Two years ago Melissa Hartley was “drowning” and felt she needed to get back in touch with the land.
Living in Tauranga the English migrant had made New Zealand her home for 10 years. Still the urban grind of life was taking its toll. “I got to a point where I needed to get back to the country. It’s always been where I’ve felt most comfortable and I kind of felt like I was drowning a bit in town,” says Melissa.
Owning three businesses, Melissa looked to buy near Rotorua.
But she came past a property on Wainui South Rd, off State Highway 2, between Katikati and Tauranga.
“I stumbled across this place online and decided to drive by. I went to the open home and fell in love. “After selling my own place, within two weeks I was moving in.”
Three months later, with the help of partner Richard Hunter and a pack of “hardworking” woofers, Melissa’s transforming her property into a peaceful paradise where people can come to unwind, get away from the strains of the daily grind and get close to nature.
She’s called it Riverside Farm – and is aiming to use the land and animals to create a sustainable off-the-grid lifestyle for herself and others – complete with an eco-lodge near the river at the bottom of the hillside 7ha property.
“The plan was always to find a place that had water, a place I could build an eco-bed and breakfast. The plan is to build a place that is completely off-grid – solar, composting – all those sorts of things.
“This place, on my long list of things I wanted, ticked every single one,” says Melissa.
“I wanted an amazing outlook, some peace and quiet but situated on a good network for tourism, and somewhere handy to towns but a place where the animal could live and be happy.”
“The hope is it will be something like a rescue centre for animals – but still everything will need a purpose.”
She inherited 50 Huacaya alpacas with the property but is reducing numbers – despite them being relatively eco-friendly animals. “The damage to the environment an alpaca causes is nearly zero – they’re actually more beneficial. They don’t damage soil like cows and their faeces is very fertile. We bag and sell it and put it on our garden. Their meat is also very good – and you get a lot off one beast.”
But she’s added a menagerie of other animals to help create a balanced organic cycle on the land.
“We’ve got goats, chickens, ducks, horses, a miniature pony, and we have four cattle. The key with any property – especially when you’re trying to go organic – is to have a diverse range so you reduce the parasite problem and keep a good rotation through your fields, as every animal will eat a certain layer of the grass and deposit different faecal matter with pros and cons.
“If you can get that rotation right you’re going to have a much healthier property.”
Melissa and her helpers have also tackled the existing orchard – which was covered in thigh-high grass– weeding, trimming back trees and adding new fruits.
“We have olives, pears, apples, plums, oranges, figs, nectarines, peaches, apricots, and three different types of apples.” The next step is planting an English berry trail of raspberries, red currants etc.
A large vegetable garden has a rotational crop planned. “The soil is very unhealthy so we’re having to do a lot of work to build up the health of it. Balancing out the pH and nutrition.
“We’ve brought in organic products, plus make compost, worm farms – and we’ve tried to cut everything back so it can start again.”
Melissa hopes to live off her land, feeding herself, her woofers and future eco-lodge guests year-round.
“Obviously, the miniature pony has no use apart from being unbelievably gorgeous, but the goats we will milk to make cheese, the cattle we will eat.
“The horses were a treat to myself but unfortunately I have to sell them because I can’t ride competitively anymore or invest the time needed into them.”
Melissa lives in her two-bedroom home and has rented out a granny flat to a mother and daughter.
Woofers stay in the house or down by the river where Melissa has a basic cabin she’s trialing with solar power. In return for working on the property they receive free accommodation and meals.
Melissa cooks big dinners each night using meat and produce from the farm – and everyone eats together. “We try to get as much of what we’re eating off the land. Or we barter for goods, or buy local.
All excess produce is frozen for Melissa to use in meals or make preserves with. “And we put some on a stall out the front.” She tries to stand by the motto ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’. “I try not to buy anything that doesn’t have another purpose, no plastic bags.”
Down near the river, Melissa plans to build individual cabins on the sloping hillside, with a communal kitchen area, barbecue, and communal bathroom/shower facility.
“It will be boutique and tranquil. The key is for people to come here and be completely at peace.”
“Yes you’ll be able to get Wi-Fi but basically it will be a place to chill out.” She’s designing it herself, aiming to avoid anything that damages the environment – so it will be off-grid.
Everything will be “reusable or recyclable and visitors can even get involved in activities on the farm”.
So what’s turned the 34-year-old, who has lived the city life in England, to sustainable living?
“I just think we’re completely destroying the planet – and we’re naive to think we are not.
“Yes, I’ve certainly contributed to that. I believe a lot of the health issues now seen are due to terrible diets and obsessions with cleaning that the modern world has. In only three months of moving my friends constantly comment on how much healthier I look, and most importantly how happier [I am].”
Melissa says there’s no reason people can’t be self-sufficient. “It’s just getting it out there. My brother’s been living off-grid in Wales for 10-plus years and that’s been a big inspiration to me.”
Follow Melissa’s journey at ‘Riverside Farm’ on Facebook.