Our Oxford Smallholding – August 1987 to March 1988
In 1987 we decided to move out to the Canterbury countryside and have a go at becoming self-sufficient, growing our own vegetables and raising animals.
I had been interested in this since reading the self-sufficiency book by John and Sally Seymour.
We looked around at lots of properties around Canterbury and settled on a 1-acre property in the small rural town of Oxford nestled under the Southern Alps foothills. The property cost us $50,000. After selling our house in Christchurch, we moved out to Oxford at the end of winter 1987.
The township of Oxford is 55km from Christchurch and is located between two of the big mountain fed rivers that cross the Canterbury plains to the sea, the Waimakariri river to the south and the Ashley river to the north.
Here’s a view of the Waimakariri River (fabulous salmon and trout fishing) on its journey to the coast. You can see the Port Hills of Christchurch in the top right of the photo. The Waimak gorge is nearby crossed with a high bridge that has breathtaking views of the river. Jet boat companies take tourists up the Waimak from the sea to the gorge. The Maori name for the area around Oxford is “Tawera” which means “hot blow” undoubtedly prompted by the well-known Canterbury Nor’ Wester. These winds can really blow.
To get to Oxford from Christchurch, you travel across the Canterbury Plains past arable, sheep, cattle and dairy farms on what seem like some of the longest straightest roads in New Zealand. You have to make sure you are alert or else you can end up wandering off the road.
The long straight Tram Road that links Oxford with Christchurch.
Our cottage at 98 High Street, Oxford in the middle of summer.
The cottage was built from rough saw timber that was milled locally. It was built around the late 1800’s, early 1900’s.
Oxford began with the establishment of the first sawmill in 1854. By the 1870’s eleven mills were located between the Eyre River and Coopers Creek, the bush in the area being known as Harewood Forest. In 1898 a fire from Coopers Creek and another from the Mt Oxford area fanned by a raging nor’wester swept towards Oxford township destroying mills, houses, bridges and farms.
Oxford is a really nice rural township. The foothills nearby are very scenic with native trees and bush walks. At the end of High Street (our cottage was at 98 High Street) there is the Ashley Gorge, with a pleasant picnic spot and great river swimming, fishing and camping. We often went out there with our visitors.
We got a long drought that first summer with very high temperatures. It got quite scary with the danger of fires very real. All of the paddocks and trees were tinder dry and with the strong Nor’ West winds a fire could have raced through the Oxford township causing untold damage. There was a couple of big fires that broke out a few miles away that kept flaring up in the tree stumps for a long time afterwards. A really scary time waiting for rain to dampen things down. When you are inland and in the middle of a farming area, there is nothing to stop a fire and nowhere to go for safety.
Not long after moving in I started on a three month Farm Skills course that was run to assist people into farming work. I commuted into Rangiora each day during the week to do the course.
It was a real eye opener for a ‘city boy’ but I loved it all. There was about a dozen of us on the course, a mix of guys and girls and a mix of ages. I was the oldest. We were taught how to drive a tractor and use the different tractor implements. I tried some ploughing, drilling etc. I spent quite a bit of time working on a sheep and cropping farm belonging to the Ensors. James Ensor was a really nice farmer and I learnt a lot from him. It was a really stressful time for him as crop farming was entering into a period of time with bad returns for the farmers.
After finishing the course I spent about a year working for a farmer called Maurice Borcoski. Had a lot of fun with him. We spent time cutting down macrocarpa trees and splitting them for sale as firewood. I helped out at shearing time in the shearing shed doing the baling and cleaning up after the shearers. Did a bit of tractor work preparing the ground for crops. Spent some of the days looking after the sheep and cattle, moving them between fields and feeding out hay in the winter.
We used to go into town (Christchurch) to the market where Maurice would buy sheep and lambs and then fatten them on at his farm for selling on. Maurice helped me out with materials for our place at Oxford giving me bits and pieces to build a milking shed, hay and turnips for our animals.
The inside of our cottage was roomy with a high stud. We tidied it up with new paint on some of the walls, our first go at decorating. We had an old wood-burning stove in the kitchen (along with an electric one!) that we used for cooking, heating and hot water. Real self-sufficiency. The fire in the stove didn’t burn well when we first got there, so Deb’s Dad made a new chimney for us that was a lot higher than the old one, providing a lot more ‘draw’. Worked really well after that. We used to rise our bread above the stove and then bake it in the oven. Yum! I can still smell it. The wood-burning stove was handy in the winter as well because sometimes there would be snow with power cuts and so we weren’t reliant on the power supply.
We had some fruit trees that were there already. A lovely big old pear tree and some apple trees. I love growing fruit trees and so planted out a new orchard for ourselves. Unfortunately we weren’t there long enough for the trees to mature enough to give us fruit.
We got a couple of chooks from the Oxford market and installed them in an ark that I had built for them.
We let them have the run of the field and feed them grain and scraps from the vege garden. When one of them went clucky we got some eggs for her to sit on and eventually ended up with some chicks. The boy’s loved the little bundles of fluff.
We wanted to have a go at raising and looking after our own animals and so we did. We bottle fed an orphan Corridale lamb that James Ensor gave me. Samuel took ownership of the lamb that we named Frances. She became pretty tame for us. Maurice gave us some lambs for us to fatten for ourselves, a couple of Corridales (Jack & Jill) and a couple of black Romneys.
We had problems with Frances when she got flyblown and all maggoty. Not a good look. I had to get a drench for her from Maurice and we had to use an old bath in the paddock to dip her in some chemical concoction to get rid of the problem. A bit of a learning curve and a look at the not so nice side of farming with animals.
Maurice helped me buy a couple of piglets for me to fatten up for the market. We kept them in an enclosure by one of our sheds. All went well until we got home one day from a trip to Christchurch and found that they had ‘got out’. Luckily they hadn’t been able to get out of our property, but they had managed to get into our paddock and had had a lovely time rooting the grass out as pigs do. They are like a plough when they get going.
So yours truly had the job of making the pigpen’s enclosure a bit higher and then getting the pigs back into it. Now you have heard the saying ‘ Squeal like a pig”, well let me assure you, they can make a blood curling racket. I had to chase and catch each pig, and then pick it up and carry it back to its pen. All of this was accompanied by the high-pitched squealing from the pigs. I think Deb wet herself laughing. We got there in the end but I’m sure that half the street thought that a murder was going on at our place.
We got to know our neighbour who owned the property at the bottom of ours. His name is Alan Skurr. The Skurrs are an old Oxford family who have been in the area for years. Alan was retired and enjoyed helping us out as we learnt how to look after our animals.
We decided to get ourselves a cow and after seeing a Jersey cow advertised, Alan offered to come out with us in his truck to have a look at her. The farmer selling the cow had a few for sale and in the end we bought Honey who was still in milk and a young Jersey calf that we called Suzy. They weren’t in the best of condition but we got them for a good price. We brought them home in the back of Alan’s horse float.
Alan taught me how to milk Honey and in return we gave him some of her milk. Milking a cow is a really neat experience. A good relaxing, de-stressing occupation (well so long as she doesn’t kick the bucket over!).
I built a milking shed at Maurice’s place and brought it home of a trailer. The shed worked fine until we got a decent Nor’ Wester. What fun. The shed ended up in the air and flew across the fence into the neighbour’s field. After that we bolted the shed to a fence post and chained it down as well. The Nor’Westers are something else. All the farms on the Canterbury Plains have high wind breaks of trees alongside their fields. If they didn’t, everything including the sheep would just disappear.
Alan leased us a two-acre paddock at the bottom of his property that joined ours. We needed the extra grazing to have enough feed for all of the animals but mainly for Honey. We used to get about three or four litres of milk a day from her. We kept it in the fridge overnight and then skimmed about a litre of rich cream off the top. Yum.
Honey had one teet not working so we were pretty happy with the milk that she did provide us with.
Towards the end of our stay in Oxford we decided to dry off Honey and get her in calf. Now this was an interesting experience. I paid a guy to artificially inseminate Honey with semen from a Jersey bull. Not exactly your regular lovemaking. He dons long rubber gloves, lifts up the cows tail and, puts his arm deep inside and with a long tube contraption does the business.
We had a false alarm after the first attempt and had to get him out to do it again. Not sure how she got on because we had decided to sell up our property and so we sold her before she was showing her pregnancy.
She was a lovely friendly cow as Jerseys generally are. A really interesting experience looking after a cow and having to make sure that we were there to milk her twice a day, ever day, all year.
As time went by, our lambs became fat enough for killing. Maurice offered to teach me how to slaughter them and cut them up. All sounds pretty horrible but of course meat has to come from somewhere before it ends up at the supermarket.
Well we did it in Maurice’s shearing shed so that the blood would drip away through the floor slats. I had two lambs to do. Maurice showed me how to do the first one and then I had ago. The key seemed to be to have a very sharp knife and to keep the animals neck stretched right back. So I did the deed without fainting and then Maurice showed me how to pull the wool and skin off . And finally we gutted the animals. Poo!
All in all a very surreal experience. I was able to do it all but I don’t think that I would want to do it ever again. I took the cut pieces of meat home for the freezer and we ate it over the next month or two. I can’t say that I enjoyed the meat though knowing the animal personally so to speak.
The whole experience has put me off eating lamb since then. Funny really, no problem slaughtering the lamb, but she got me back by putting me off eating any other lamb!
The gardens were pretty rundown when we took over the property.
There was plenty of trees, shrubs & climbers … they just needed to tidied up and shaped. We were able to create a nice ‘country cottage garden’ effect that really enhanced the value of the property.
Over the 18 months that we lived at Oxford, most of our family and friends came out from Christchurch to visit us at one time or another and we had some nice BBQ’s with them. Their kids really enjoyed the space and the trees and animals.
Thomas was born pretty much at the same time as we were moving out to Oxford. Pretty hard work for Debra having a new born and a new home to sort out!
We wanted to grow as much of our own veges as we could and I had a big vege plot up and running the first summer that we were there. I doubled the size of the existing garden and with the manure from our animals we had a nice organic garden going.
Oxford’s climate is really good for gardening with cold winters and really long hot summers. The Nor’wester gets the temperatures up into 30’s all summer long. Lot’s of frosts in the winter with cold, clear and crisp days. A lot healthier than Christchurch’s smog.
We had some tubs of citrus fruit that I had grown in Christchurch with some success (yes we grew and ate our own oranges!). We took them to Oxford with us and kept them outside in a sheltered spot during the summer and them put them into one of our sheds for the winter. I had taken the outside walls of the front and side of the shed off and put some plastic sheeting on it. This worked out well and the plants continued to flourish.
Samuel was getting old enough to help me outside and he had his own section in the garden for himself.
A couple of months after moving in Debra gave birth to Thomas at Burwood Hospital in Christchurch which made life pretty hectic for her. Once Thomas was born Deb wasn’t waddling around any more and got into learning how to milk Honey etc. Samuel went to the local playcentre in Oxford and Debra made friends there with the other Mums one of which was Maree Felstead. They have remained friends ever since, even through all of our different moves around the world and around New Zealand.
Late in our second spring (October) at Oxford, we got a real dumping of snow. Only lasted for a few days, but what fun for the kids.
In the end it became obvious that we had timed our move out into the countryside wrong because the rural economy took a real nosedive and farmers couldn’t afford to employ people.
So we put our cottage on the market. We didn’t get much interest at first and after talking to a different agent he suggested that we up the price to target a different type of buyer. We had got the whole place looking really tidy and eventually we got a buyer for $72,500. Not a bad profit from $50,000 18 months earlier.
So after sorting out some job prospects in Scotland we took our proceeds and flew out of New Zealand onto our next adventure, a little sad to be leaving our little piece of New Zealand behind.