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Cleardale Station: A farm set for success

Situated in the Rakaia Gorge on the northern slopes of Mount Hutt and next to the Rakaia River, Cleardale Station is a 1,700-hectare stud sheep and Angus beef farm owned by Ben Todhunter and Donna Field. The Todhunter family have owned the land for nearly 100 years and are becoming renowned for their genetic performance, with Ben and his team’s dedication to innovation within the agricultural industry.

Arriving at the mid-Canterbury property, we were greeted by Ben, Donna, Cleardale Station’s farm manager Ryan Esler and their three working dogs – Chase, Tune and Beau. Ryan, who has been working at Cleardale Station for ten years, was our farm guide for the day as we explored the different aspects that make up the intensive high-country station. Ryan’s passion for his work became evident when he discussed his responsibilities, which included the day-to-day management of staff, animal health and pastoral plans. Cleardale Station runs 15,000 stock units and four pivots that are run through a power station.

“We have an Angus stud and a quarter-bred merino stud, so that’s quite exciting. Along with that, we have 6,000 breeding ewes, 300 Angus beef cows and 2,000 ewe lambs. We also do 30 to 60 hectares of cereal crops (wheat and barley) and the same for winter feed (swede, kale and fodder beet) each year. Our pivot water is collected through a power station off the back of Mount Hutt, and out of the tail race of that, the water is gravity-fed down to three of our pivots,” Ryan said.

Ryan was first introduced to rural life at a young age, visiting his grandparents who owned a farm where he had pet ewes. He lived in Amberley for 30 years including working for a company that produced specialty timber products. The next move was to Ōmarama to work for an agricultural contractor. Ryan then began driving tractors at Cleardale Station before moving up the ranks to his current role as farm manager. He mentioned that one of the best things about living and working rurally were the opportunities that his children had growing up, being surrounded by animals and learning key skills that will set them up for the future. When he’s not taking care of Cleardale, Ryan finds time to unwind by playing golf, fishing, boating and hunting.

“I enjoy what I do and the performance of our sheep and cattle is paramount to what we do. We’re always striving to do better. You probably worry about the animals more than you do yourself a lot of the time. It’s an interesting feeling when something's not right with a bull, a cow or even a lamb; they're relying on you to help them in some regard. With farming, every day is different. You have your good days and your bad days, but it’s on the bad days that you learn something from it and can do it better next time around.”

The team at Cleardale Station share the same passion for farming and most of their workers tend to stay for long periods of time due to the culture and lifestyle that Cleardale Station provides. Alongside Ryan, Cleardale Station has two shepherds and a tractor driver, and they employ casual contractors for shearing, crutching and conveyor work. Ben is a 2006 Nuffield Scholar and, alongside being the fourth generation to farm this land with his wife Donna, he travels a lot with his other commitments as a director of The New Zealand Merino Company and StockX, so he’s always constantly learning new ideas to bring back to improve Cleardale Station and their genetics.

Donna is a director of QEII National Trust and, like Ben, has a lot of varied projects on the go – one being an ECan advisor for land management and biodiversity. Ben’s parents, Bob and Anne, still live on the farm with Bob helping the team out daily

“There’s Todhunter family history in the Rakaia Gorge, from Cleardale right up through Glenrock, Glenfalloch and around into Lake Heron. The environmental side of the property includes QEII reserves and fenced-off areas where we’ve planted natives and significant areas managed for native regeneration. In the media, there’s a lot of regulation being thrown at farmers, but I think if you're worried about all that stuff too much, you can be blinded by it instead of just getting on with what you know you can be doing. A lot of the stuff that has been brought to us is what most of us are already doing. I wish more people knew what we do,” Ryan commented.

The Station has a good relationship with ANZCO and their lamb products go directly to them. They are steadily getting into higher end beef programmes such as Angus Pure. With their beef products, they have more control over traceability through genetics and programming. “With the genetic side of the station, most people don't realise how much is behind a cow or a sheep in the genetic profile and the gains that we're currently making. The graphs that we plot are all going in an upward direction quite quickly, all just through using genetics and breeding values and some of the good progeny that we've luckily got here,” Ryan said.

The location is prime for a lot of filming opportunities with Ben and Donna opening their farm to production companies and visitors worldwide. Some of these advertisements included Englebert Strauss, Fuji International and The Amazing Race (television series).

With Rakaia being a historic destination for the Todhunters, and with Ben and Donna’s avid passion for the environment, a few years ago they opened a public walking track on their farm near the Rakaia Gorge Bridges named the Taniwha track. With the help of the Rakaia Catchment Environmental Enhancement Fund, this short walk encompasses a viewing platform where you can read about the
Rakaia Gorge geology, Māori mythology, observe three unique taniwha representations from local artists and gain easy access to the Rakaia River.

Cleardale Station uses powerful programmes like FARMAX to record its pasture performance and stock management. The technology in farming continues to progress rapidly and the team want to be at the forefront of it – focusing on improving genetics, increasing production, implementing irrigation and expanding their pastures. Cleardale Station is hosting bull sales at their property on 12 June for the second year, where there will be around 30 bulls up for sale, so if you’re in the market, make sure you go and check them out!