Owning three businesses while completely renovating a 7ha hillside property during the last two years has certainly taken Melissa Hartley on a roller-coaster ride full of highs and lows.
But it’s enabled her to live her dream to use the land and animals to create a sustainable off-the-grid lifestyle for herself and others at Riverside Farm on Wainui South Rd, off State Highway 2, between Katikati and Tauranga. And she believes she’s healthier and happier for it.
“I’m so much happier out here – I feel at peace. The land means so much to me. It’s kind of my anchor,” says Melissa, who hopes Kiwis that took time to reflect on their lives during lockdown really carry on with some of the healthy habits and ways of life they picked up.
“I really hope people do put more focus on the food they eat, where it comes from and how they can live more sustainably going forward.
“And I really, really hope if people are going to take anything from what they’ve been through it is things like you can easily cook for yourself; it takes no time to make a loaf of bread. And you can save a lot of money, and you don’t have to buy takeaways.
“During lockdown people did have to cook for themselves – I hope people will hold onto these things because I worry they’ll slip back into how was it was before, as we are creatures of habit.”
Coast & Country News met Melissa near the start of her journey creating Riverside Farm. She’d stumbled upon the property for sale, went to the open home and “fell in love”.
At the time the English migrant felt she was “drowning” from the urban grind of life 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.”
With the help of her partner and a pack of “hardworking” woofers, Melissa went about 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.
The goal was to use the land and animals to create a sustainable off-the-grid lifestyle for herself and others – complete with eco-cabins for hire near the river at the bottom of the hillside property.
And she’s achieved it. “We rarely go to the supermarket. We try to get everything off the land now, and we try to educate people about sustainability as well.”
Melissa inherited 50 Huacaya alpacas with the farm but has reduced numbers to 15 despite them being relatively eco-friendly animals. Today she also breeds and sells Dexter cattle. “We have a small herd that we sell the heifers from and keep some for fattening for ourselves. And we still use alpacas for meat as well.”
The horses are gone but she still has a menagerie of other animals to help create a balanced organic cycle on the land. “We’ve got goats, chickens, ducks and miniature ponies.”
Melissa says having a diverse range of animals – when you’re trying to operate organically – helps reduce parasite problems “as every animal will eat a certain layer of the grass and deposit different faecal matter with pros and cons”.
The original plan to bolster the orchard was shelved once she realised her renovated garden, with poly tunnels and rotational cropping, was giving her all the produce she needed. “We’ve done a huge sort out of the garden. The soil was very unhealthy so we did a lot of work to build up its health, balancing out the pH and nutrition with organic products, compost and worms. Now it is working efficiently enough to feed us. “We give vegetables boxes to friends now and then and sent a big box of vegetables, and home-made produce to women’s refuge at the start of lockdown.
“Now we’re focusing on the fields to rebuild their structure and get them healthy and happy.”
They have also upped their chicken breeding to sell eggs. “And we’ve just purchased a chicken plucking machine, so soon we’ll be eating our own chickens as well.”
During the last two years a lot of time and energy has also been spent rebuilding the original four-bedroom home, which went up in flames in April 2019, and in building the planned eco-cabin accommodation down by the river.
“The plan was always to build completely off-grid. One Air BnB cabin is now finished. The cabin is private with its own bathroom with an outdoor bath and barbecue area. There is also a safari tent with a barbecue/kitchen area, its own private deck, and a Moroccan bathroom on the back.
Ironically, the safari tent was given a good test of capability when Melissa had to live in it while their home was rebuilt. “It took us seven months to rebuild the house. Now we can divide it into three completely separate places. We’ve always had a flat on one end, now we have another ‘unit’ for woofers to use.
“It is boutique and tranquil accommodation – and the key is people can come here and be completely at peace.”
Melissa has also set up an area at the river with long drops and a barbecue area. “That is a communal space down there, where we can have small parties and play lawn games.”
In the past Melissa has cooked big dinners for her, her partner and visiting woofers using meat and produce from the farm. Today, it’s just them and a semi-permanent ‘woofer’ on-site. “We still 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. She tries to stand by the motto ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’. “I try not to buy anything that doesn’t have another purpose, no plastic.”
So is growing and cooking her own food that she’s produced from her own land having a positive impact on her health? “Yes definitely – the difference is huge. I went back to the UK last year for three months and I noticed the difference in my health. I just couldn’t wait to get back around nature and clean air.”
Going forward, Melissa wants to educate others about how they can live more sustainably. “I’d love to focus on kids – getting them understanding that everything doesn’t come in a packet. It comes from somewhere – and you can create your own food.
“Because I think if people learn this as kids it will help us a lot more in the future.”
Follow Melissa’s journey at ‘Riverside Farm’ on Facebook and Instagram.