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James and Kiri Elworthy: Rejuvenating the Forecast Through Diversity

Wairewa Farm

Far from the big cities and motorways, we found ourselves on the east coast of the southernmost part of the North Island. Known for its vineyards and a certain popular wine festival, Martinborough is also home to some of New Zealand’s great farming country. Nestled in the valleys and thirty minutes from cellular reception, we found the home of James and Kiri Elworthy of Wairewa Farm.

The Elworthys have farmed in this valley for four decades, with each generation making their own mark. The sheep farm is 650-hectares but they also own an additional 800-hectare block. For James and Kiri, the most notable addition their generation has contributed thus far is the diversity they have introduced to Wairewa.

Many years ago, James was dairy farming in Waikato when his parents rang to tell him they had purchased the next-door neighbour's sheep farm and needed him to come home and run it. He jumped at the chance and headed to the Wairarapa to chase sheep around the hills with his dogs. With Kiri soon on the scene, the family expanded, and it wasn’t too long before the operations on the sheep farm expanded with them. James’ mother had started the Tora Coastal Walk, which in time, saw Kiri take over the management.

The farming side of the operation at Wairewa Farm is managed by James but he said there’s always help around when he needs it. While Kiri is often caught up in the other arm of their business, she is the first one to grab her boots and head to the shed when James needs a helping hand. After many years in the trade, James has sorted his farming calendar to align with the university calendar and the availability of his workforce; his kids. Like many farms in New Zealand, their kids returning home for the holidays means home-cooked meals paid for by long days helping out on the farm. James likes to make the best of his kids while they are home, helping out during lambing or tailing in the yards. Unsurprisingly, growing up in rural New Zealand has resulted in three out of four of the Elworthys children entering rural based careers.

With 2,500 breeding ewes (plus 500 hoggets) and 107 cattle, many would consider that the farm has relatively low stock for the hectares available and James would be the first one to agree. They have actively made the decision to lighten stock levels and be friendlier to their land as the majority of the farm is steep and prone to erosion. The Elworthys wanted ensure the soil and pasture were regenerating naturally, and other areas of their business, The Tora Coastal Walk, were starting to help out financially. The small number of cattle run with the sheep meant that the cattle would trim off a lot of the rougher pasture that the sheep would avoid, allowing better pasture to come through on the next regeneration.

There was a great sense of pride from both James and Kiri in the products that they are able to produce on their farm. Being self-confessed “foodies”, they both know the quality that comes from the rural sector in New Zealand, but it wasn’t the edible products that concerned them. Along with every other sheep farmer in New Zealand, there was one of their renewable and sustainable products that had fallen out of favour. A look inside the woolshed told the same story of a product wildly undervalued as the fully ladened woolsacks sat idle in the darkness. As the public pressure begins to rise around the dangers of plastic and synthetic material, there is a hope that wool will see its return to favour. Closing the woolshed door, James joked that he is waiting for the price to return before he’ll be prepared to part ways with such a valuable product.

The property is on the eastern coast of South Wairarapa and very much at the mercy of the elements, with strong winds and rain throughout the winter and searing hot summers. The challenge of managing stock through these extremes would be more than enough for most but it was the effect on the land around them that caused the Elworthy family to make changes. Started by James’ parents, James and Kiri have continued to retire sections of farmland on their property that weren’t up to the task of grazing livestock. James was able to point to sections of the property that were next in line for plantings as the soil had continued to slip away under the pressure of a wet winter and the steep gradients. The property is now planted out with large sections of native and Pinus radiata plantations. James said his family has always felt they were conservationists, like many other farmers, and they always want to see the land in the best condition they can. It’s farms like Wairewa where we see an incredible number of plants, both native and exotic, planted every year.

The conservation work that has gone into the property over the years has developed into a beautiful display of New Zealand’s outdoors and the home to the Elworthys other business. The Tora Coastal Walk makes its way along the Wairewa Farm, winding along the ridges and out to the coast before returning on a parallel track. The track takes visitors three days to complete in an outdoor experience where they are able to disconnect from the fast-paced lifestyles which many lead. Stepping out onto the track, Kiri and James have developed a full experience complete with home-cooked wholesome meals and unforgettable accommodation. There was clear enjoyment for the pair as they spoke about the business which Kiri proudly referred to as “The Greatest Walk” in relation to New Zealand’s Great Walks.

The future of the Tora Coastal Walk is one that both James and Kiri look upon positively. As they continue to book out spots well into the future, Kiri said it’s about improving their offering. With the experience built on being immersed in nature on an operational sheep and beef farm, they have delivered a real slice of New Zealand to their guests. The accommodation is elegant but authentic and James, Kiri and their team go over and above as hosts. The next step is to create a more sustainable and renewable aspect. While some of the food currently comes from the property, Kiri said she would love to get to a point where the farm supplies all the food their guests enjoy over the three days.

With a wide variety of hikers completing the walk each year, Kiri has recently introduced a Women’s Wellness Retreat to their offering. In addition to the usual sightseeing, gourmet food and homely accommodation, the Women’s Wellness Retreat will offer the attendees yoga classes, nutritional advice and much more. The experience has been developed to leave the attendee feeling relaxed and rejuvenated over the three days. Both James and Kiri mentioned how surprised they are seeing the hikers coming back in after three days like completely different people.

The Wairewa Farm continues to stand as true as a sheep farm as you will come across in New Zealand, but they have managed to supplement the farm through diversity. The introduction of conservation by James’ parents has seen the Elworthys benefit through logging and carbon credits in recent years. With all the native bush on the property and the beautifully wild Wairarapa coast, it serves as a perfect backdrop for tourism opportunities in the Tora Coastal Walk. The Elworthys are a family who have seen many challenges on the property east of Martinborough, but through calculated decisions and income diversity, they have been able to find opportunities that work for them, not only financially but through genuine enjoyment. For those needing to take a break, disconnect and reset, the Tora Coastal Walk is the perfect option whilst also supporting a local farming family.