Ever dreamt about giving up your day job for a life in the country?
We talked to four people who have made the switch from hobby farming to supporting themselves on their lifestyle blocks, to find out how they did it and what people need to know.
Beverly Dowling’s corporate life ended when severe carpal tunnel syndrome meant she couldn’t type any more. Her alternative career shortlist di lei was cheetah research in Africa or buying a petting zoo on Trade Me. She chose the petting zoo, even though she didn’t own any land.
Dowling sold her house in Wellington and purchased one hectare in Horowhenua – a flat, stony wilderness without fences or water. Although the land was challenging, Dowling’s Zippy Zoo was a hit.
The zoo included a donkey, goats, sheep, kunekune pigs, geese, rabbits, guinea pigs and a chicken that sat on Dowling’s head during performances. A firm favorite was Freddy, the large and exceptionally quiet goat. He was the perfect height for people in wheelchairs to pat and stroke.
More than 80 animals visited rest homes, performed in schools, at birthday parties and numerous regional events. The work was constant, and it was usual to have 16 events a week booked in the lead-up to Christmas.
Dowling leased a further 2.4ha to enable her to rotate the animals in and out of the zoo and avoid stress – both hers and the animals.
Looking after 80-plus animals and developing bare land was a big job when you have no money. Dowling said she used to “think about how she could use things in two different ways”.
Sharing the load was another important factor. Dowling shared WWOOFs (willing workers on organic farms) with her neighbor. They provided young muscles and gave her more get up and go.
The secret to her success was extensive research, applying her business knowledge and developing a range of mentors. Dowling wanted to do a good job. “I didn’t want to be that person on Facebook asking questions and learning from disasters and mistakes.”
She said mistakes still happened, but were less common than they could have been.
Her nursing background was helpful when discussing animal health with the vet. “Rectal temperatures were a breeze, and when asked if a uterus felt boggy I could say ‘yes’ with certainty.”
Tips and tricks included using the leaves from the olive tree for winter feed, building gates on a 45-degree angle so the space could double as a pen, and being an active part of the wider community: “If it’s not already going, start it. Don’t sit back waiting – everyone benefits. “
Dowling is now retiring. When she couldn’t type, she could wrap a lead around a goat, but now her hands di lei struggle to hold a paintbrush. She is rehousing and letting natural attrition do its thing with her Zippy Zoo companions.
“When Freddy dies, I’ll move,” she said. However, 17-year-old Freddy doesn’t look as if he is going anywhere soon.
Reflecting on her lifestyle experience, Dowling said: “No one believed I could do it, but I did. The last 12 years have been the best years of my life. I made the right choice between cheetah research and a petting zoo. “
A lifestyle block is necessary when you want an airfield. Bill Izard flies and collects planes. He looked for suitable land from the Wairarapa to Auckland, finally settling on 4ha on the city boundary of Te Awamutu.
Establishing a reliable revenue stream from the block was a priority. Izard planted 300 coppice gum trees for firewood, a large vegetable garden and stocked dexter cattle for slaughter. He said the high cost of butchering meant it was not as cost-efficient today to slaughter your own animals.
Izard built two chalets on the property to ensure a regular income stream. The chalets are rented out long-term and are popular because Izard is close to the town center and numerous employment opportunities.
Revenue is also generated by annually felling 30 gum trees for firewood and growing hay on the airfield. The rich volcanic soil means four crops of baleage can be cut each year.
The most significant hurdle to Izard’s lifestyle block is living on the city boundary. Historically, he received official complaints about the noise from the harvester, trucks and the airfield. Over the years he received visits from the police and council authorities for activities that are legal and accepted rural farming practices.
The biggest threat to his income stream were the unexpected external costs, he said. The most obvious were the knock-on effects of rising land values, which impact insurance premiums, council and regional rates. Others include the unit price fluctuations of baleage and estimating the annual demand for firewood.
Izard’s best advice is to buy fertile land as it broadens your options. “Work out what you can grow and make money from that rather than choosing things you like.”
Gillian Hayes lived in Petone, worked in Wellington and pastured her horses in Upper Hutt. She spent a lot of time driving and dreaming of a lifestyle where she could see her horses out the kitchen window.
Hayes and her family purchased a 4ha lifestyle block at Ōtaki beach 21 years ago. They worked on the block each weekend to make the dream a reality. Her marriage di lei broke up, and Hayes realized she couldn’t raise her children and work in Wellington.
She tried the usual lifestyle block go-tos: cattle, weaners and four-day-old calves. “They all failed one way or another,” she said.
It was a hallelujah moment when she sat down and thought about what she knew and what she could do to earn a living. Horses had been her passion di lei forever. Through word of mouth she established a riding school, helping people overcome their riding fears and building up their confidence. Suddenly she had a small income generated from the block.
Hayes sold the cattle as they didn’t earn any money and stocked the block with five more quiet and dependable horses, including a bay gelding called Moose. She established Beachbrook Stables, a small boutique trekking company specializing in private treks for couples, friends and families.
The venture took off. Hayes offered trekking along the Ōtaki beach, taught children riding after school and on weekends. School holidays were the opportunity to run week-long riding camps for children and then, by demand, riding camps for adults.
Tiny home accommodation and farm stays added to the block’s income generation.
Hayes said the change in focus from individual to group experiences was the game-changer. “I had more people for every hour, and I worked shorter hours.”
That was Hayes’ life for 10 years. She worked seven days a week and at least eight hours a day – every week. She expected Covid to hit her business di lei, but it seemed the opposite: “Every New Zealander who usually went overseas, holidayed with me.”
The greatest challenge was the physicality of the work. Hayes was exhausted running the stables by herself. “It was stressful and tiring,” she said.
Five years ago she hired another pair of hands, and it was life-changing. “An extra person takes away the physical and emotional stress,” she said. “I don’t think I would have lasted as long as I did without her.”
Between running a business and raising a family, there was no time for holidays. “You cannot go away, and the work is there every day – it won’t wait.”
So after 21 years, Hayes put her property and trekking business on the market. No one wanted the trekking company, even though it was profitable. She has rehomed most of her horses di lei and will live on a smaller block with Moose and a young filly.
Hayes started her lifestyle journey on a benefit and quickly realized she couldn’t fund a lifestyle off her block without another income stream. She followed her di lei passion di lei and developed a business based on what she knew – and it worked.
Dr Arthur Chin
Arthur Chin is an ex-banker, Prime Minister’s scholar and one of Airbnb’s most popular livestream farm experience providers. The serendipitous pivot from academia to hosting online experiences was based on circumstance and a casual recommendation.
During the first lockdown in 2020, Chin was chatting to his Californian friend based in Dubai. She was saying how she passed the time watching online experiences. She used them to connect with family and friends in the United States and recommended that Chin host a farm-tour experience on his hobby farm di lui.
The investments were modest: $ 200 for a Bluetooth headset and a selfie stick to support his phone as he walked virtual guests around his 1ha hobby farm. Poor internet site coverage was solved with the additional purchase of a $ 949 Starlink satellite.
At first, all Chin wanted to do was cover the cost of his lunch – a pie from the local BP service station. However, after his role di lui at UCOL Manawatu was disestablished in 2021, the Airbnb virtual Nature Highlights farm experience became his full-time job di lui.
Chin takes his Airbnb guests on an hour-long farm tour. He introduces New Zealand, the farm, his romney sheep, kunikuni pigs and various chickens. The animals are front and center to his virtual tour of him. They star in numerous close-ups and Chin gives a thumbnail description of each animal’s personality. The farm talks are educational but laced with a good dose of humor.
Chin has hosted over 800 farm tours with 8500 individual guests from 32 countries. He also hosts groups and corporates, including Amazon and Uber. Currently, Nature Highlights has more than 850 five-star reviews on Airbnb. Hosting is profitable if you put in the time. Chin annually earns more than $ 100,000, with additional income generated from personalized merchandise.
“It is exhausting work and it’s important to identify your priorities,” said Chin. His best advice about him is to do something you are really passionate about. He is passionate about his farm di lui and the animals he shares it with.
Usually there are three farm tours a week as well as charity hosting. This week it is a ward at a large children’s hospital in California. “Many different kids are affected by Covid,” Chin said, “so this was my way of bringing a little joy into their lives.”
It is possible to make a living off a lifestyle property. However if you want to succeed, you need to do your research, develop a good plan, and be prepared to work hard and make personal sacrifices.
As Gillian Hayes said, making a living from a lifestyle block is all consuming – there are no holidays: “You cannot go away, and the work is there every day. It won’t wait. “