Thu, Nov 9, 2023 8:00 AM
From humble and rugged beginnings, the Macdonald family of Middlehurst Station have transformed some of the country’s harshest landscapes into a thriving family business.
Words: Adrienne Matthews
Twenty-five years ago, Susan and Willie Macdonald took the plunge from managing Cecil Peak Station and Mt Nicholas near Lake Wakatipu and purchased Middlehurst Station - 16,550 hectares in the remote and rugged wilderness of the Awatere Valley. A harsh, often arid, climate that is known for extreme weather conditions, it consists of everything from river flats to the mountainous and rugged terrain of the Kaikōura Ranges at a peak of 2500 metres. It is one of New Zealand’s most formidable and challenging places to farm.
Arriving with three small children in tow and one on the way, Susan and Willie embarked on the adventure of a lifetime to transform the station into a productive and sustainable business.
“A big asset of the property is the great balance of soils and high sunshine hours with north and southfacing land, all of which contribute to premium stock health,” explains Willie. “It is also just the sort of land that, if maintained properly, merino sheep and our Angus cross cattle will thrive on.”
Coming to Middlehurst at the peak of a drought and surrounded by swathes of dead rabbits, thanks to the successful release of the calicivirus, they knew they had a long road ahead, but having fallen in love with the land they were determined to make a go of it.
“When we first arrived, there was just Willie and I to do the bulk of the work,” says Susan. “We both had horses and our own dog teams and would go out separately to get done what we needed to, meeting back together at the end of the day to compare notes.”
“It is the kind of station where horses are really useful. You can accomplish a lot with a horse underneath you and a good team of dogs by your side. It’s great to get out in the fresh air and a wonderful excuse to avoid all the administration!” she says.
At the basis of their farming philosophy, the Macdonalds believe that they are guardians of the land, maintaining and enhancing it for future generations while doing everything possible to protect the environment. “We feel very responsible for nurturing it to the best of our ability,” says Willie.
To that end, the couple are involved in a number of initiatives including creating several QEII National Covenants. Over five thousand of these have been registered by landowners throughout New Zealand to protect the habitat of threatened animal and plant species and promote biodiversity. The Marlborough region is one of the few places in New Zealand that has a number of endemic plant species that don‘t grow anywhere else. The covenant system is vitally important to help protect them from extinction along with threatened animal and bird species.
“As well as setting up comprehensive predator control systems to enable these to thrive, it is also important to us to protect the cultural sites on the property,” says Willie.
“Consumers of the products we produce here, meat and wool, are becoming more and more discerning about what they are buying,” says Susan. “They want transparency and trust, to know where the products come from and to be assured that the stock, land and people are being treated in an exemplary way.”
When Sue and Willie took over the property there were 5000 sheep on it. With careful breeding and management, they now have 12,000 across Middlehurst and their finishing block in Cheviot, and produce some of the best wool anywhere in the world. A long-term contract with Icebreaker sees their hard work transformed into high-quality merino wool garments.
Daughter Lucy has high praise for her mother’s efforts in this regard. “As wool classer, she personally checks every fleece as it comes off the sheep,” she says. “It’s really hard work that goes on during the shearing season and it is thanks to her that nothing but the best quality goes through, and Middlehurst has received such acclaim for wool quality.”
Sophie, Henry, Lucy and Skye are now adults and all work for Middlehurst. “It was always a dream to have a business where the children could thrive and be involved if they wanted to, and it is so exciting to have them all working as a family,” says Willie.
“Middlehurst was the most marvellous place to grow up,” says Lucy. “There were always so many exciting things to do. It was like one big playground. We all did correspondence schooling before attending boarding schools in Christchurch, but the station has always drawn us back and we are so grateful that Mum and Dad have given us this opportunity to work in the family business.”
That business is now considerably diversified. In addition to supplying wool through the Merino Wool Company, the Macdonalds have become involved in a new carbon-neutral company started up in the UK, Sheep Inc. Buying wool off only three farms in New Zealand, Sheep Inc are turning it into premium garments, some of which are sold out of Middlehurst’s latest venture, their Middlehurst Station Store in Kaikōura.
“We are the first to have their clothing available in the country,” says Lucy. “It is particularly exciting that everything they produce has a label on it that describes exactly where the wool used to make the garment has come from, in this case from our own farm.”
Three years ago, Sophie and Lucy established an online store to sell the station’s sheep and beef products. “During Covid demand was crazy,” says Lucy. “People were really inspired to cook good quality food at home and the business blossomed. If we receive orders before 12pm on weekdays, we have the vacuum-packed products off to them by courier to arrive anywhere in the country the next day.”
Business growth made it obvious that Middlehurst needed its own specialist butchery and the Macdonald family are very proud of their Middlehurst Station Farm Store in the heart of Kaikōura, which is where customers can purchase the farm’s products and a cafe where coffee lovers can enjoy a cup of the best, along with treats such as the station’s famous meat pies.
“It has been wonderful to meet customers face to face,” says Lucy. “The locals are supporting us incredibly well and we also serve many others who are travelling through. We even have people from Blenheim coming especially because they love our meat so much.”
Skye will soon be taking over the running of the store, while her brother Henry runs the day-today management on Middlehurst and the family’s finishing stock farm in Cheviot, his fiancée Joy manages the station’s accommodation.
Shearers who arrive to work each year have the best accommodation in the country, thanks to the Kaikōura earthquake. “When the sound of rock being heaved off the hills stopped, we realised that the front of the historic cob cottage that housed our team’s accommodation was gone, along with the shearer’s quarters,” says Susan. “We built upmarket accommodation in its place that could be used all year round.” ‘The Quarters’ has become a superb destination for those wanting to experience the magnificence of Middlehurst with its range of outdoor activities available and its superb meals, thanks to the in-house chef.
To the Macdonald family, Middlehurst Station is an evolving dream, a family business striving for excellence at every level.