Good Shepherds

John and Liz Chittock run a lush property in Southland, producing quality beef, lamb and venison for Silver Fern Farms. The couple teach young people how to work the land and share a wealth of experience training dogs.

There are milky-grey skies hanging over Jeff Farm, just outside Gore, as we arrive on a winter's Thursday. The sun is low and snow hugs the Old Man Range off in the distance, but the welcome from managers John and Liz Chittock —suppliers of beef, lamb and venison to Silver Fern Farms — is warm.

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The Chittocks have run this lush property for the past 16 years, and they chatter enthusiastically as John, shepherd's crook in hand and his trusty working dogs by his side, points out the boundaries of the rolling green hills of the immaculate farm. This property, which has supplied animals to Silver Fern Farms for many years, is at the mercy of the often bitter weather on Old Coach Road, the link between Mataura and Clinton, but is nonetheless a bastion of good practice: fine animals, well-schooled dogs and a training ground for young farmers from throughout the South Island.

Jeff Farm is like no other.

A Parting Gift

In 1952, owner Edmund Jeff, having no family to pass his property to, made the philanthropic decision to pledge it to the Salvation Army — with instructions that it would be used to train underprivileged youth. On Jeff's death in June 1954, the Salvation Army took possession of 1900 hectares, 3315 sheep and 100 cows.

It took some time to realise the farm's potential Bruce McCorkindale was the first manager, appointed in 1969, and he took hold of a rundown property that needed some development to reach the heights it has today. So far, more than 100 young people have become cadets here, learning the ropes and, importantly, how to train farm dogs, before going on to work the Land in other parts of the country and the world.

John, originally from West Otago, and Liz, from Tarras, in the Upper Clutha, met and married in Wanaka in 1982. They used to lease a property just 10 minutes down the road in Kaiwera and Jeff Farm had always interested John. A highly accomplished shepherd, John had worked on Jeff Farm on a casual basis but says he had always believed if the manager's role came up he would apply for it. That opportunity arose in the year 2000 and the Chittocks took over in 2001, creating what is now a highly successful 2424 hectare property — which has 19,000 sheep, 1100 cattle and 1200 deer.

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They have seen dozens of cadets come through their doors and have built a profitable farm, benefitting both the Salvation Army and Silver Fern Farms, to whom they supply fine pasture-raised animals The Chittocks report monthly to the Salvation Army Trust Board, managing the farm budgets and working towards five-year goals, with profits going back into charities for youth. Most of the time they have six cadets under their care.

To see these young kids arrive and then go out as adults — it's a rewarding job...

"We are bloody lucky, really,' John from a seat in the cook house, where the cadets come twice a day for meals prepared by cook Rose Reynolds. "To see these young kids arrive and then go out as adults — it's a rewarding job..."

"A big part of it," John says, "is that we have to understand them. We tell them that what they put in is what you get out."

John runs the farming side of the farm with head shepherd Scott Walker. Liz — a bubbly and friendly person, accomplished with accounts, management and very handy in the kitchen — looks after the office side of things.

"She just understands young people. We always say that if you have a problem, talk about it. Don't let it fester,' says John. "It is challenging at times but if you get that structure in place it works well "We get a big thrill of seeing them come back and we end up getting invited to 21sts, engagements and weddings.

Self Selected

Of the cadets around the table waiting for lunch three — Andy Baker; Riley McPherson and Ben Plunkett — have been on the property for 18 months. The remaining three — Jaz Neilson, Tegan Wenlock and Connor Bennie — for six months. These cadets come from throughout the lower South Island and, like most intakes John says, picked themselves on open day. "They are the ones that ask all the right questions, the ones that are keen and really want to be here." And, he says, "they hit the ground running" after being given a map of the property, which includes named paddocks, so they don't get lost.

John seeks out excellence. He is a former rugby player for Southland, and has had considerable success over almost 40 years at dog trials, including making the New Zealand trials run-off and being a judge for many years at national level. His passion is his dogs and passing on his skills to the next generation, instilling in these young people the importance of dogs in farming.

The Chittocks have three adult daughters, twins Becks and Barbs and youngest daughter Kirstin. But John says nowadays, his dogs are like his children—they go everywhere with him. "I am very fond of them," he says.

He watches, crook in hand and sheep whistle hanging around his neck, as the cadets guide four sheep around a paddock with heading, and then huntaway, dogs. Heading dogs bring sheep towards a farmer while huntaways bark to push them away.

"Wayleggo," John will yell occasionally to one of his six trusty hounds. It sounds strange at first, but it means "come back" to the dog, which it promptly does.

The dogs are our tools of the trade...the better you train them, the easier it is.

"The dogs are our tools of the trade," he says again and again to his young charges, "the better you train them, the easier it is."

He says if he wants to instil one thing in his cadets, it is the importance of training their dogs well. His dogs have been his constant tool throughout his farming life. “What I want them to do when they leave here is to have dogs that are of great value for their next venture. They are quite an asset to wherever they end up.”

A good connection between farmer and dog is really important to get the best from the dog, John says. The training starts with teaching a puppy its name, and forming a connection. It then goes on to basic commands, spelled out by voice or whistle. These can involve calling the dog off stock, stop, go right, go left, come home. John says the worth of the dogs cannot be measured.

“They are still a very important part of what we do, particularly for sheep and beef. 

“It is quite rewarding to start with a wee puppy and you teach him his name and teach him to come to you and then when they are broken in – which can take up to two years – to see a heading dog run a hill up to a kilometre away and bring stock down to you gives you a real buzz.

“Even if you are not into dog trials, just into everyday work, just seeing those dogs mature every day and progressing that is rewarding.”

Awesome Control

On this day, we watch in awe as John and his dogs easily control 2000 sheep and calmly lead them through a gate in mere minutes. It is a life he and Liz love, and one he hopes his cadets will be able to take part in too. We ask each of them what they like most about farming, and for each the answer is automatic: “The dogs.”

No wonder. The dogs are a constant companion and, John says, the best tool the cadets will ever have. As each cadet leaves Jeff Farm they not only take their trusty hounds but a plaque with words from one of the trainers, Lloyd Smith: “Life is like a harbour full of sails – pick the wind of opportunity, if it avails, back yourself, you can achieve.”

True Talent

Jaz Neilson is the sole female cadet on Jeff Farm but that doesn’t worry her: she has four older brothers so she knows a fair bit about what to expect. Neilson, 18, is from Dunback, Otago, and is in her first year on the cadet programme. John Chittock says Jaz is extremely talented and will have a bright future in farming. She is pictured here with Darcy and Jack, her dogs. “I love my dogs,” Jaz says, “and the thrill you get out of working with them.”

Bright Future

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The cadets on Jeff Farm come from throughout the lower South Island. When asked what they liked most about life at Jeff Farm each and every one talked about their dogs, and the work and training that goes into the animals. The cadets’ living quarters are on the property and must be kept clean and, although they are fed twice a day five days a week, they must fend for themselves over the weekend – even if that means a quick trip into nearby Gore.

The cadets are encouraged to play sport, with the boys involved in rugby and Jaz, this year’s sole female representative, playing netball. For two years the cadets are looked after by the Chittocks and the staff of Jeff Farm and are taught farming. “We are not their parents, though,” John points out, quickly. The most important aspect of the cadets’ time at the farm, along with general farm work, is learning to train their dogs