Ronnie and Stephen James are no strangers to hard work.
The couple run Whiti Farm, an animal park in Kaimarama, 10 minutes from the Whitianga Township.
“We’ve built this from nothing essentially,” says Ronnie of the 85 acre property.
“At first, we weren’t sure if could afford to make it a farm.”
When they first moved to the property in 2002, Ronnie and Stephen spent five years draining the swampy land, scrub clearing, fencing and re-grassing.
They persevered and after collecting more than 50 different species of farmyard, exotic and domesticated animals, birds and reptiles, Whiti Farm Park opened in December 2007.
A Day at Whiti Farm
The farm’s fans range from age two to 82, and they cater for families, school groups, bus tours, birthday parties and other functions.
“Our park has very reasonable entry prices so that our park can be available to families on any budget.
“We don't have a cafe and would rather encourage people to pack a good old-fashioned picnic and enjoy the things we did as children.
“We provide a place that gets kids out of the house, off their devices and out into the great outdoors. “We teach them to love, care and respect animals and encourage them to play, learn and have fun with their imaginations.
“Once through the gate, you can stay as long as you like. We love seeing people enjoy the park.”
At the time of writing this, the summer season was looking to be a busy one for Whiti Farm Park – Labour Weekend was twice as busy as last year, and the September school holidays “felt like the middle of Christmas”.
“Our visitors were just so happy and they seemed thrilled just to be away from the city.”
This comes after a challenging year for the park.
Summer of 2019/2020 saw the James’ contend with a drought, which meant very little grass growth, as well as feed and water shortages.
Hot on the heels was COVID-19, which wasn’t a typical lockdown for this tourism business. While visitors disappeared, the animals still needed to be fed, cleaned and cared for.
"We had to carry on at the park as usual, with the same expenses and work to be done, just without the visitors and the income,” says Ronnie, particularly referring to income lost from the April school holidays.
Ronnie and Stephen put the time in lockdown to good use, with Stephen working away on a digger developing new sections of the property for visitors to experience.
Unfortunately there’s nothing to show for it, as a one-in-100-year flood hit one day after the park’s post-lockdown reopening.
While the farm gets one or two floods most winters, the latest exceeded all previous benchmarks.
Flood water was level with the road, wiping out 30 per cent of the farm’s fences, destroying landscaping and creating an overwhelming mess.
It took six weeks to tidy up to a stage where they could reopen – and there is still more to do.
The James’ are grateful the support they received from the community to help with the clean-up.
“We had wonderful support through community working bees, where people we didn’t even know, locally and further afield, came to give us a hand.”
The farm also received help and advice from Rural Support and Environment Waikato, who enlisted help from a local arborist to clear the clogged stream. They later returned to help with plantings to stabilise the streambank.
The business had just recovered and re-opened for a successful few weeks when the second wave of COVID restrictions in August saw Auckland back in lockdown and visitor flows halted once again.
While the farm gets great support from locals, Ronnie says out-of-towners, particularly from Auckland, are their largest market. International visitors made up 15 to 20 per cent of the park’s total visitors.
Getting on with it
Despite what’s behind them, brighter days are ahead.
The park are the 2020 winners of the Waikato people’s choice award in the Stuff and 2degrees Business Shop Local competition, receiving a $20,000 advertising package to promote the farm park.
Ronnie says the money will also go towards repairing fences and shelters destroyed by the flooding, animal feed and further developments.
The business also received a $2000 social media package grant through Te Waka's Regional Business Partners Network, which has seen them receive coaching on how to improve their social media presence.
Ronnie says COVID has helped foster a new appreciation for the park and it’s laid-back, rustic feeling.
“The park is benefitting from a resurgence of Kiwis exploring their own backyard.
“The smiles on people’s faces when they come to our park makes all our hard work worthwhile.”
For more information, visit: www.whitifarmpark.co.nz