Heritage in the Making

Five-year-old Chloe McKelvie loves sheep. Her mother, Rachel, recalls Chloe crying as a baby but after showing her the sheep from the window, she’d immediately stop. Chloe’s bedroom is a shrine to sheep with soft toys, figurines, a blanket at the end of her bed, a wheat bag cover and wall hangings of sheep. As she dances around her bedroom with older sister Caitlin, pointing out all the sheep paraphernalia, she hints at her favourite – the baby sheep, which she aptly names “Favourite” – although she admits, “I do love Sweet Heart and Sweet Mini also.” The McKelvie family has been farming at Pukemarama (which means hill moon) Station at Tangimoana, on the southern side of the Rangitikei River, since 1870. Ian [former mayor of the district and now MP for Rangitikei] and Sue McKelvie live in the late-Victorian homestead and have been keen caretakers of the farm for 35 years. Their son Cam and his wife Rachel, manage the 2200-plus-hectare property, which supports more than 20,000 cattle, ewes and lambs. Their children Chloe, Caitlin Emma, and Bill, are the seventh generation on the farm as the legacy continues.

Raising the bar on animal care

It’s ethically important we look after our stock well,

Echoing Silver Fern Farms focus, “well-finished” animals, good herd health plans and stock quality are paramount for the McKelvies. Their approach towards animal care and protection is clear. “It’s ethically important we look after our stock well,” says Cam.  “In the paddocks, we give the ewes space and only go into the paddocks when they are cast (flipped upside down) or are heavily pregnant and need help. Other than that, we leave them alone in protected paddocks, and look at them from afar, only going in if they need us to.” This level of respect for the animal is apparent as we walk around the farm. Keen to take photos of the new-season lambs, the MiNDFOOD team was asked to keep back and give the new mother room. As Cam explained, ewes like to spread out and have space when pregnant, and they will go around the paddock until they find their spot to give birth. After the lamb is born, the mother returns to “their” spot every day. “We have to look after those old girls,” he says.

Rewarding food for thought

As a key supplier of consistently high-quality stock to Silver Fern Farms in the Western North Island area, Pukemarama has been topping the region’s Plate to Pasture Awards for the past few years. “We run 7000 ewes and 10,000 lambs between October to Christmas, then for the rest of the year we buy another 20,000 lambs as our aim is to continuously supply Silver Fern Farms every week of the year – that is the ideal for restaurants and consumers,” says Cam. “Everything we send off the farm is uniform, we run a simple operation, creating a good product.” Lambs are traded year-round – all up 30,000 lambs are finished, including those bred on the station. Once the stock leaves the property, Silver Fern Farms provides instant feedback, and this leads to total consistency. “Once you have the grading information,” says Rachel, “we can analyse the data within a few hours of the stock leaving the farm.” This high level of data processing and technology ensures consistency in stock weight and allows the product to meet exacting quality standards. “We have been doing it long enough now,” says Rachel, “sending only good healthy stock we are proud of.”

Pukemarama Station is run by six full-time staff, each specialising in specific areas of the business. Brothers Cam and Angus do all the stock work, and there’s a full-time fencer, a machine operator and gardeners. Cam and Rachel believe they complement each other, with Rachel taking care of the books two to three days a week. “There is a health and safety plan, and Rachel runs that,” Cam explains. “I love still being involved in the farm, while bringing up our children and being the support in the background,” says Rachel, “so it gives Cam more time to do what he does best. I’m a jack of all trades, I know it helps. It’s a partnership and it helps our farm move forward.

Caring for the land and the community

Pukemarama is a sandy coastal property with good rainfall, and strategies have been employed to manage soils and extensive forestry plantings. The McKelvies’ knowledge of the soils across the property is meticulous, managing pastures to suit different soils and climatic conditions. There are paddocks of swede that were planted in December, ready for winter with grazing stock. “With constantly changing seasons and bad weather patterns this dictates quite a lot,” says Cam. ‘With technology, we are better now with cropping as we can be grazing in 35 days as we have drought-resistant crops. This means we always have enough feed and can keep stock going.” In turn, this means delivering the right type of stock to Silver Fern Farms, so the customer needs are met. 

This level of animal husbandry and legacy of planting and creating shelter for stock is what the McKelvies want to have in place for the future and is an important practice for Silver Fern Farms. “We want to help make the farm a more animal-friendly place, where there is a great eco system, a balance of a high-producing farm around amazing wetlands, where you can still see birdlife and show off this beautiful country,” Cam says. Looking after the community is also important for the McKelvies. Pukemarama Station has become a meeting point for many different local groups, hosting numerous annual fundraisers and equine events, so community ties are particularly strong. “Horses have been bred for years here,” says Rachel, “We would have over 100 horses on the farm.” Generations of McKelvies have played polo, including Cam and his brother Angus, who plays professionally. “My great-great grandfather started playing polo and bred horses,” says Cam. “All the kids have their own ponies – at two we plonked Emma on a pony. If they want to stop that’s fine, but they love riding. Rachel also used to ride and play polo.” 

Building a family legacy

The Pukemarama Homestead was built in 1900 for James McKelvie and is a Category 1 heritage-listed building. With its symmetry, deep verandahs and high level of ornamentation, it is a classic grand, rural late-Victorian, Queen Anne-style villa. The form of the building is remarkable because of its organisation around a central oval room. This atypical layout may be because the builders, Wanganui-based Russell and Bignell, are said to have designed the residence in conjunction with its owner, James. Like the house, the form of the contemporary stable block is unusual due to its H-shape. It has two distinct wings, which are divided by a carriageway, with the inclusion of decorative features in keeping with the elegance of the homestead.

It is a responsibility where you are determined to do your best.

In the 1950s, Cam’s great-great grandfather declared a bird sanctuary on four hectares of the property, beginning with a lake and fenced-off conservation wetland. Cam and Rachel, along with their children, have made similar alterations on the farm recently, having just expanded a swamp area and created another large pond, around which they have planted coastal natives. “I love this place, I love the lifestyle, it’s a privilege to live here,” says Rachel. “I hope the kids grow up to appreciate it. It is a responsibility where you are determined to do your best.” 

The McKelvies philosophy is a simple one. “We want to grow food in a sustainable and profitable way, while growing the farm for the benefit of future generations,” says Cam. “This country is different in that it is always a balancing act to get it financially viable in a way that lets us treat every animal properly. We don’t want it to just be about dollars and kilos. You have to be smarter, take pride in the farm and, like looking after the animals, it is a custodian role. We are only here for a short time.”