The big picture

Lessons on the interconnectedness of all things rural

Lessons on the interconnectedness of all things rural

Tennant McNeil sitting on a hill overlooking Puketoro Station just after he and his brother Burne had bought the 8423-hectare property an hour inland from Tokomaru Bay.

Picture by Leigh McNeil
McNeil Partnership: Burne (left) and Tennant McNeil (right) with their wives Tracey and Leigh in the yards at Puketoro.

Picture by Joe Bauckham
Mt Hikurangi at sunset with Puketoro Station in the foreground.
Burne (far left) and Tennant (far right) before the sale gets under way. Picture by Tim Southward
Bill (right) and Michael cooking garlic mussels. Picture by Justine Tyerman
A weary dog rests at the end of the sale day. Picture by Justine Tyerman
Auctioneer Shane Scott in action in the sheep pens. Picture by Justine Tyerman
The trucks line up to take stock to their new homes.
Cattle in the yards before the sale.

Justine Tyerman sees life differently after a visit to a stock sale on an iconic back country East Coast station

When we go away on holiday, we stress out about our cat George and who is going to feed him. It seems like such a huge responsibility owning an animal, a small furry life entirely dependent on a couple of humans.

But an experience I had recently put George into perspective. At the end of the first on-farm sheep and cattle sale at Puketoro Station, an hour’s drive inland from Tokomaru Bay, I looked out across the vast landscape and became acutely aware of the myriad of lives — animal and human — that make up the fabric of a farm, all interdependent but ultimately the responsibility of the farmer, or in this case, farmers.

There were yards with 6500 sheep and lambs and 435 Angus steers waiting to be loaded on to huge double-decker truck and trailer units to be transported to new homes far away; horses tethered to fences needing to be relieved of their saddles and bridles after a hard day’s work in the hot, dusty conditions; and teams of dogs lying in the shade, exhausted after rounding up all the stock for the sale.

Beyond the yards on the 8423-hectare property that stretches all the way to the Raukumara Ranges were many more thousands of sheep, cattle, horses and dogs.

And there were hundreds of hungry human mouths to feed too. Shepherds, stock managers and station workers who had been on the job since well before daybreak. Truck drivers who would be driving through the night, and those who had travelled from far and wide for the sale. The auctioneer and his team, the stock agents, buyers, friends, neighbours and spectators — all needing to be fed.

The logistics of the operation made my head spin. When an extra person or two show up for dinner unannounced at my house, it causes a modicum of stress.

But how do you manage on a remote back-country station when you have no idea how many people are going to turn up and no supermarket or even a corner dairy to grab extra supplies from? Morning tea, lunch, dinner, providing accommodation for an unknown number to stay the night . . . and then feeding them all breakfast the next morning.

Country women like Tracey and Leigh McNeil cope with such situations without so much as batting an eye. They just call in their cavalry of supporters who fall into a familiar, well-oiled formation and somehow perform a loaves-and-fishes miracle to produce a lunchtime feast for about 250 followed by dinner for 100.

As the dying sun painted Mt Hikurangi a mellow gold, Leigh told me that this time last year she saw her husband Tennant sitting on a hill, high above the cattleyards, in the shadow of the mountain, gazing at the vast property he and his brother Burne had just purchased.

“How the hell did we pull this off?” is the polite version of what Tennant was thinking back then, according to Leigh.

Surveying the panorama, the veteran farmer was incredibly excited about the challenge ahead.

Brothers Tennant and Burne McNeil and their wives Leigh and Tracey of McNeil Farming Ltd bought the property — which combines Puketoro, Waitahaia-Ruatahunga, Owetea and Pouturu farms — from Ingleby NZ, a Scandinavian farming company with holdings in Argentina, Australia, Latvia, Lithuania, Peru, Romania, Uruguay and the United States, as well as New Zealand, at the beginning of 2016.

The McNeils are fourth-generation East Coast farmers with farms at Tahunga,Tolaga Bay and Tikitiki. Both McNeil brothers worked on Puketoro as musterers when they left school so they knew the property well.

“Roger Lougher, (who managed Puketoro for 40 years), picked me up from home at Tikitiki as a 16-year-old straight out of school,” says Burne. “He was in the station truck and I took a horse and four dogs. I worked up there for four years as a musterer,” he says.

Earlier that day we had driven up the East Coast past a string of pristine beaches. The sea was sparkling in the bright morning sun and freedom campers were enjoying a perfect spell of summer weather.

We turned off the main road just past Te Puia Springs and drove an hour up the unsealed Ihungia Road watching intently for the telltale dust trails of logging trucks. We caught tantalising glimpses of Hikurangi and neighbours Aorangi, Whanokao, Wharekia and Taitai in between clouds of dust but, when we arrived at Puketoro, the impact of the mountains was breath-taking.

The sheep and cattle were penned and ready and after a substantial morning tea in the shearing shed, auctioneer Shane Scott from Central Livestock, Taupo sprang into action. More than 50 registered buyers and several hundred spectators and neighbours moved from pen to pen as the ewes and lambs went under the hammer in no time followed by the Angus steers up the hill in the cattleyards.

“It was a fantastic sale and we got some terrific prices for most of the yarding,” says Shane.

Tennant and Burne were well-pleased with the sale and plan to make it an annual event on the station.

“The success of the sale reflects the efforts of the station staff, casual staff and friends and family who came to help out,” says Tennant.

“Auctioneer Shane Scott (who happens to be Tracey’s brother) did a fantastic job with the marketing and selling. We also hugely appreciate that so many people made the journey to come up here, some to buy and others just to sightsee. It was great to see everyone,” he says.

“The 10 days leading up to the sale were long, hot and windy, and everyone was fairly tired by sale day . . . man, dog and horse. I’d particularly like to mention Roger Strachan who, at 76, was the first out of bed every morning and worked solidly for 10 days in the heat and the dust. What a legend . . . and a great role model for all aspiring young shepherds. And our good mates who helped out too, many reliving their youth on Puketoro. I think they found the days longer and nights shorter than they remembered,” he says.

“It was a great week,” says Burne. “Early mornings, catching your horse in the dark and riding across the river to muster big paddocks with mates from way back, to finish with a fine sale day and great prices. Well done to everyone who helped.”

Tracey thanked “The Three Wise Men”, their team of professionals — the banker, the accountant and the lawyer.

“They’ve been amazingly supportive over the past 15 months and it was great to have some of them at the sale.”

After the sale, we drove an hour deeper into the property to view Puketoro’s small private power station and fish the trout-rich Ruatahunga stream. No luck with the fly rod but magnificent country all the same.

When we returned late afternoon, the aromas wafting out the door of the cookhouse beside our room in the shearers’ quarters were irresistible. Hard at work in the kitchen were a team of five “chefs”. Bill and Wilma, famous Tolaga Bay chefs, were ably assisted by Puketoro station digger driver Clyde, Michael and Joe.

On the menu were garlic mussels in their shells — hundreds of them — smoked in a portable smoker; whole king fish cooked in a permanent upright smoker and hapuka sizzling on a barbecue. We willingly agreed to help out with “quality control” — the flavours were sensational.

By the time we showered and changed out of our dusty clothes, the after-sale celebrations were starting to liven up. As the shadows lengthened, the music blaring from a ute parked beside a group of young farm workers eclipsed the moos, baas, barks and whinnies of the farm.

Leigh was anxious to get the dogs fed before dinner and the after-sale party cranked up in the woolshed. The dogs had had a big week . . . “a HUGE week” . . . and were exhausted after rounding up all the sheep and steers for the sale. And there were little puppies to take care of too . . . due to a mishap when one of the heading dogs had a dalliance with a spaniel on heat. Some were born in Leigh’s car between Puketoro and their other farm at Tahunga.

Apart from the magnificent food, my enduring memories of the evening were the warmth of our hosts and their staff, the animated conversations with people of all ages . . . and the entertainment.

It’s a work-hard, play-hard environment. Later in the evening, some of the ladies put on a fine display of dancing on top of the wool bales.

Even later, a young shepherd picked up a bottle of nice chardonnay from the table, squinted at the label, shrugged his shoulders and poured himself a full glass. The look of distaste on his face was priceless. He tipped it out and went looking for another beer.

That night we slept soundly in comfortable beds, bathed in moonlight. In the early hours, I heard a few thumps as late-stayers at the party stumbled into bed. I’m relieved they read the ‘reserved’ sign Tracey had kindly stuck on our door.

We woke at first light to the sound of stock trucks rumbling in to collect the remainder of the sheep and cattle. Some of the truckies would have driven through the night to take stock back to the Waikato and north of Auckland — another lesson on the infrastructure, the interconnectedness of all things rural and how important it is that everyone plays their part.

Breakfast at the homestead was another eye-opener. When we arrived, mountains of bacon, eggs, sausages and toast were being cooked up by Tracey, Leigh and a team of friends and neighbours as people poured in from all directions. Five had slept in a horsefloat parked outside, another 20 on mattresses in the lounge, hall and bedrooms . . . not to mention all those down the hill in the shearers’ quarters.

“How the heck do you manage?” I asked Leigh as she passed me a plate groaning with food.

“We have wonderful staff,” she says. “They were amazing and absorbed a huge amount of pressure in the week leading up to the sale. We also had an enormous amount of help from our friends. They really stepped up for us and came from far and wide to help and support us. We would have been struggling without them.”

Humbled and thankful, we took our leave and drove slowly back down the road watching for the dust trails of logging trucks. When I got home, I saw things through different eyes for some reason — I laughed at the little packet of bacon in my fridge with its five measley slices, George sleeping in his basket, and the table set for two.

I had seen the big picture . . . the really BIG picture . . . which gave me a whole new perspective on life.

Justine Tyerman sees life differently after a visit to a stock sale on an iconic back country East Coast station

When we go away on holiday, we stress out about our cat George and who is going to feed him. It seems like such a huge responsibility owning an animal, a small furry life entirely dependent on a couple of humans.

But an experience I had recently put George into perspective. At the end of the first on-farm sheep and cattle sale at Puketoro Station, an hour’s drive inland from Tokomaru Bay, I looked out across the vast landscape and became acutely aware of the myriad of lives — animal and human — that make up the fabric of a farm, all interdependent but ultimately the responsibility of the farmer, or in this case, farmers.

There were yards with 6500 sheep and lambs and 435 Angus steers waiting to be loaded on to huge double-decker truck and trailer units to be transported to new homes far away; horses tethered to fences needing to be relieved of their saddles and bridles after a hard day’s work in the hot, dusty conditions; and teams of dogs lying in the shade, exhausted after rounding up all the stock for the sale.

Beyond the yards on the 8423-hectare property that stretches all the way to the Raukumara Ranges were many more thousands of sheep, cattle, horses and dogs.

And there were hundreds of hungry human mouths to feed too. Shepherds, stock managers and station workers who had been on the job since well before daybreak. Truck drivers who would be driving through the night, and those who had travelled from far and wide for the sale. The auctioneer and his team, the stock agents, buyers, friends, neighbours and spectators — all needing to be fed.

The logistics of the operation made my head spin. When an extra person or two show up for dinner unannounced at my house, it causes a modicum of stress.

But how do you manage on a remote back-country station when you have no idea how many people are going to turn up and no supermarket or even a corner dairy to grab extra supplies from? Morning tea, lunch, dinner, providing accommodation for an unknown number to stay the night . . . and then feeding them all breakfast the next morning.

Country women like Tracey and Leigh McNeil cope with such situations without so much as batting an eye. They just call in their cavalry of supporters who fall into a familiar, well-oiled formation and somehow perform a loaves-and-fishes miracle to produce a lunchtime feast for about 250 followed by dinner for 100.

As the dying sun painted Mt Hikurangi a mellow gold, Leigh told me that this time last year she saw her husband Tennant sitting on a hill, high above the cattleyards, in the shadow of the mountain, gazing at the vast property he and his brother Burne had just purchased.

“How the hell did we pull this off?” is the polite version of what Tennant was thinking back then, according to Leigh.

Surveying the panorama, the veteran farmer was incredibly excited about the challenge ahead.

Brothers Tennant and Burne McNeil and their wives Leigh and Tracey of McNeil Farming Ltd bought the property — which combines Puketoro, Waitahaia-Ruatahunga, Owetea and Pouturu farms — from Ingleby NZ, a Scandinavian farming company with holdings in Argentina, Australia, Latvia, Lithuania, Peru, Romania, Uruguay and the United States, as well as New Zealand, at the beginning of 2016.

The McNeils are fourth-generation East Coast farmers with farms at Tahunga,Tolaga Bay and Tikitiki. Both McNeil brothers worked on Puketoro as musterers when they left school so they knew the property well.

“Roger Lougher, (who managed Puketoro for 40 years), picked me up from home at Tikitiki as a 16-year-old straight out of school,” says Burne. “He was in the station truck and I took a horse and four dogs. I worked up there for four years as a musterer,” he says.

Earlier that day we had driven up the East Coast past a string of pristine beaches. The sea was sparkling in the bright morning sun and freedom campers were enjoying a perfect spell of summer weather.

We turned off the main road just past Te Puia Springs and drove an hour up the unsealed Ihungia Road watching intently for the telltale dust trails of logging trucks. We caught tantalising glimpses of Hikurangi and neighbours Aorangi, Whanokao, Wharekia and Taitai in between clouds of dust but, when we arrived at Puketoro, the impact of the mountains was breath-taking.

The sheep and cattle were penned and ready and after a substantial morning tea in the shearing shed, auctioneer Shane Scott from Central Livestock, Taupo sprang into action. More than 50 registered buyers and several hundred spectators and neighbours moved from pen to pen as the ewes and lambs went under the hammer in no time followed by the Angus steers up the hill in the cattleyards.

“It was a fantastic sale and we got some terrific prices for most of the yarding,” says Shane.

Tennant and Burne were well-pleased with the sale and plan to make it an annual event on the station.

“The success of the sale reflects the efforts of the station staff, casual staff and friends and family who came to help out,” says Tennant.

“Auctioneer Shane Scott (who happens to be Tracey’s brother) did a fantastic job with the marketing and selling. We also hugely appreciate that so many people made the journey to come up here, some to buy and others just to sightsee. It was great to see everyone,” he says.

“The 10 days leading up to the sale were long, hot and windy, and everyone was fairly tired by sale day . . . man, dog and horse. I’d particularly like to mention Roger Strachan who, at 76, was the first out of bed every morning and worked solidly for 10 days in the heat and the dust. What a legend . . . and a great role model for all aspiring young shepherds. And our good mates who helped out too, many reliving their youth on Puketoro. I think they found the days longer and nights shorter than they remembered,” he says.

“It was a great week,” says Burne. “Early mornings, catching your horse in the dark and riding across the river to muster big paddocks with mates from way back, to finish with a fine sale day and great prices. Well done to everyone who helped.”

Tracey thanked “The Three Wise Men”, their team of professionals — the banker, the accountant and the lawyer.

“They’ve been amazingly supportive over the past 15 months and it was great to have some of them at the sale.”

After the sale, we drove an hour deeper into the property to view Puketoro’s small private power station and fish the trout-rich Ruatahunga stream. No luck with the fly rod but magnificent country all the same.

When we returned late afternoon, the aromas wafting out the door of the cookhouse beside our room in the shearers’ quarters were irresistible. Hard at work in the kitchen were a team of five “chefs”. Bill and Wilma, famous Tolaga Bay chefs, were ably assisted by Puketoro station digger driver Clyde, Michael and Joe.

On the menu were garlic mussels in their shells — hundreds of them — smoked in a portable smoker; whole king fish cooked in a permanent upright smoker and hapuka sizzling on a barbecue. We willingly agreed to help out with “quality control” — the flavours were sensational.

By the time we showered and changed out of our dusty clothes, the after-sale celebrations were starting to liven up. As the shadows lengthened, the music blaring from a ute parked beside a group of young farm workers eclipsed the moos, baas, barks and whinnies of the farm.

Leigh was anxious to get the dogs fed before dinner and the after-sale party cranked up in the woolshed. The dogs had had a big week . . . “a HUGE week” . . . and were exhausted after rounding up all the sheep and steers for the sale. And there were little puppies to take care of too . . . due to a mishap when one of the heading dogs had a dalliance with a spaniel on heat. Some were born in Leigh’s car between Puketoro and their other farm at Tahunga.

Apart from the magnificent food, my enduring memories of the evening were the warmth of our hosts and their staff, the animated conversations with people of all ages . . . and the entertainment.

It’s a work-hard, play-hard environment. Later in the evening, some of the ladies put on a fine display of dancing on top of the wool bales.

Even later, a young shepherd picked up a bottle of nice chardonnay from the table, squinted at the label, shrugged his shoulders and poured himself a full glass. The look of distaste on his face was priceless. He tipped it out and went looking for another beer.

That night we slept soundly in comfortable beds, bathed in moonlight. In the early hours, I heard a few thumps as late-stayers at the party stumbled into bed. I’m relieved they read the ‘reserved’ sign Tracey had kindly stuck on our door.

We woke at first light to the sound of stock trucks rumbling in to collect the remainder of the sheep and cattle. Some of the truckies would have driven through the night to take stock back to the Waikato and north of Auckland — another lesson on the infrastructure, the interconnectedness of all things rural and how important it is that everyone plays their part.

Breakfast at the homestead was another eye-opener. When we arrived, mountains of bacon, eggs, sausages and toast were being cooked up by Tracey, Leigh and a team of friends and neighbours as people poured in from all directions. Five had slept in a horsefloat parked outside, another 20 on mattresses in the lounge, hall and bedrooms . . . not to mention all those down the hill in the shearers’ quarters.

“How the heck do you manage?” I asked Leigh as she passed me a plate groaning with food.

“We have wonderful staff,” she says. “They were amazing and absorbed a huge amount of pressure in the week leading up to the sale. We also had an enormous amount of help from our friends. They really stepped up for us and came from far and wide to help and support us. We would have been struggling without them.”

Humbled and thankful, we took our leave and drove slowly back down the road watching for the dust trails of logging trucks. When I got home, I saw things through different eyes for some reason — I laughed at the little packet of bacon in my fridge with its five measley slices, George sleeping in his basket, and the table set for two.

I had seen the big picture . . . the really BIG picture . . . which gave me a whole new perspective on life.

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Sarah Dixon - 8 months ago
Justine Tyerman is an extraordinary writer. She finds the interesting angles, plays elegantly with words, distills the essence of big stories and finds the importance of smaller ones - always bringing in human interest and values. This particular story is so great in that it is long enough to give us a first-hand taste of another side of Kiwi life that we might otherwise not have opportunities to experience. More please.

Pat Seymour - 8 months ago
Congratulations to Burne and Tracey, Tennant and Leigh McNeil and to Justine Tyerman for telling that remarkable story for us all to enjoy. The McNeil families are to be commended for this great example of the farming community valuing the land that is the East Coast, and ensuring that pastoral farming and all it entails remains a vital part of the culture of the East Coast.
Large-scale pastoral farming and the culture that goes with it has long been a part of the history of the Coast. Today that strong family focus is more difficult to see continue as times change and young people move closer to the bright lights. The inherent challenges of farming this big country is not for the faint-hearted.
Much of the land that once saw this activity is now in pine forests, partly due to the financial challenges of the 1980s and partly due to the need to stabilise eroding hill country. The McNeils have taken on an enormous challenge and they are leading by example.
Justine Tyerman observed the detail and captured the very essence of "behind the scenes" activity necessary to run such an operation - the many hands, men and women, dogs and horses required to muster the big country for a sale such as this, and all the willing hands who turn up freely in support of the family to cook for the work crew and visitors. That level of hospitality is the very essence of sales of livestock and stud cattle in rural New Zealand. The organisation required is not to be underestimated.
The Coast has not seen a sale of this magnitude since the Hindmarsh family sale up the Waikura valley in January 1992.
Thank you for allowing your story to be told. Your family commitment to the land of the East Coast is respected and admired.

PAT SEYMOUR
GDC, Tawhiti Uawa Ward councillor

Kerry Butt - 8 months ago
Fabulous article "McNeils". Great to have an in-depth article with plenty of stunning photography.

K. Worsnop - 8 months ago
I would like to congratulate Justine Tyerman on a wonderful article on the McNiels' first on-farm sale at Puketoro. I was fortunate enough to be there and enjoy the hospitality of the hosts in addition to the wonderful atmosphere that Justine describes so well. I loved this article and would love more like it!! Thanks again for making the long trip and doing such a beautiful job of capturing the rural community spirit at its best.

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