Before international airports became the talk of Tarras, farming was the district's main preoccupation. In all its guises, farming has stamped its mark on the district and its people over 162 years. Otago Daily Times' Mark Price takes a look at what has happened to Tarras in the days since its potential for farming was first realised.

Christchurch International Airport Ltd caught plenty of flak for the way it bought up land at Tarras for an airport.

Its agents, while making offers to landowners, did not disclose who they were working for, or why the land was wanted.

The airport's chief executive, Malcolm Johns, was the man who orchestrated the purchase of 750ha for an airport, at a cost of $45 million.

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He saw the potential, acted swiftly and quietly and came up last month, holding the deeds to the various farming properties.

This was not the first audacious land grab in the history of Tarras.

In 1858 "Big John" McLean also saw an opportunity and also acted swiftly and quietly.

View over the proposed site from Cluden Station. Photo: Stephen Jacquiery/ Mark Price
View over the proposed site from Cluden Station. Photo: Stephen Jacquiery/ Mark Price

His story is recounted in the late Geoffrey Duff's Sheep May Safely Graze history of Morven Hills Station.

McLean grew up on a croft, or small farm, on the Scottish Isle of Coll.

Tired of the poverty and hardship of crofting life, his mother, Mary, took her family, including John, to the Australian goldfields.

The family prospered and bought farmland. But droughts forced another move, this time to Canterbury.

And then came eldest son John's big chance. He heard from Māori of "a great tract of land where no white man had trod", Duff recorded.

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He saddled up and set off up the Waitaki River, crossed the Lindis Pass and reached the top of Grandview Mountain, near Hawea Flat, from where he had a grand view of the Upper Clutha and its lakes.

The Waste Land Board was offering four grazing licences for much of the land McLean could see, but he was not allowed to claim the four himself.

So, he got his family involved - sister Alexandrina granted 48,000ha, brother Allan 27,000ha, brother Robertson 34,000ha and himself 33,000ha - a grand total of 142,000ha.

Together it became Morven Hills Station or Run.

According to Duff, McLean was then rumoured to have employed another shrewd move - "a subtle piece of deception" -to satisfy the board's requirement that the station be stocked with a sufficient number of sheep.

At night, while McLean and the board's inspector emptied bottles of Scottish hospitality, shepherds moved the station's flock from one location to another, providing the inspector with plenty of sheep to see each morning.

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In the early 20th century the property was gradually divided up into smaller farms.

Former Tarras farmers Bill and Frances Gibson, of Malvern Downs. Photo: Mark Price
Former Tarras farmers Bill and Frances Gibson, of Malvern Downs. Photo: Mark Price

Bill Gibson's father, Hector, was a shepherd on Morven Hills and acquired 14,000ha of the station as well as the 1280ha Malvern Downs.

Gibson and wife, Frances - from nearby Malvern Downs (both 92), are living in Wanaka.

They have clear memories of good times in the Tarras area - of ice-skating, horse riding, rugby and tennis, boarding schools, catching rabbits for pocket money, sheep sales, cattle drives and dances in the local halls.

Mr Gibson remembers cold winters when metal heels would be added to horses' shoes to provide more grip in the frost, but neither he nor Mrs Gibson found the climate especially harsh.

"We were born to it, and we just accepted it."

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After school, Tarras children would grab their ice skates and head off to a natural pond.

"I just think how trusting our parents were," Mrs Gibson said. "We could have drowned, because no-one came with us."

Photo: Stephen Jacquiery/ Mark Price
Photo: Stephen Jacquiery/ Mark Price

Mr Gibson said in the early days all the land was dry, and irrigation had "made" the valley.

"You might be running a sheep to the acre and then you got irrigation on and you would be running four to the acre."

The earliest form of irrigation was "wild flooding" where streams were diverted to run down gullies.

But then a system of border dyking was added to the flat land, including where the airport would be located.

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"The flats are very fertile, and even up on top of the hill behind the Tarras store it's quite fertile," Mr Gibson said.

In 1934, Mr Gibson took to the air for the first time, when Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and his Southern Cross aircraft flew passengers from the Cromwell racecourse - Sir Charles having completed the first flight across the Tasman Sea only six years earlier.

"I was a kid and it was marvellous."

Mr Gibson saw the prospect of an airport at Tarras as "progress".

"And, you've got to bow to progress."

He believed the site chosen by Christchurch Airport was a good one although as far as farming went, it would "bugger it".

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Tarras shops and school. Photo: Stephen Jacquiery/ Mark Price
Tarras shops and school. Photo: Stephen Jacquiery/ Mark Price

Young Tarras farmer Ben Purvis does not have a particular view on the airport proposal — seeing both positive and negative aspects.

Planes taking off to the north would fly directly over the homestead of Cluden Station.

Purvis and brother Sam farm the 10,000ha station — running about 12,000 mostly merino sheep and 350 cattle.

They are about to start their annual muster but in contrast to Mr Gibson's day, there will be no teams of musterers on horseback.

The two Purvis brothers can handle the whole job themselves, using their helicopter.

"That's a thing that's changed from Bill's day or even from 20 years ago where this place probably ran four or five staff but now there's only two of us. It's simplified a few things."

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Tarras farmer Ben Purvis. Photo / Mark Price
Tarras farmer Ben Purvis. Photo / Mark Price

But progress has brought complications too, not least the streams of tourists travelling between Christchurch and the Lakes district along State Highway 8 which divides Cluden.

Once the road was a corridor for moving sheep and cattle, but that had become too dangerous.

"It's just gone wild with traffic and it's not easy taking all your stock up and down the road."

It's not that tourists mind driving through mobs of sheep, he said, it's just that they stop in the wrong places.

One essential still for farming at Tarras was ensuring you could get water on the land.

Wild flooding is long gone, and the days are also numbered for irrigation races and the 30ha of border dykes on Cluden Station.

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Centre pivots are far more efficient, although the terrain of Cluden limits their use.

But modern farming is about more than hardware, with a lot of attention paid to the types of grass that thrive in Tarras' cold winters and hot summers.

"You've got to find something that is durable enough in the dry," Purvis said.

Lucerne was the traditional answer but irrigation allowed herbs and clovers to become more common.

Asked what advantages Tarras had over other farming areas in New Zealand, Purvis said with Queenstown and Wanaka not far away, Tarras was "not in the middle of nowhere".

"It's certainly a changing place, but it's a good community, and it's quite a good spot to be - not too far away but far enough away."

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