A young couple are juggling jobs and locations to establish their deer farm. Cheyenne Nicholson reports on the challenges.

Military life comes with many challenges. Throw in a 43-hectare velvet farm, a 10-month-old and living in different cities – and you have the life of Sarah and James Peters. Despite their often hectic lifestyle the couple take it all in their stride.

Both James and Sarah grew up on the land. James on his parents’ sheep, beef and deer farm in Taihape. After leaving school James left the family farm to follow his own path. After a stint shearing, fencing and shepherding he decided to join the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

“The Air Force has been a great job for me and I’ve worked with a lot of great people. During the week I feel like I’m contributing to society and then on the weekend it’s the personal side of the equation,” James says.

But after 10 years out of the farming business, James says he felt it was time to get back into it.

“After getting out of farming, you come back with a different perspective. When we decided to get back into and looking at what we wanted to do we were really impressed with the deer industry at the time. They seemed to be doing a lot within the industry to promote the products being produced.”

So two years ago, James and Sarah took the plunge. A fair bit of searching for the right property and a sizeable mortgage later they purchased their own block of land at Okoia, east of Wanganui, completely on their own with no guarantors which the couple describe as ‘scary but exciting’.

“There can be a lot of risk. As dad says if you don’t get it right you go broke, so we are trying to get it right.

Our parents have worked hard to get where they are, while providing an environment that we enjoyed growing up in, so we are trying to achieve the same thing for our family.”

They are paying interest only on the loan at the moment, and will continue to over the next three-four years until the velvet operation is mature.

“That’s really all we can do at the moment. It all hinges on one of us working full time, as a reasonable amount of that is going into getting us through the next three years.”

The farm doesn’t have a house on it and they don’t have any immediate plans to build either. James is based in Auckland Monday to Friday while Sarah and 10-month-old Angus live in defence force housing at Ohakea.

“Buying the land without the house was a few things for us. Firstly it allowed us to buy more land with the money we had. Secondly, we have housing through the defence force and when that comes to an end we can always rent. The land was worth more to us than a house.”

‘Now that I’m full time on the farm I can pretty much pick the days to come out here and get stuff done. In some ways its easier doing it this way, than with two of us working full time.’

The property was bought mostly as a going concern but James and Sarah weighed up their options to figure out what was going to make the most financial sense.

“We figured we could probably make more out of velvet in the long run. With us not being a big place we needed to be producing a high-value product. The other important consideration for us is time and effort, as we needed a system that would fit into an existing full time job.

“Velvet is an intense workload for the late spring/summer period, but for the rest of the year we can concentrate on farm development. The last of the hinds that were purchased with the property were sold in mid-October leaving just the velvet stags.”

They are currently working on building their velvet herd but agree it’s going to take some time to do due to financial constraints.

“For the next few years we plan to increase the kilos per head. At the moment we are at the low end because of our genetics, but we can’t afford to go out and buy lots of mature stags with good genetics.”

Each year they purchase 30-50 replacements. They buy them young so they can buy more to help develop their genetic base while the older culls pay for the replacements.

The farm itself grows good grass, but requires further development of infrastructure to handle stags easily, which they knew going into it. James and Sarah have a number of improvements they would like to make to the property to get it up to scratch and so it can effectively be operated by one person.

They don’t have any workers, relying on themselves with help from family, friends and neighbours when they’re in a pinch.

“At the moment getting the deer in requires two of us, and because James is away a fair bit for work it’s not ideal and means we have to really schedule stock work around when there’s two of us here,” Sarah says.

They’ve started at the heart and the perimeter of the property and worked their way in when it comes to improvements and upgrades.

“If you can’t contain them you’re stuffed and if you can’t handle them your stuffed so it made the most sense to go about it that way,” James says.

One of the first things they did when they bought the farm was to build an outdoor holding pen. It took a good week to complete with James and Sarah digging all the post holes by hand in the middle of summer.

“It was a dumb idea really but it was the Christmas holidays and family were available to help put it up after the posts were in!”

“Before there were no holding facilities aside from inside the yards so you couldn’t really hold animals and work with them at the same time.”

The improvements to the shed have been made with the goal of having it be a one-man-operated shed.

Fencing is on the list to be upgraded as well as riparian planting and focusing on the environmental aspect of the farm.

“Both Sarah and I are really passionate about that side of things and we have a lot that needs to be done here in that space but for us right now it’s a matter of having the time to dedicate to doing it.”

With James up in the Auckland during the week and commuting on the weekends, it limits how much he can get done around the place. Sarah does the lion’s share of the work around the farm during the week. She makes the 30-minute commute from Ohakea to Wanganui every other day to tend to stock and work on other projects around the farm – all with baby Angus in the front pack.

Sarah, who grew up on her parents’ sheep and beef farm in west Otago, is a qualified vet and transitioned to full time onfarm after having Angus.

“When we were both working full time we were often out here in the dark during winter getting things done. Now that I’m full time on the farm I can pretty much pick the days to come out here and get stuff done. In some ways its easier doing it this way, than with two of us working full time.

Despite having a lot on her plate, Sarah takes it all in her stride.

“I’m really proud of Sarah and all she gets done. She’s got a lot on her plate during the week while I’m in Auckland and she handles it like a trooper,” James says.

Sarah says the key to making it all work is that they work together and trust each other to make good decisions for their business.

“It’s all new to us. We are really just starting to find our feet with it all a bit now. That first year we relied on our parents a lot for advice. Running your own business is a different kettle of fish than just working on a farm,” Sarah says.

“Where other people might progressively take over the business side of their family farm over a number of years we went cold turkey from farming and then came back to it. Suddenly we have a business and working full time, the task list can be overwhelming at times,” James says.

One of the major things they say has helped, along with their parents’ advice and guidance from the sidelines, has been the neighbours and other local deer farmers, including the local Advance Party who have kept them in the group while James is away.

“It’s a fantastic initiative. A lot of the people involved have been in the industry for a while and have heaps of tips and tricks so for people like us getting into it, that sort of information is just invaluable.”

At some stage down the track, James says he’d love to be on the farm full time but they know realistically that won’t be for a long time.

“We don’t want to over-capitalise this small block too early. We also don’t know what’s going to happen in the years to come in terms of expansion and other business options.

“For now, we just want to do our own thing and build up a nice environment that we can raise Angus in. The farm’s been really good for us.”

Managing work, family and farm life is a balancing act for both of them. Where other couples may have a common interest in buying a house together and choosing paint colours, James and Sarah say they’ve found their common interest in farming, and fixing the fence or moving the stock is their version of painting a bedroom.

“This is our thing that we do together.”

Top tips for buying your first farm

  • Talk to as many people as you can for ideas and advice.
  • Be conservative with budgeting.
  • Get a good team to help you finalise a property and begin business – ask around for good accountants, lawyers, agribusiness managers.
  • Be realistic with time allocation e.g. family, work, sport – and how much you are willing to sacrifice, especially if you have to travel to a block.

Farm facts

Location: Okoia, Wanganui

Farm size: 43ha

Stock units: 730

Supplement: Baleage, winter crops and some maize

Operation: velvet