We are in the financial shit. We won’t drown. But this past couple of months it has intensified a bit.
Some background information. We were a young couple, who worked damn hard together to get into a position to buy his family farm. Roger’s parents, stud beef farmers in an intensive dairying area, had always encouraged him into this, since he was a small boy. When we were in the position to be able to do it, we knew we had to convert the farm to dairy, to make it pay. He struggled to get his parents to understand the economic reasons for this. And they started to renege on the idea. The succession plan had been in place for a long time, Roger had bought another farm nearby, a deceased estate, at a bargain basement price. He was just 20 when he bought it, 21 when he took it over. 270 acres, 100% finance, mortgaged to the eyeballs. It was covered in weeds. He set to work clearing it, re-fencing, improving the fertility and pasture, and we managed to turn it over just over eight years later for more than three times what he’d paid for it, to our dear neighbour who had seen him toiling away. We turned over a beautiful farm to him to incorporate into his dairy empire in the area. He has looked after it well. I joined Roger on that property about three-four years into his tenure there, and I worked off farm during the week, but joined him with the stock work, and weed eradication on the weekends. Our eldest daughter was born during our time there, and was just over a year old when we moved. We bought an undivided half of his parents larger property and set about the work of building a house for us (Rog’s parents were not yet ready to retire and wanted to stay on the property, as shareholders in the company we set up to run the business) and convert, including upgrading water (dairy cows, unsurprisingly, drink far more water than beefies – the production of huge amounts of milk dictates that) building a farm dairy, complete with attached nursery for our daughter, subdividing paddocks into more regular and rotational grazing friendly sizes, re-racing the entire property. Rog got stuck in on the conversion, while I helped the builder, digging footings, pouring concrete, and when the house was standing, my stepfather, a plasterer and painter, came down and gib-stopped the whole house for me, and I sealed and painted the entire interior and exterior on my own, my little girl happily playing in her port-a-cot. We really had to push for what Roger’s father had always wanted for him. He was 65, and we felt like we were pushing him off his comfortable ledge in life. But he didn’t show any of this reluctance to do it until we had sold, bought and started! He was outwardly supportive, but we could see he was clinging hard. We understood. He wasn’t ready. We just wished he’d spoken up. And Rog was a little angry (Rog doesn’t really do angry, it comes out on the surface as mildly frustrated, I do angry!) As he put it, he had been pushed into this his whole life, third generation on the property, and NOW Barrie was digging his toes in??? I had tried to talk Rog into buying an alternative property, as we paid WAY over the market price for an unconverted property, THEN had to pay to convert it, we could have walked onto a larger property, with better financial consequences. But he was fixated on that family farm. I went with it. ‘Cos I am that kind of woman. Now. Apparently.
We bought his parents out completely four years later. By that stage we had another baby, our son, and Roger’s mum and dad stayed put in the main house. We lived on the smell of an oily rag in those days, I was so proud of how we managed. We were paying off the mortgage, and added a 50 acre run-off block to our land holdings. I was concentrating on the herd, I upgraded us to a high producing pedigree Holstein-Friesian herd, and kept improving the herd, we used to say, I would breed them, and Rog would feed them. He is an awesome pasture/feed manager. We were on an all-grass system (as was common in our country then) and we LOVED our girls, cows are magnificent beasts, they really are. Kind, hardy, hard working, sweet and incredibly resilient. They were my pride and joy (after my little kids!) Another (surprise!) baby arrived. I was 20 weeks pregnant when I discovered I was, and shed a lot of tears for a bit, until I got used to the idea – we were so busy, and under so much financial pressure, but we still enjoyed our life, loved each other and had a LOT of laughs, we were a busy little unit. At one point, for about four years because I worked full time on the farm, we employed live-in (and one live-out) nannies for a few months in the spring, when cows were flat out calving, and we had three adults and three children packed into our very compact three bedroomed house. Mostly though, once through the hectic spring period, I would just take the kids with me. I would breastfeed the baby, wake the others, pack them into our ancient 4WD (which had a huge mattress in the back for transport) and toddle off to the dairy to milk, all at 5am. The girls (eldest and youngest) were great, would settle back to sleep to the sound of the pulsators, and wake once the milking was over. My son was a tough baby, he didn’t sleep for longer than two hours in a row – which we did twice until he was fourteen months – until he was nine months old, normally he fed every half hour, to hour, he must have thought I WAS a cow, as I must have smelled like one as I perched on a test bucket and “topped him up” between rows!
As the years passed, life started to get a little easier, we paid ourselves a living wage for the first time! I actually was able to buy NEW clothes! Nice wine! Go out for dinner every couple of months! We sold the run-off and bought part of the neighbour’s farm, the part with the house on it, five bedrooms, plus an acre of established, lush, treed gardens, three car garaging (we still only had one, lol) workshop and shedding, two large barns and a studio at the back of the garden, along with 35 acres. Rog was thrilled, thinking the move (a lot further from his parents’ house) would mean he would get to eat his breakfast in peace! Not so, Barrie would still turn up at our place as I was pouring his porridge into a bowl, as he always did. We would have been working maybe four hours before breakfast, and he would come and interrupt Rog’s brief down time. I asked him why he never asked him not to. He didn’t want to rock the boat. He thought it was okay for his dad to do that, even though it made his blood simmer away, for decades.
The last year we were there, we employed staff. To let us take the odd milking off. I started milking less. I would relieve Rog from milking so we both got some time out of the cowshed – we rarely took milkings off. In fact, the first eight years we were there, we BOTH milked every single milking, every single day, twice a day – except for me, who took a couple of days off after the birth of the last two children, and Rog, who was with me during long labours – the second one took three milkings, and the third five! My dear friend, Grant came and did those milkings for us. But we never paid a relief milker, we just took it in turns after those first years, if either of us needed to be somewhere else. We bought some land – a lakeside location about two hours’ drive away, and had built a lovely holiday home on it – literally, Rog was the builder’s labourer while I ran the farm during the build – and we wanted to be able to USE it from time to time. I didn’t know, as Roger never said anything, but he was getting sick of what he was doing for a living. He has a problematic back, and standing on concrete for long periods of time was not helping. I offered to take over the majority of the farm work, while he had a sabbatical, and did the dad/home duties, just for a year, to see if that helped, maybe it would allow him time to think about something else, make some plans maybe to put full time staff on, and look into other business ventures. I had always done both, been the farmer, and the main parent, and the cook, housekeeper, taxi driver, school mum. He refused. I was keen as mustard, and there wasn’t much I couldn’t do, I was excited when I offered to swap roles for a bit. I thought the only thing I might need some help with was to understand the new irrigation system he had installed a couple of seasons previously. I was good with gear, tractors, quadbikes, effluent system, I could do this! He would have to remember how to cook, easy!
Anyway, long story to get to where it all started to melt into a Dali-esque landscape. I saved for eighteen months to take our kids on our first overseas holiday, Rog couldn’t leave the farm. My little brother was getting married and I was determined to get there. I am the “MUM” to my siblings, since our Mum died when we were just 32, 30 and 28. I feel like some kind of matriarch, lol. No grandparents, only one uncle who lives overseas on my mother’s side and no aunts or uncles that we have anything to do with on Dad’s. It was important we got there to celebrate. Actually, he was the second of us four to marry, as I never did, and my next brother down also lived with his partner, the mother of his two (one then) daughters. Our much older sister (who is kind of like an aunt really, a large age gap, she is adopted, and has lived in a far away country since we were 10, 8 and 6 years old) did marry, and is now divorced (but wasn’t then.) One of us “biological kids” was going all traditional, we needed to be there! We were gone just ten days. When I came home, Rog told me he had bought a new 1200 acre dry stock farm. WTF??? I was gobsmacked, he’d borrowed 5.5 million dollars and we still had the mortgage on the home farm, the farm he had promised me he NEEDED, and I was sure I was going to live on pretty much forever (there were commemorative trees planted for my Mum, some of her ashes were scattered around our beautiful duck pond.) I was okay, but a little stunned. I now know I was probably in shock, and maybe even a little denial. We had five weeks to move. I baked a cake and took it to our little country school, Rog was on the Board of Trustees, and I was Chair of the PTA. I thought I was fine. First clue I wasn’t, I got there and when I saw the teachers (including Leanne’s – OW – mother, who was the very loving new entrant teacher, and my staff rep on the PTA) who had helped my little brood grow, I got all choked up, thrust the cake in their hands, and RAN back to my car, sobbing all the way home, my heart was breaking for all that was being ripped from me. I didn’t really understand why I was feeling what I did, maybe just the loss of connection with my world, what helped ground me?
I tried to talk to Rog, but as I said, I didn’t really know what I was feeling. So I just asked him a few questions, like, “why? What are you feeling? This is sudden, I thought we were here forever, you dragged me here and then made me fall in love with our life here, now you are making these sudden, scary and expensive changes.” He was just in move mode, trying to sort out how we were going to run both properties, and how we were going to sell the beautiful dairy farm, where his parents were going to live while they built a new home in town (we have a warm cottage on this farm, they lived there for the twelve months of the build.) The old farm really was, a gentle, green, well planted property, that gently rolled back to a river boundary. We were five minutes from town, and where we were moving to was a rundown, miserable little town, with a terrible state high school (decile two, the second-lowest socioeconomic ranking for schools, two student suicides the previous year, and area where there was massive “white flight” to poncy – and expensive – boarding schools) and was about half an hour’s drive from the town our eldest child was happy at. I asked him how the budget was going to work, as the returns on sheep and beef are notoriously poor. I did the sums, and I couldn’t see how it could work, well, not to the degree I would have liked, we had worked hard, to attain a pretty nice life, we weren’t rich, but we were very comfortable, and had recently even bought our first ever BRAND NEW car (LOL.) And it was just getting better and better, we were headed for a sheltered and comfortable future. I must have been getting old, because that made me happy (whereas once I would have been a little sneery, jumped up little chequebook liberal I had turned out to be!) Kids were getting more expensive, as they “needed” laptops, – hey don’t hate too much – the nearly sixteen year old doesn’t have one yet) more technology, overseas language excursion trips, and university educations, and he was going to choose NOW to pull the financial pin? I told him I understood, we didn’t really ever focus on money, but that I was worried he had done this too early, we weren’t consolidated enough to take our foot off the financial peddle. But I knew he must have been VERY unhappy to do what he’d done. He loved that farm. He explained that at 43, he was still considered “the boy” by all – mostly the stock agents, and farm supply reps, even some of our friends somehow thought we had “inherited” or been “given” land – couldn’t be further from the truth, we had paid above market values for everything, in the spirit of ensuring his parents were never disadvantaged, and so his siblings could never claim we “stole” from them, even in the face of the fact that he had been the most progressive of his family on that farm, he had increased land holdings and profitability, all the while giving back to his community and environment (we were not large users of artificial fertilisers, antibiotics or herbicides, we were farming in an almost organic system) with wetland conservation, and tree planting, etc. And things with his family were getting a little tense, his older sister – also a neighbour – in particular was making life difficult. We had offered to do some land swaps, to make her assets larger, and maybe some joint land deals, and she was sitting on her farm, watching us grow, and getting really jealous – this despite the fact that for decades all she did was spend and party, while we were heads down, bums up, sitting on our wallets! (Phew, breathe, long, poorly punctuated paragraph….)
So, we get out here, I commuted to milk for the first four months, the dairy farm sold, and my beloved herd left (sniff.) I fall into an unanticipated emotional slump, who was I? What was my role now? I no longer have a “job.” I feel isolated from my emotional support system (women I drank wine with occasionally, lol.) I thought I must be mildly depressed, so went and talked to a counsellor for a short while. And I got my first paid job in seventeen years. Yay me! I LOVED it, yes, it was advertised as 30-35 hours per week, but quickly morphed into 60-70 (as I coped so well, and still hadn’t learned how to say no, I was being asked to do more and more, my boss was thrilled, and I felt validated!) My pay rate went up quickly, I was contributing to the household. The farm was difficult, even more difficult than Roger had anticipated. But, I was paying the groceries, and we were going to be fine, weren’t we? Change is hard, Paula, but change is good, Roger NEEDED change, and you just have to go with it and find YOUR groove. Everything is going to be okay, yay!
But it wasn’t okay. I had been in touch with Leanne sporadically over the decades, I had lived in the UK, then she had, then she was in Singapore for a while. But she was back in NZ, and she had a toddler son. She was not coping with single motherhood. At all. She wanted that baby, but it wasn’t the dress up doll she ordered. This little guy had his OWN needs and agenda, WTF??? So, I took her under my wing. Roger was a bit disgusted. He was not a fan. She is vacuous, impressed by things many much younger people get hoodwinked by, money, power, gossip, the culture of personality and greed. So, he kind of ignored her to start with. But four months after I started my “new career” he was in bed with her. They texted multiple times per day, she seemed to be down our way a lot more than she had been previously – her parents live down here, and they were a great help with her “difficult” son (who is really just a normal, very bright little boy who worked out how to press her buttons early on.) I knew they had rekindled a friendship, I really trusted him that much, he had a new friend, lucky him. He never hid the texting, or lied about who he was texting, I just assumed all was well, after all, she had cheated on him with four guys, and he didn’t really LIKE her, he had been pleased to be rid of her at the time, and never looked back on their dating time with any fondness, or thoughts that it could have been more, he saw through her transparent personality then, and he saw through it now. He used to roll his eyes at her vacuous statements, he really was just putting up with her for me, what a trooper he was!
So, here I am, working far too many hours, worrying my arse off about money – for the first time in years – and trying to be supportive to my group of long term friends, all the while, running my kids over to the nearby town (in the opposite direction from my work, or home) and keep everyone fed, clean and watered. The hamster was on the wheel, and it was turning faster and faster, and faster, soon she would fall off completely. We all know what happened next.
Well, this past few months, we have worked ourselves into a very tight financial spot. It is uncomfortable. Rog put on a lot more fertiliser than he has in the past, and it was on hill country, so expensive to spread – by air – and I hadn’t worked the extra amount into our budget. Whoops! Scraping right up against our overdraft limit – I don’t want to borrow any more, as this income does not really work with a mortgage. Youngest daughter has a school trip that I have only half paid for – to Japan in September, and I have to yet pay their exam fees, due early August. I have finished my semester at uni – and my job doesn’t up the hours until at least September (my top up, financially, to life is my wonderful job, my boss is fantastic, and I do still like the job) and I don’t have the tuition fees for next semester. Not even close. I am tossing up whether to see if I qualify for a student loan, I wouldn’t have in the past, but we really are watching every penny at present. So, good old, “I told you so,” has happened. This farm, whilst being lovely, and I love living here, is a financial lemon. And I knew it from the minute I saw the brochure. It might have worked if we didn’t have kids, and two racehorses (that we cannot get out of in the short term.) I know, we are spoiled, but it really should be a time when we were consolidating, not struggling. It scares me more than I admit out loud. That is why it has ended up on the page here. It is a major reason I still live in the same house as my dear “flat mate,” Roger. I can’t afford to do anything different without a great drop in my lifestyle, and my kids opportunities for education, sport and the like.
Who knew? Who knew that in 2014 women still stay in bad situations because of Economics? Not me. Not until now. But, here I am. It ain’t all bad, but the drop off the cliff is giving me vertigo.