming up with new products manufactured from manuka, carbon credits from regenerating natives and along with the gradual return of tourism and low intensity farming, the Birts can finally see the way forward. Farmside has a mostly rural base, and a lot of customers similar to the Birts, who have had to diversify their businesses over the last couple of years. Being on hand for all their customers’ online needs, is something Farmside prides themselves on. ■