Kiwi farmers branch into glamping

Cows and sheep aren’t the only creatures enjoying the bucolic life — holiday-making families can too. As farmers look for new ways to diversify, home-stays and holiday rentals, even posh camping sites – are on the rise.

Words: Vivienne Haldane

Images: Tessa Chrisp

Through the window of her South Hampstead basement flat in London, Libby Tosswill could see her husband Ben mowing the tiny strip of lawn in their backyard. Up and down he went, until it was so perfectly clipped it would make a greenkeeper swell with pride. As Libby watched him she knew what it meant, this well-manicured piece of greenery.

“Ben was missing home and so it was time for us to leave.” Ben agrees – it was obvious but it took Libby to see it. “For me city living was never going to be forever. Farming at Birch Hill Station (near Porangahau in Hawke’s Bay where he’d grown up) was what I felt passionate about and I was ready for the long-term game of running our own business. What I really wanted was a place where we could put down roots and have a great family life.”

He and Libby had left New Zealand in 2006 and travelled to London via Africa and Italy. The next step was to find work. “We expected to stay only a year or so but because we were enjoying that vibrant, ever-changing city, making new friends, soaking up the history and culture and could hop across to Europe, it turned into four,” says Libby. London was also booming. It was just before the GFC and jobs were plentiful.

“I had a position as a credit analyst with French bank Société Générale,” says Ben, who had previously worked as a rural banker. “Libby was also in the financial markets with multinational British bank HSBC – in the biggest dealing room in Europe.”

Ben, Libby, Fletcher (left) and Alex Tosswill (in Libby’s arms) “As well as welcoming guests to stay, we also thoroughly enjoy holidaying at home,” say the Tosswills. “It’s a chance to unplug, enjoy the views and relax with friends and family.”

The HSBC role was the realisation of a dream for Wellington born and bred Libby. As a finance and marketing graduate, she had pestered every dealing room in New Zealand before landing a job with the BNZ in foreign exchange and interest rates. Here she thrived, but the job also gave her a burning desire to see what else was out there.

“HSBC was such a dynamic work environment; multiple screens showed world markets, phones rang off the hook and information poured in. I never watched the news because I knew it before anyone else. When it broke, it came streaming across our Reuters screen.

“That international experience – dealing with multinational companies, multiple noughts on each transaction – was invaluable. If I am honest, I wasn’t ready to leave but you make a call as a team so it was a team decision – if one of you is not happy it’s a no-brainer. Besides, we were planning to start a family and wanted to have our children in New Zealand. I wanted the opportunity to be an at-home mum and Ben’s parents were ready to step back from farming,” says Libby.

Ten years later the Tosswills are a growing family of five: Fletcher, 5, Alex, 3, and a baby due in March 2017.

Elegant Libby, who makes a pair of Hunter gumboots look like a fashion accessory, had her friends guessing as to whether she’d transition happily from corporate to country life but she was mentally prepared.

“I always knew this could be in our future. You don’t marry someone who has worked in agri-business and farming thinking, ‘I never want to live on a farm’. Besides, I’ve never been afraid to try new things.”

In the early days a severe drought, coupled with trying to cope with a newborn and a toddler, tested their mettle but they pulled through. “In the middle of that I must admit I asked Ben if he’d prefer to up sticks and go back to Wellington,” says Libby.

“But he said, ‘This is where I want to be’. It was a sanity check, really. I told him, ‘Great, as long as you are in it 100 percent, I am too.’”

Ben’s happy that he now has 1300 hectares of sheep and beef farm to pour his energy into.

“We have the best of both worlds. We have space and freedom – the peace and quiet is bliss – as well as modern technology. We’re lucky to be in the rural broadband sweet spot here so it makes running a business a whole lot easier.”

When day breaks at Birch Hill Station and the only sounds are twittering birds and the unhurried shuffle of livestock wandering over paddocks, that’s the time Ben likes best.

“Morning on the hills at first light is brilliant – the clouds open up, the sun comes out and it’s lush and green. I count my blessings every day.” He’s proud of the fact that his grandfather Nigel Tosswill (also a rural banker) had the good sense to buy land and offer it to the next generation to develop, manage and eventually take over.

“When my family bought Birch Hill in the 1970s it was just a rough, scrub and gorse-covered block. My parents, Bruce and Julie Tosswill, got stuck in and basically turned a tug boat into a sailing yacht.”

Tragedy struck the family in 2004 when Ben’s sister Amy died suddenly in a car accident.

“It was a low time for everyone, especially Mum and Dad, and also put a hold on our family farm succession plan. However, Amy dying eventually gave me a broader view on life and taught me that life is too short to hold grudges, too short to worry about the small stuff. I intended to make the most of every opportunity on offer. Going overseas when we did made sense,” says Ben.

When one of their farm cottages became vacant, Libby got out her pots of paint and smartened it up as farm-stay accommodation.

Once listed, she and Ben waited and watched and were thrilled to discover there were lots of people who were keen to sample a slice of country life. Beside this, they so enjoyed the buzz of meeting and hosting visitors that in 2015 they set up a luxury glampsite. Ben scoped out a suitable site on his rounds and knew its sheltered aspect and sweeping views over the countryside and out to the coast would make an excellent location.

“The idea of the glamping really clicked because we’ve done so much travel. I thought we could make something really cool here bringing all of those experiences together to build something we would love to stay at and hopefully others would too,” he says.

It also gives Libby a business that she can fit in and around the children and which fulfils her need for human contact. “I missed meeting new people so this is a nice way to bring them to the farm.”

The Tosswills have just welcomed the first guests of the season to the glampsite and Fletcher is keen to be part of the action. He asks his mother, “Who is coming today? Do they have kids?” And finding out they do says, “Well I am coming to check them in too.”

Libby says, “I told our guest, ‘I’ll show you how it works’, and Fletch said, ‘I know how everything works’. And he grabbed the kids, took a solar lantern out and showed them their tent. I like to think he’ll say when he grows up that mum and dad were willing to give things a go and that he met some really cool people.

“I read something recently about raising children that said your role is to give your children roots so they can have wings. That’s really cool. My parents were like that – they encouraged our adventurous side. Ben’s parents did too.” Ben agrees.

“We are very lucky to have such supportive parents who because of their forward thinking and planning allowed us to have a very seamless succession. In turn, having a fresh set of eyes has surprised them as to what Birch Hill Station can be in future.”


Fun facts

When visitors arrive at Birch Hill Station, the Tosswills are on hand to suggest places to go and adventures to be had close to their Porangahau property, including a visit to Porangahau Beach and fish and chips at the nearby Duke of Edinburgh pub. But they are also able to provide a little tongue-twisting education. The place with the world’s longest name –Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapiki-
maungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu – is a 20-minute drive from their farm. Try saying that with your mouth full of fush and chups. canopycamping.co.nz

What I’m drinking: Ben: Terra Sancta Estate Pinot Noir Rosé – my brother Dan introduced us to it at his bar and it’s a beautiful wine, perfect for summer and a crowd pleaser. Libby: Sparkling water with a dash of Kapiti Kitchen Elderflower Syrup and a good squeeze of fresh lime.

What I’m reading:
Libby: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. It grabs you from the first page – great characters, beautifully written and a book you keep thinking about after you’ve finished the last page. Ben: Jo Nesbo’s series (The Redbreast, The Snowman, The Leopard etc) – Norwegian crime thrillers that keep you turning the pages and guessing to the end.

What we’re cooking: Lamb on the barbecue, served medium rare with a simple rub of finely chopped rosemary, lemon zest, a little garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. Served with a delicious raw super salad made up of a raw beetroot, grated (skin and all), 1 grated carrot, 2 handfuls of rocket or spinach, crumbled feta, ½ an avocado and torn parsley or coriander. Served with a quick and simple dressing of Village Press Extra Virgin Olive Oil and balsamic vinegar.

What we’re listening to: We love discovering new music through Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlists. A couple of good summer tracks we’ve been playing are Follow the Sun by Xavier Rudd and Under the Sun by The Trews.

The games we’re playing: Backyard cricket with the boys and pétanque and outdoor darts at the campsite.

*This article was first published in NZ Life & Leisure magazine. For more stories like this, visit thisnzlife.co.nz.

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