When most people think of a New Zealand lifestyle block, they might imagine a few beef cattle, maybe a sheep or two and a couple of chickens. But can you still makei money if you want to go beyond protein, and branch out into horticulture?
Pat Tetley says anyone who is thinking about it should know they will need to put some work in.
But while visiting him and wife Sue on their now two-hectare lifestyle block in Waiau Pa, Auckland, I realize they both see weekend “work” as a hobby.
The two have a productive avocado orchard and harvest for Avoco, an avocado marketing company, every year. Tetley and a group of friends brew beer. He and other growers in the area also participate in developing improved cropping through the study of application of soil science.
Sue Tetley puts her hand to beekeeping, also studies regenerative agriculture practices, has a lush vegetable garden and writes and illustrates children’s books from her studio on the property.
In 2001 the Tetleys, who were both teachers at the time, were looking for a property that had to meet certain requirements.
It had to have enough land, so they could develop a garden, and they wanted to make some sort of income from a crop.
They realized that they could either buy a nice house on a small plot of land, or buy a larger parcel of land with a house that needed a lot of tidying up. They decided on the latter.
“We bought 5.9 hectares. The property was a little run down with fences needing repair. There were already good shelter belts (shelter belts create a microclimate). We pruned the shelter belts, put up electric fencing and bought 12 head of cattle. Cattle was a good first step. We had them to manage our grass, but when they fattened we sold them. We didn’t like sending them to slaughter, but we did it for three years while we decided what we could grow on the property, ”Pat says.
Sue had begun investigating possible crops to grow, but some like tamarillos or persimmons, presented some challenges. There was no tamarillo packhouse nearby and this would mean the Tetleys would have to invest in a truck specifically to transport crops to the packhouse.
They learned that there were some avocado growers nearby and a number of positive aspects of the crop that suited their lifestyle.
They began by planting 1.5 hectares of avocados. They decided on the Hass variety as it is the most marketable avocado both then and now.
“Trees cost $ 12 back then. It wasn’t a major undertaking, but we had to buy a tractor as it was recommended that we raise avocado trees by a hump-and-hollow method, so they grow on semi mounds and their roots do not sit in water. I borrowed a friend’s plough, bought some pieces of equipment with a neighbor, so we could share costs, and I bought an old tractor. “
At the peak of production the Tetleys had 470 trees over 3 hectares. They have previously harvested up to 20 tonnes in a season.
Sue says it isn’t advisable to grow a crop without support from industry experts, as there are many plant health, production, pest control, and harvest variables to consider that the layman might not know, and that could cost you in the long run . Luckily for them, Avoco had consultants who were eager to help.
A big consideration for the Tetleys was the fact that they both worked full-time and only had weekends to attend to crops. For the first two or three years there was not much management required because the trees were young and small with few fruit.
“One benefit of avocados is that fruit matures over time, and we could harvest over weekends without pressure,” Sue says.
Avoco still provides them with a schedule for when their trucks will pick up the harvest. To make it more efficient, the Tetleys outsource their harvesting.
With foliar fertilizing and occasional pest spraying, irrigation installation and irrigation plus pruning, a mature orchard requires a lot of management. All of this needed to be done over weekends.
They also had to contend with the Karaka variable soil type on the block, which meant not all parts of the block were equally fertile or would drain well.
Sue conducts pest surveys on a monthly basis as it is required by AvoGreen. They are aware when pests reach a certain threshold and, as they belong to a grower program that allows them to decide when they apply pesticides, and they only spray when absolutely necessary. Unlike many traditional growers they do not simply follow a spray regime as dictated by a chemical company.
In 2003 Sue began using bees to pollinate their orchard.
“At one stage I had 20 hives. We built a registered kitchen for the extraction of the honey and sold honey at a nearby stall. We also sold honey in bulk to those who wanted it. We are down to two hives now and outsource pollination, but we are thinking of buying a few more. We always made some money from the honey. I could never pay myself a salary as a beekeeper, but we always had loose change from selling honey and avos, and never needed to tap into our income from our full-time employment for incidental spending, ”Sue says.
Because it was not all about money they could also decide that crops could go to food banks when there was a need, or engage in learning activities like testing pruning theories that would affect the harvest in order to learn.
“People have to understand, when you talk about how much money you are making you have not charged your own labor. This was never about income. It was about using the land and learning something new, ”Pat says.
They recently downsized by selling four hectares, because managing a large property is not as easy as it was a decade ago.
With land prices increasing considerably, the couple agrees that doing what they did more than 20 years ago, might not be as easy now. However, Pat still feels if one sold a house in the city, buying a lifestyle property might not be completely out of reach. There are few variables to consider.
With lifestyle blocks, few questions often come up. When is a lifestyle block considered commercial? And can an average family enter the lifestyle market to pursue a dream of at least part-time farming?
According to reports by Apiculture New Zealand there were more than 10,000 registered beekeepers in New Zealand. In 2020, out of those beekeepers, 75 per cent owned 10 or fewer hives and were classified as hobbyists.
Despite this, hobbyists own only 2 per cent of hives in New Zealand.
In 2021 about 20,500 tonnes of honey was produced locally. With about 25.4kg per hive being produced. A beekeeper could expect to charge anything from $ 3.6 – $ 6 per kg for bulk light clover honey, or $ 8 – $ 120 per kg for mãnuka honey, according to 2021 MPI data. Mãnuka prices were massively influenced by grading.
Beekeepers who rented their hives for pollination services could expect to be paid between $ 100 and $ 400 per hive for the pollination period, depending on region and crop.
Stores often sold a 100g of honey for over $ 6, fetching home beekeepers almost ten times that of bulk sellers.
ANZ agriculture economist Susan Kilsby said defining a ‘commercial operation’ on a lifestyle block was a hard task.
“It may be that one salary or full time household income is paid by the profit. Many people are doing split jobs, or have some part-time work, these days. There are a lot of lifestylers trying to achieve a commercial operation but who still continue with a full time job. It is not easy, ”she said.
Kilsby says there are various opportunities for this on lifestyle blocks, but the challenge often lies in identifying the right avenues for a specific region.
“The challenge is that it is different for each part of the country. The more intensive and riskier operations, like horticulture, tend to generate more returns. Such operations have a lot of risks. You have to consider the outside environmental considerations, like whether you have the right climate for a specific crop. If not you could maybe adapt it through glass houses or shelter belts to reduce the environmental risks. “
Access to markets was often a limiting factor, with a certain amount of scale needed to justify infrastructure spending. This may require groups of people to band together or one big investor to come in on a larger scale.
She said market insight was valuable when deciding what to grow.
“One can mitigate risks by planning. Know for example what varieties the market demands. Apples for cider for example are easier to manage. It doesn’t matter if they are blemished as processors are only after the juice. The success of operations comes down to knowledge and access to the market, and a big challenge is who will do the work. “
The Tetleys hired teams of workers to assist with harvesting.
Keeping on top of trends was also valuable. There is currently a demand for trees, especially natives. Tree nurseries would often be run on small parcels of land and if growers were in different areas than other growers they might have a niche market, she said.
Access to land is a major impediment as land prices increase.
And how to finance agriculture undertakings on a lifestyle block?
Kilsby said financing for any lifestyle block undertaking would usually be through own savings or off block income, with any lending still subject to proven track records of a business to lend against. Flexible home loans were also used.