Christmas Past, Present & Future

Lilly and George Douglas-Clifford play hide and seek in their grandparents’ backyard in North Canterbury’s Greta Valley. The children – the seventh generation of this Canterbury farming family – are excited that Santa is coming soon. Many Christmases have been shared under the eaves of the old cookhouse over the years, and if buildings and furniture could talk, they would have some extraordinary stories to tell. Frederick Weld was impressed with the Canterbury district, having walked through the uninhabited terrain from Lyttelton to Flaxbourne in Marlborough, and acquired a licence to graze sheep early in 1851. Weld came from an aristocratic English family – he was later prime minister of New Zealand and went on to become governor of Tasmania and Western Australia. He went into partnership with Sir Charles Clifford, the first Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives from 1854-1860, who established stations in Wairarapa and at Flaxbourne. Clifford landed sheep on the beach near the mouth of the Blythe River, creating one of the earliest and most significant sheep stations in Canterbury. He named the station Stonyhurst, after the Jesuit college he and Weld attended in Lancashire, England. For many years Stonyhurst’s only access was by sea.

A Fine Example

Clifford’s son Sir George Hugh Clifford bought out Weld’s share of the partnership, and over time the farm reduced: increased land taxes around 1900 forced Clifford to sell a portion, and the government claimed another block after World War II to settle returned service personnel. Sir George was instrumental in the establishment of the Canterbury Frozen Meat Company in Belfast, north of Christchurch. Records show it was a great example of a meat plant due to the surrounding fields stock could graze on. “In time, this became Silver Fern Farms,” says fifth generation descendant John Douglas-Clifford. “I show the stock agents the tray the men from the plant presented to George Clifford as chairman.” 

Brothers John and Peter Douglas-Clifford are great-great-grandsons, taking on Stonyhurst in 1980 and transforming the property with new techniques and technology. The pair have worked hard and the farm was a Silver Fern Farms Plate to Pasture Regional Winner – Upper South Island 2015. The family were early adopters of FarmIQ, helping develop the farm management system in its early stages. FarmIQ’s vision is to create a consumer driven integrated value chain, listening to consumers first and understanding what they want, working across the supply chain right back to the farm, delivering sustainable benefits to all involved. Technology enables the Douglas-Cliffords to demonstrate to consumers the care they take with their animals and their land. It’s a passion.

douglascliffords instory cattle

“We started using electronic tags 15 years ago, trialling some for research. It’s taken time and has evolved so now every farm animal is recorded – where they were born, keeping paddock records, improving performance,” says John. “It’s a lot more efficient, measuring the growth in stock, the breed and long-term management of the farm,” chips in his brother Peter.

Using the data as a management tool has made things easier.

All stock on the property are monitored as part of the genetic breeding programme, which lifts the quality and yield of the sheep. This approach has been carried over to their deer stock, as the brothers maximise the best eating quality factors with their breeding programme. The brothers manage Stonyhurst together with John’s wife Robbie and Peter’s wife Fiona. John’s son Charles returned to the farm four years ago from a banking career. He now manages all the data, technical and financial management systems that drive high performance on the property, and loves to take his own son, George, out into the paddocks. “Making informed decisions and using the data as a management tool has made things easier and more efficient,” says John. “It’s taken time, but we keep rolling forward all the time.” 

douglascliffords instory charles

Stonyhurst includes at least 250 hectares of native bush as part of waterway and gully protection, so plantings for erosion are well established and forestry features heavily. Soil testing informs the nutrient management programme here to help optimise pasture production and prevent nutrient loss. Each generation leaves an impact on the land – John and Peter’s dad introduced tractors, replacing horses in the 1960s; going further back, gorse-covered paddocks were cleared – and christmas time provides an opportunity to take stock as the family comes together and relaxes around the old cookhouse. “I remember the old cooks that used to come – the only grog they could get was the lemon essence,” laughs John. “The mail bag and bread would get delivered in the Newmans bus three times a week, and us kids would be in the back seat of the car hollowing out the loafs.”

Surrounded By History

douglascliffords instory xmas

The old kitchen still has the brick bread oven, though it hasn’t been used since the 1950s. Lilly sits in the highchair that was her great-grandfather’s, watching as her mum Erin and grandma Robbie peel potatoes for Christmas lunch. Robbie has decorated the space as a formal dining room, full of antiques. “That fire surround is from the old local bank, and the wood on that wall is from another building on the farm.” Past generations always had a station cook. “The old table is one of two dining tables that 40 men would sit around in the old cookhouse,” says John. “The cook would start at four in the morning and be there until late at night.” Today the family enjoy Christmas lunch at the same table, which is carried to the verandah. As with festive meals up and down the country, the generations celebrate what is past and what is to come. There’s Christmas crackers, platters of roast Silver Fern Farms lamb and beef, and wine from local winery Greystone Wines, where John and Robbie’s son David is a winemaker. Meanwhile in the high chair, Lilly pulls a piece of lamb off her plate. She chews happily – quite content to watch another generation talk about the future.