Growing the business

As a young fellow growing up on a farm at Eketahuna, Ben Morrison had his own flock of sheep. The opportunity for him and his wife, Vibeke, to buy Motu-nui Rams Romney stud from Jason Le Grove this year represents the culmination of a life-long interest in breeding sheep for Ben. By Rebecca Greaves, Photos Brad Hanson.

In Business19 Minutes
Ben and Vebz Morrison - Wiaone, NZ

As a young fellow growing up on a farm at Eketahuna, Ben Morrison had his own flock of sheep. The opportunity for him and his wife, Vibeke, to buy Motu-nui Rams Romney stud from Jason Le Grove this year represents the culmination of a life-long interest in breeding sheep for Ben. By Rebecca Greaves, Photos Brad Hanson.

Starting from scratch, Ben and Vibeke (Vebz) Morrison’s steely determination to have something of their own, willingness to make sacrifices and not taking no for an answer has seen them grow their farming operation to a significant land holding.

Buying Motu-nui Rams is just the latest step in their impressive business growth story.

With almost no outside help, the couple has steadily increased their land holding in the Tararua District over the past 10 years. Their rapid expansion has brought challenges, with blocks spread over a wide area, taking on staff for the first time, and development needed on many of the blocks purchased, but they have taken it all in their stride.

Growing up, Ben always knew he wanted to be a farmer. Any time he could, he was out on the farm with his dad. After leaving school at 16 he headed up-country, spending time shepherding in Taumarunui and Taihape before heading back to the Wairarapa.

He worked for Tinks and Andy Pottinger at Tinui for 11 years. While working there, he found several small lease blocks as a way to build equity, which he ran alongside his fulltime job.

The Pottingers gave him a chance to run some stock at their property.

“They gave me time around what we were doing onfarm, as long as the work got done, to do my own stuff. And I had weekends.”

In the back of his mind, Ben set timeframes. He wanted to have his first decent lease, or own some land, by the time he was 30, something he achieved when he and Vebz secured a 500ha lease at Mauriceville in 2010.

Their advice to others is not to give up.

“We got laughed at by a lot of banks – we went to three or four banks looking to lease or buy.”

They had built about $200,000 equity in stock, but had no debt with anyone and banks didn’t like that.

They only wanted to borrow $400,000 to stock the bigger lease.

Ben told them he would do it one way or another. Ironically, years later, they had those banks come to them wanting their business.

“BNZ was the bank that took a risk with us, and we have had brilliant bank managers, they have backed us the whole way.”

In the end, they got it over the line with a personal guarantee from Vebz’s father of $200,000, and the lease was theirs.

“It was a huge risk for them (the bank), but within a year we had pretty much paid off our debt and were buying our first block,” Vebz adds.

Vebz grew up on a cropping farm in Marton. She and Ben met 15 years ago at the infamous Shepherd’s Shemozzle in Hunterville. They now have two boys, Monty, 9, and Harvey, 7.

From the start, Vebz was completely on board with Ben’s quest to find something of their own.

“I was the one always scrolling on the computer looking for farms to buy. He’d come home and I’d say ‘let’s buy this’.”

When they got the lease at Mauriceville, one of the bank’s conditions was that Ben remain in his full time employment with the Pottingers, because of the secure income. Vebz left a job she loved at a jeweller and went to work fulltime on the new lease, alongside Ben’s dad.

When they bought the Mara in 2012, the sort of hard block that would have put many off, they didn’t care about the remote location – it was the only block they could find in their price range. By then Ben had left Pottingers, and they wanted to put the money they were making from the lease into a bit of dirt, rather than just having stock at the end of the lease.

The Mara was 806 hectares of half scrub, virtually a whole paddock, class 6 country, with a run-down house but a nice woolshed. It had no fert history and lots of goats and pigs.

“It was a back block and we got told we were mad,” Ben says.

They were excited but everyone else was saying ‘what the hell have you done’?

“But it was ours, and it’s the most beautiful country, so different, hence why we still have it now,” Vebz says.

The Mara was about building equity, but they fenced it up and got it to a functional point. In 2013 they bought a further 155ha of adjoining land. It might have been theirs, but it wasn’t somewhere they wanted to live with a young family and, with the Mauriceville lease coming to an end in 2016, they started to look for their next farm – one they could call home.

They needed to find a way to get into another farm and it came in the form of Manuka honey, selling 412ha of the Mara to bees.

“We’d had a couple of good seasons out of bees and people were starting to look for bee blocks. It was timing – we got paid more than what we’d bought the whole block for. That allowed us to get into this farm, Kaitak.”

They have since added two more blocks of land adjoining Kaitak, and a further fattening block on the Coast Road, Pongaroa.

The rapid expansion was a period of hectic work and Ben being away from home a lot. Vebz was busy with two little boys and says she never really had a chance to reflect on what they had achieved.

“It was constantly all go, and it hasn’t stopped,” Ben says. “It’s full on, trying to do as much as we can on the development side. We were growing our land holding, then doing development. The last two and-a-half years have been huge on development and getting everything set up properly.

“Most of the properties we’ve bought have been run down. It’s a challenge to run a farm effectively when it’s run down and that’s been a setback in some ways – it can be frustrating.”

Challenges and lessons

The biggest challenge has been organisation, hiring staff and getting systems in place to ensure everything runs smoothly. Both admit the office and bookwork side of things is not their strong point.

For Ben, who had always done everything himself, relying on other people has been a big hurdle to overcome.

“I’d always done things myself. We got to the point where we had too much land and I couldn’t physically do it all. Relying on other people, and finding the right people, that’s been hard to change. For me, I’d rather be out there doing it.”

Working out what sort of people they needed to employ, and at what stage of their farming career, was tough and has been trial and error in some ways. Having never employed staff before they didn’t really know if what they needed was a junior shepherd, a senior shepherd or a stock manager.

Now, they are happy with the team they have around them, and have started using tools, like Cloud Farmer, to help keep track of day-to-day activities onfarm.

“Everything goes in there, from staff hours to stock tallies. Every time something comes through the yards we enter tallies, drenching etc. All staff have access and record their hours. I can go in there and see exactly what’s been done on the stock side,” Ben explains.

“It’s made a huge difference and simplified everything. I can just look at the app, I don’t need to ring staff and ask what’s in their notebook. It’s all at my fingertips.”

Vebz is candid about what the experience
has been like for her.

“It’s been a headache, trying to keep track of things and, at times, bringing up a family on my own. Things are a lot easier now, but it’s been a hard slog. We never saw Ben for two years, but we have been lucky that I’ve managed to stay at home with the kids.”

Ben sees his strengths as stock management and stockmanship.

“I know my stock really well. Being able  to push the boundaries and juggle things to get stock to where they need to be, and make an extra dollar here and there.”

Vebz says he’s getting better on the bookwork side, and management of staff. “The biggest thing for us is bookwork and paperwork, neither of us is good on a computer.”

“It’s all new to me. I hope I’m improving but I still know there’s work to be done,” Ben adds.

In terms of their stock policy, the expansion phase and extensive development has come with significant debt, which meant regular cash flow was needed to keep the bank happy. That has meant a lot of trading stock to keep things ticking over, and no ‘set’ stock policy.

“We had to do a lot of trading, out of necessity. We’re now at the point where we don’t need to do as much of that and can focus more on the breeding side, hence the move to the stud,” Ben says.

“The stud and everything here is being consolidated. It’s about simplifying our whole system, for our team and making it a place where people want to be, and enjoy working.”

Succession for Motu-nui

As a youngster Ben always had a keen interest in breeding sheep. He’s been a client of Motu-nui for 10 years, and the couple struck up a strong friendship with stud owner, Jason Le Grove.

“I’ve had Motu-nui rams right from the word go and have always liked the stock we’ve had, they’ve performed well for us. Breeding has always been an interest of mine, to produce good stock. Being able to produce good stock for other people is the next level. To take the stock to the next level is pretty exciting,” Ben says.

When Ben approached Jason about the possibility of buying the stud, it was fortuitous timing. Jason was thinking about succession, knowing there was no-one in his family ready to take the stud on, but wanting to ensure the family’s efforts in building the stud would not be wasted.

Both parties are excited about what the future holds for the stud, with Jason staying on in a marketing and genetics capacity, and Ben taking charge of the stock side.

“I wanted a stockman, not a marketer, and Ben is a stockman. It’s a beast and it’s not an easy job. You’ve got to be committed, 100%.”

When Ben approached him, Jason knew it was the right fit, for both parties.

“I don’t think people realise the work involved and what my dad and I have put into Motu-nui for the last 40 years. I was looking at succession – I’m ready. The stud industry, in my opinion, is taken over with a lot of science. I feel we still need to stick to basics, and that’s where I see Ben working with myself to do that,” Jason says.

The stud has been Jason’s true passion, and stepping back will be hard.

Jason’s father John founded Motu-nui in the early 1980s after managing Wairere for John Daniell. He was given the opportunity to buy some older recorded ewes from Wairere, and it all started from there. Jason came home in the mid-90s when they were running about 1200 recorded ewes. They grew to 3500 recorded ewes.

“As dad slowly took a step back, I took the stud on. It’s been my privilege to work with my dad for the last 25 years to get to where we are now. As the dairy industry kicked in and sheep got squeezed on to the harder hill country it’s been my niche, to grow a ewe that is efficient on the hills.

“Anyone can grow a sheep on the flats.”

The base of the stud is Romney, but they have also branched out into a crossbred composite ewe, based on the Romney breed, and have a terminal flock.

The stock transition period will be over the next 18 months. For now, the stud stock remains at ICA and will lamb there. For this year’s ram selling it will be status quo at ICA, with Ben present to meet clients and share their joint vision for where the stud is heading. Stock will slowly make their way to the Morrison’s farm at Weber next year.

The way Jason sees it, the three big challenges facing the sheep industry are Facial Eczema, wool and internal parasites.

Facial Eczema (FE) particularly is a big focus for the future, and Jason has already formed a partnership with Will Jackson at Piquet Hill and started a FE breeding programme.

“Producing good hardy sheep that can handle any environment, that bounce factor. I’ve had Motu-nui for 10 years and the feed efficiency is pretty impressive. We never have any spare grass and they’re still producing. That’s what I want to breed for other farms, and do it as best we can,” Ben says.

For Jason’s part, his aim is to help Vebz and Ben as much as he can, to succeed them into what Motu-nui stands for, and to secure its long-term future.


  • Ben and Vibeke Morrison
  • Sheep and beef – breeding and finishing
  • Weber, Tararua District


  • Kaitak (home farm), Weber, (three different blocks joined together) 1000 hectares
  • Coast Road, Pongaroa, 195ha – river flats, used for fattening
  • Mara, Pongaroa, 460ha of farmland owned, including an 80ha bush block, additional 1300ha leased (scrub country, about half grazeable land) used for dry stock.