The election is a month away and all the focus is on the big centres. Nicholas Jones visited Taihape to find out what the important issues are there.

50-year resident

Stand at the gate of Laurie Abernethy's lifestyle block and the whole of Taihape spreads out down below.

A near-constant procession of trucks rumble along State Highway 1 through the heart of the town, past the McDonald's M and the old church spire.


Mr Abernethy has lived in the area for about 50 years.

He and his wife raised their four boys on a 485-hectare sheep, beef and deer farm at Mataroa. Now retired, the couple live on two hectares with their 12 Shetland ponies.

"They are characters ... they are just a lovely little animal to have around."

Mr Abernethy, nearly 80, has a long view of the town's fortunes and says Taihape has gone backwards, with a particular blow being the loss of railway-related jobs.

"We had three banks in town, we have one left ... this IT thing, to me it has wrecked the whole system.

"We haven't got a hospital any more - we have a doctors' surgery.

"We also had an old folks' home which the local community actually financed, and it's gone too. And those sorts of things don't sit very well with an old man."

Despite that slow decline, he says life is good here.

He marvels at Donald Trump and the uncertainty overseas - "I'm pleased to be where we are. My mother always said it was God's own country, and I reckon she was right."

Taihape has recently experienced a lift, he says, thanks in large part to its position on State Highway 1.

"Saturday, Sunday, you can hardly get a park in town - they go to the coffee shops and eating places. I think there is an opportunity now for boutique businesses."

Super volunteer
Michelle Fannin is behind the counter at one such business, the Wild Roses furniture and gift store.

One of the volunteer organisers of the famous gumboot day, she says the town's community spirit has helped pull it through setbacks.

"From my memories we had over 5000 people in the area, and in the last Census it was 3000.

"But houses are selling like crazy. People are moving to Taihape for a lifestyle, so they are buying houses to live in.

"We haven't got rentals - the new principal at Mataroa School struggled to find a place to rent."

There are a number of manufacturing businesses in town, including Incept Marine, which produces rafts, and kayak-maker Bliss Stick, but Ms Fannin would like greater support from government to attract businesses to smaller towns, perhaps in the form of tax breaks.

Another issue important to her is lifting wages.

"I know a lot of businesses would struggle, but our people are struggling on that minimum wage."

KiwiRail still has a team in the town employing about six, all with young families.

Other locals are bussed out to the Winstone Pulp Mill near Ohakune, and the Tangiwai Mill.

Iwi worker
Ngahina Transom works for Mokai Patea Services, an iwi provider that works with WINZ and other agencies.

She says employment picks up in summer because of shearing. That transience is reflected in the local area school, a decile 4 school with 265 students.

Ms Transom, a trained teacher and past principal of two rural schools in the area, chairs the board.

"Education is my biggest issue - we don't get enough money to do what we need to do. When teachers are expected to do lots and lots of other things ... like, where does it stop?"

Ms Transom grew up on a farm which her brother now runs. She married a local and they now have 11-year-old twin boys, living on their farm.

Her pakeha family have been in the area for seven generations and her iwi side goes back 16 generations. Those deep roots meant she chose to raise her boys here.

"What I love is the rural aspect of life here, and the qualities and attributes that contributes to a person - work ethic, independence, responsibility. A sense of home."

Ms Transom has also noticed the number of houses being sold, and thinks more Aucklanders are now buying here than locals. Others are arriving from Australia.

Farmer's focus
Despite the warming of Taihape's property market, sheep and beef farmer Daniel Mickleson, 35, thinks the focus on housing and immigration this election ignores much of the electorate.

"There's not much focus on the rural areas - we kind of just keep on doing what we're doing, and just cop the result."

Mr Mickleson's great-grandfather settled in the area in a brick house just down the road, and his family now farms 1214 hectares. He lives in a cottage that rattles as the traffic passes by on SH1.

He would like to see greater government support for local emergency services, particularly full-funding for the rescue helicopter, which is currently community funded.

"I could be seven kilometres out in the hills and, if something goes wrong, it's the rescue chopper that's important to me."

Sheep and beef farmers are doing okay, Mr Mickleson said, but there was concern at the "wave of regulation", including on the fencing of waterways. He understood the intent, but said fencing on steep country such as his family's farm is near impossible.

He received national attention in March after he posted on the NZ Farming's Facebook page about two times he'd coped with depression, including once after watching 11 months' farming work destroyed by four weeks of persistent rain.

He was inspired to speak up after comedian Jono Pryor talked about the death of a friend, but was shocked by the attention his posts received, having been widely shared and seen by more than 500,000 people.

"If I had known what that would turn into, I probably wouldn't have done it."

His experience is now the subject of an animated video in the Mental Health Foundation's Take the Load Off campaign, and he said both rural and national mental health support was critically under-funded.

"You just have to look at the farmer suicide statistics to see that ... I would rate it as one of the emergency services alongside ambulance, fire and the rescue chopper."