Ask the locals and it's clear to them Bulls is a thriving place.
The popular stop, full of silly puns and sandwiched between bigger centres, is now attracting serious investment and new residents.
Jacob McSweeny reports.
It used to be that Bulls residents would recognise every second person they walked past in the town.
"Now it's more like every seventh or eighth person you meet," Bulls Community Development manager Bonnie Clayton said.
What used to be the norm in the Rangitīkei town famous for its bull puns, is that people would live there but spend most of their lives, including work, in Palmerston North.
House prices in Palmerston North and Feilding, as well as the main centres, are pushing homebuyers to look at places such as Bulls as an alternative.
Some Defence Force personnel are buying their first homes in Bulls and an expansion of the Ōhakea airbase is expected to bring many more workers as well as their families.
Work is under way to construct a facility to house the air force's new P-8A Poseidon aircraft expected from Boeing in 2023.
It has been called one of the most complex building projects undertaken by the Defence Force.
The new facility is expected to have created hundreds of jobs by completion.
"With the way things are going new job opportunities are popping up so people are actually able to live and work within Bulls and/or Ōhakea," Clayton said.
But there was not a wide array of employment options in Bulls.
Major employers include a range of farms in the area, two ANZCO meatworks as well as Farmland Foods.
The retail and food shops along the main road offered up the odd job.
Nonetheless, Clayton was excited to see new residents moving to the town, which had a population of 2000 at the 2018 Census.
GP Dr Ken Young regularly saw new residents at the Bulls Medical Centre and described the town as "thriving", thanks to the new housing developments and the Ōhakea airbase works.
"It's bringing new people to the area and there's also quite a lot of Government money being spent on the base there and I think that is a good thing for the local community and for the general district," Young said.
House prices, while cheaper than Palmerston North, are still a point of frustration for first-home buyers.
Owner of Team Lewis Innovation, Carol Lewis had noticed first-home buyers (often Defence personnel) fleeing to Bulls.
"They can buy affordably here. The prices have certainly gone up, it's a moving target."
One of the new faces about town, aviation firefighter Rosah Utailesolo, works at Ōhakea.
She moved to Bulls last year and was renting with her partner and said she was frustrated by the lack of cheap housing in the town.
But, she still liked living there.
"I'm not really big on the cities. I prefer Bulls, it's got what you need."
She did say there was not a lot to do in Bulls during time off, apart from walking her dogs at a local reserve. For entertainment Utailesolo would prefer to go to Palmerston North.
Clayton hoped that would be changing soon.
"There's going to be a development happening at the Bulls domain over the coming years.
"Playground upgrade and all of the rest. It's going to be a huge development. We are also wanting to upgrade the river walk down at the Rangitīkei river."
As at 2018 more than a quarter of the population in Bulls was Māori.
Pahia Turia is the chair of Te Rūnanga o Ngā Wairiki Ngāti Apa and helps lead the iwi relationship with the Rangitīkei District Council.
Ngāti Apa is the Rangitīkei iwi that covers Bulls along with hapū Ngāti Parewahawaha of Ngāti Raukawa ki Te Tonga.
Ngāti Raukawa are going through a Treaty settlement process with the Crown at the moment.
Turia said incoming residents from out of town often had more capital or higher wages than local Māori and that was pushing up prices.
"It does put pressure on the existing housing stocks we do have in Whanganui and the Rangitīkei."
He was heartened by a high number of housing developments around Bulls and Marton.
Rangitīkei mayor Andy Watson said the amount of housing in southern Rangitīkei, of which Bulls and Marton were the main centres, was growing by unprecedented numbers.
"We have more than 700 new homes in development or planning processes for the bottom half of the district. That's an unheard of increase in the history of our district.
"That end of our district is absolutely humming," Watson said, also citing the Ōhakea developments.
He said the farming community surrounding Bulls was in good shape, with red meat prices high.
Horticulture was big too, he said.
Speirs Foods, the biggest coleslaw producer in New Zealand, was sourcing a lot of its ingredients locally and Ngā Wairiki Ngāti Apa iwi was moving into the strawberries and blueberries businesses.
For Bryce Tamblyn, who has lived in Bulls over a period of 62 years, Bulls was lacking a service club like Rotary or Lions that could organise events for new residents to feel more welcome.
"What I would like to see is a mechanism where we can get all those new people together and put an afternoon tea on so we can get to know everybody," he said.
The Rotary Club in Marton had done a bus tour with the new residents.
"They gave a tour around Marton and [discussed] the history and they put a morning or afternoon tea on after that. It had about 40 or 50 people that turned up to it."
Driving through Bulls it is hard not to be shocked by the size and modern design of the new Te Matapihi community centre.
Rangitīkei District councillor Brian Carter and Watson were impressed by the building's uses; a library, the information centre, meeting rooms and an auditorium.
It also has a rooftop terrace that overlooks most of Bulls.
It had been "incredibly well received" by those using it and bookings were going well, Watson said.
While the building is enjoyed by many, Te Matapihi has not been without its detractors.
"It's a complete white elephant," Tamblyn said.
"It's not practical. We are worse off with that building than we were with the old town hall."
He said in the old town hall there was a supper room where a meal could be had in a follow on from a conference or some other event.
There were not suitable toilets or changing rooms at the back of the stage at the new centre for school pupils to use during productions, he said.
Back at the Bulls Medical Centre, Young was encouraging a "learn to live with it" approach.
"It's there now and it's not going to go away so we do need to use it and support it," Young said.
The town's retail sector is known for its boutique stores selling mostly clothing and antiques.
Amanda Street says her clothing store That Little Shop In Bulls has benefited greatly because of the Covid-19 effects on tourism.
"Covid was great for us," she said. "You probably can't say that."
Before Covid tourists would normally travel through Bulls but Street had noticed more domestic tourists were stopping to shop and they were making return visits.
"Because there's some really interesting shops here, different shops here. But, you need to get out of the car and get into them to realise that."
Tamblyn said he wanted Bulls to have more outlet shopping, such as is available in Ōtaki, one hour south.
Street agreed saying "everybody wants the outlet stores from Ōtaki", but for the moment Bulls was doing well.
Retail could be very difficult at the best of times, she said, citing her business as taking five years to really start finding success.
Despite the apparent growth and new residents, Lewis said it was still a close-knit community.
"It's a pretty safe environment to be in," she said.
"If you see a kid walking, you know where that kid is from. Everyone sort of knows each other or of them but they're not into each other's business."
It's hard to look past the main road roaring through Bulls. It is said the road averages 22,000 users a day. Clayton said that figure would be much higher on weekends.
"Good luck," the locals will say in jest to anyone hoping to get from the shops on one side to buy a pie and a coffee on the other.
The Wallace retail development that opened in 2014 and boasts a Four Square and restaurants, is regarded as being a success.
It gets travellers into the town in a way that is more than a McDonald's drive-thru visit or a quick stop for gas.
From there people were meandering up the road to see what the shops had to offer.
But, Clayton, describing Bulls as a utopia, wanted more than that from visitors.
"Stop. Stop and have that coffee. Stop and have a look around. Shop at the antique shop. Stop at the Rat Hole and have a meal. We want people to see us as friendly, as welcoming. We want people to make this place home."