Farms with Frills

By Guo, Jerry | Newsweek International, February 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

Farms with Frills


Guo, Jerry, Newsweek International


Byline: Jerry Guo

I'm trying to chase down sheep at 80 kilometers per hour in an ATV, and it's not working. That's not to say that the sheep are fast. Rather, I'm just inept at corralling these white fluff balls, who hop out of the way whenever my red gas guzzler gets close. Perhaps they sense that one of their cousins had an unfortunate brush with me at dinner last night in the form of Wharekauhau Lodge and Country Estate's signature dish: a slab of prize-winning Texel lamb, juice oozing from its tender, marbled flesh.

Set on 2,200 hectares of rolling hills outside Wellington, New Zealand, Wharekauhau is one of the country's oldest and largest sheep stations, dating back to the mid-1800s. Until last fall, couples and families with deep pockets came here to be pampered in ultraluxurious style in one of the estate's 12 private cottages, each with its own ocean-view patio and king-size poster bed. They still do, but now they can also live out their pastoral dreams working as sheepherders (US$2,690 per person for the new three-day package; wharekauhau.co.nz).

Bed-and-breakfast farm stays used to be rustic affairs. But a new generation of city slickers raised on high-end organic food has created an emerging market for upscale do-it-yourself farming experiences. Luxury operators are beginning to spice up five-star rural resorts with a dash of manual labor: herding cattle, fetching eggs, extracting maple syrup, even pulling weeds. At Wharekauhau, clients coming to work as humble farmhands often bring their own nanny and arrive by helicopter--a 10-minute skip from Wellington, as opposed to an hour and a half on gravel roads. (There's also a private grass airfield that doubles as a favorite feeding ground for the sheep.)

On this summer morning in January, 23-year-old shepherd Ryan Hansen meets me in the estate barn, a jumble of stalls littered with wool. A far cry from the Old World decor of the 1,130-square-meter central lodge, this is the no-frills shearing shed. His four sheepdogs have already driven a few sheep up the ramp. Hansen wrangles one from the holding cell, wrestles it to the ground, and proceeds to use an electric razor to transform the animal into a skinny, naked version of itself (he wears special shearing moccasins for grip because sheep, like some humans, dread haircuts).

The next part is more fun: you learn the mechanics of shepherding, or mustering, in professional parlance. Sheepdogs do the heavy lifting while you focus on staying out of their way. …

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