Sometimes your new life on a piece of land can all be going swimmingly when the red tape of bureaucracy comes along and changes everything.

That's what happened to Sandy and Terry Cooper's emu farming enterprise on their property at Akatarawa Valley, 40km north of Wellington.

Sandy and Terry both grew up in England and met in Singapore when they were in the navy. After leaving the service, they lived in Auckland before moving to Wellington with their son Jamie, now aged 24, for work.

But the couple had always wanted "a couple of acres", explains Sandy, and while they were living in Lower Hutt in 1985, Terry saw this Akatarawa Valley property. It was 17 acres including almost an acre of blueberries.

After researching what they could do with the land they decided to diversify into emus. "We bought two pairs initially then four more pairs a year or so later. The big plan was to raise them first for the breeder market then, when that inevitably ran its course, the meat market.

"We worked with another emu breeder in the Wairarapa who had incubators and built up our numbers to around 200 birds and used a local works to process them for retail. The meat, being low in fat and high in iron, sold well in our farm shop and in the local butchers ... The oil rendered down from the fat was sought after for the skincare products and the feathers and blown eggs were used by crafts people.

"All was going well until MAF changed the processing regulations about 10 years ago, which meant the works we were using couldn't afford to upgrade to the new rules.

"We have tried since to find other processing plants but have just met with brick walls, endless regulations and a lot of expense."

They have now downsized the emu operation and focused on the blueberries. "We have had to give in to the government regulations," continues Sandy, "and the challenge with the blueberries is always the weather."

Pruning is done gradually over a few weeks in winter and during the summer the couple runs the shop and pick-your-own themselves, asking friends and family to pitch in at busy times.

"We're a family affair and get to know most of our regular customers, it's lovely."

Would they do things differently if they had the chance to start over?

"There's not a lot I would change," says Sandy, "I have thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. I'd probably slow down a bit and not take on so much. In the early years I was into milking cows, feeding calves, going to work, looking after a baby, running a house, blueberries, sheep, chickens, pigs ... all that was okay if everything ran smoothly.

"But if a phone call came in from a neighbour to say there was a pig/emu/cow/sheep munching its way through their garden, it did pile the stress on!"

Plus, she says, being involved with animals was a wonderful upbringing for their son. "He is in the UK having worked at a falcon breeding establishment in Wales. He has also worked on the Falcons for Grapes project in Blenheim."

www.bluebank.co.nz

- Donna McIntyre