For the past week and a half I’ve been living and working on a combination dairy farm/cattle stud/horse stud in the middle of rural Taranaki (a district on the North Island’s far western edge). The countryside is spectacular, the roads are rough, and let me tell you – it has been one of the dirtiest and most educational weeks of my life.
My hosts in Matiere (MAH-tear-ee) have been Sean and Alix Trafford, a young married couple who moved here about 10 years ago. Alix grew up nearby, while Sean was raised a couple hours away. They met when Sean came to work for Alix’s father – a dairy farmer himself – and when Sean eventually left, Alix went with him! After a few years where Sean spent a short stint as an officer in the NZ Army and then as a rural policeman, they decided to change focus and bought a succession of farms in the area until they ended up in Matiere. Their current farm covers 1200 acres, 650 of which houses a dairy farm and 550 milking cows, and the rest of which serves as land for their 70 red poll cattle and around 30 Arabian horses. Together they run Supreme Arabians Stud and Supreme Red Polls Stud, in addition to their dairy operation.
Sean and Alix are some of the hardest working people I have ever met. Every day they wake up 3:45am to round up the cows, milk them, and start on the rest of the farm. I got up with them on my very first morning, and immediately garnered a new respect for the milk I drink on my cereal every morning.
Every morning the cows are herded down from the hills, where they slowly idle their way into a shed to the sounds of “Move up, girls!” and “Heya, girlies!”. Inside, the shed splits into two feedings rows, while stairs lead down between them into a deep trough that runs the length of the building. The cows face outwards, squeezed together and enjoying their feed, while their bums face in towards the center. Hanging from the ceiling above the trough, a row of automated vacuum cups that look suspiciously like robotic octopi wait to be pulled down and attached to their udders. The job of a milking hand is simple: grab the cups from the ceiling, turn on the suction, attach them one by one to the udders, and move on. Fast. And try not to get kicked. Oh, and if you manage to do those tasks appropriately, there’s also the small matter of manually checking the teats before you attach the cups. Hope you learned how to milk by hand quickly!
Milking itself is not particularly difficult, but the trick of the operation is trying to avoid getting hit by the liquid excrement raining down on you from hundreds of strategically-placed cow bottoms. Every surface – including the cups, the cows, your hands, body, and the floor – is covered in muck, which is only occassionally washed away by high-powered hoses. (There’s only so much washing you can do before more poo arrives!) Along the way it’s important to get as little of that lovely liquid dung into the milk as possible, since the cups have a tendency to suck up whatever is around them. (The cow’s teats are also not cleaned before they’re milked, since apparently spraying them down beforehand only results in more ‘foreign matter’ getting into the milking system.) So everything is sucked into the giant milk vats, to be super-cooled while it awaits the arrival of the Fonterra milktruck that arrives every two weeks. Only when it’s been trucked away to Fonterra’s factories is the milk boiled to kill any bacteria. So while Sean and Alix drink their milk straight from the vats (and so did I, for the two weeks that I’ve been here), needless to say I have a very strong new-found appreciation for Pasteur[ization]!
The milking is finished by 8am, and after a quick breakfast it’s on to caring for the cattle, horses, and the rest of the farm. Sean and Alix may make their living from dairying, but their true passion is horses and endurance trail riding. They’ve been riding together for 15 years, and before that they had each cultivated a love of horses on their own; Sean learned how to ride when he lied to impress a 14-year-old crush, while Alix used to do harness racing! Of their many horses, 10 or so are kept on a training rotation for endurance rides that can last up to 160km in length. Their horses trace their lineage back to renowned racing stallions, and both Sean and Alix consistently place at some of the biggest racing events in the country. Last year they came in Second at the New Zealand Champs in the 160km event, and won the World Championship FEI Qualifying Series. This year they’re headed to the North Island Championships again in just a week’s time, and will be headed to the World Championships in England in October! They’re a pretty impressive couple, that’s for sure!
Living with such a hard-working and focused couple has been a valuable experience all on its own. I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much (and felt like such a clumsy fool) in such a short time in my entire life. I milked cows by hand and by machine (even though I wasn’t so good at the hand-milking part), sprayed down cow sheds, and sat on the back of Sean’s 4WD bike and felt the wind on my face as he brought the cows in every morning. I fed the dogs, helped Alix feed the horses, groomed them, and helped vaccinate the new foals. I even got to go on a couple short rides with them, even though my “riding experience” became painfully obvious as soon as I attempted to trot/canter. It’s amazing how quickly your confidence shatters when a horse decides to bolt! It’s a humbling thing getting thrown from a prize horse in front of its very judgmental and worried owners.
As if that weren’t enough, Sean and Alix also managed to tutor me in everything from cooking to driving. I tend to think that I’m a pretty capable and confident individual, but if you’d seen me this past week, I would have looked more and more like a sheltered American girl with half a brain. I’m pretty sure poor Sean and Alix’s opinion of me dropped by the minute. You could just see them thinking, “So you don’t know how to rise to the trot on a horse… but you’ve never driven a manual? And you don’t know how to make a pork roast or a fish pie, or scones? And you’ve never changed a tire?! Do you know how to use a lawn mower or peel potatoes?” I don’t think I could have looked more silly if I tried.
I may not have done any of those things before, but oh did I learn – and fast. Alix gave me some fast cooking demonstrations, and by the end of the week I was in charge of making dinner while they did the afternoon milking (though I’m not sure if that’s because I was so bad at milking, or if they finally trusted me in the kitchen!). Alix took me along to pick up one of their cars from the mechanic, and I quickly learned to drive a manual when she remembered that both cars were stick shifts. (I only stalled going uphill a few times…) They taught me to ride their quad bike, and watched with worried expressions while I went to open gates. And they watched me replace my tire (and corrected me along the way) when a stone managed to work its way all the way through the rubber and flatten one of them. Trying to teach me how to ‘rise to the trot’ (lifting yourself from the saddle as the horse runs underneath you) was probably the epitome of their trust in me, though that too was shattered when I managed to scare the horse enough to go bolting over the hills and dump me along the way…
The icing on the cake of my character-building week, though, was the Case of the Incredible Leaking Automatic Transmission in my newly-bought car. The Traffords had given me the day off after helping them with the morning milking, and I’d decided to tour the surrounding countryside and take a day trip out to Mt Damper Falls. I drove a couple hours down the Forgotten World Highway through the Tangarakau Gorge, and spent a good few hours enjoying the beauty of the wilderness that’d covered up the failed farm settlements of the early 1900s. But getting home was another story altogether. As I pressed the ignition in an attempt to go up the hills of the natural rollercoaster that is Highway 43, I suddenly found that while the engine revved, the car didn’t exactly speed up. I managed to limp along through the Gorge until I became too afraid to burn out the engine, then ended up pulling over. This presented another problem in itself however, as I was halfway to nowhere. (The nearest town was an hour away in either direction.) I was also in the middle of rural New Zealand, where there is absolutely no cell phone service. Chalk it up to experience, right?
I managed to flag down a passing van, and the very nice hippie French couple inside (of which there seem to be an abundance in NZ) offered to give me a ride to the nearest phone. They eventually dropped me 45 minutes down the road, at a remote B&B situated at the very top of the Tahora Saddle (the opposite driection of where I needed to go). The very nice couple who owned the place seemed suspicious at first, but they let me use their phone to call a tow truck (as long as I paid them for the call). I found out their names (Rob and Annie), got to know their very friendly lap dog and very fat house cat, and even got treated to some interesting stories about their experiences owning a cafe and then a bed and breakfast. They even warmed up enough to feed me dinner while I waited!
Luckily for me, I’d taken out a full membership with the NZ AA (Automobile Association), and a tow truck was dispatched to pick me up, go back for my car, and take me directly back to the Traffords. (Whew!) It took the tow truck two and a half hours to get there, but the dog did treat me to a tour of the grounds while I waited. What an amazing view Rob and Annie had! Of all the places to wait, I landed in a very lucky one.
When the tow truck did eventually arrive (two hours later), my spirits had been significantly lifted. And they continued, thanks to the very friendly and sweet truck driver Lew. He told me stories about his kids (his daughter got engaged on New Year’s Eve, and his son races cars and bikes around NZ and the world!), and kept me smiling on the long drive back to the house. When he did drop me off, he gave me his card – and a few fridge magnets, too! – and I couldn’t help feeling that if I had to get stuck in the middle of nowhere on a rainy, cold day, that I couldn’t have fared any better.
The news didn’t get much better after that night, since it turned out that a piece in my automatic transmission had snapped and had to be replaced, but I did manage to escape the scenario with my car and wits (mostly) intact, instead of having to sell it off for scrap! (Fingers crossed that the Blue Lady will make it through the rest of the year unscathed!) Even though they may not think too highly of me, the Traffords were incredibly patient and (usually) not too sarcastic with me, and they let me stay an extra few days during the repairs. They taught me a lot, and took care of me, and for that I am very grateful.