Important reading and writing questions for author and farmer Tim Saunders

Author and farmer Tim Saunders.


Author and farmer Tim Saunders.

Tim Saunders farms sheep and beef near Palmerston North. His first book This Farming Life was published in 2020. His latest book, Under a Big Sky, about the challenges of farming during tough times, is out now.

How do you fit writing into farming life?

The trick for me is to get up early. I like to be at the computer by 5:30am, or earlier during the long summer months. I’m usually too tired after a day out working on the farm to write at night. However, with more and more rules and regulations involved in farming, and with a seemingly never-ending list of new compliances that need to be studied, my writing time is often compromised. I find myself squeezing my writing into gaps.

I always carry a notebook with me on the farm to jot down ideas and phrases, or poems that often seem to pop up from nowhere. Ideas tend to disappear if I don’t write them down straight away. If I’m relaxed and open, poems often fall fully formed onto the page. Others need to be coaxed out. But there is always something to inspire me.

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What’s your favorite farming story to tell?

My grandfather used to buy sheep from Makara and walk them through the streets of Wellington’s CBD to the train station. This was in the days before trucks were in common use, and he needed to get them onto a train to take them home to the farm. The sheep, however, weren’t used to the sights and sounds of the city. Startled by their reflections in shop windows, the sheep ran out of control. They smashed windows, went wild in shops, caused all sorts of problems and left pandemonium in their wake. Livestock driving through the CBD was banned shortly afterwards. It’s a story that always makes me chuckle, although I’m sure it wasn’t funny at the time.

In Under a Big Sky you describe how farming has changed – what surprised you about how your predecessors lived and worked?

As the fifth generation to farm this land, I have a massive respect for the people who worked the land before me. They did their best with what they had. People used to be more in tune with nature; they could read the signs nature provided to predict the weather and grow the food the world needed. Undoubtedly they made mistakes along the way – a few of which we are still dealing with – but they were more connected to where their food came from than many people today. Who we were really affects who we are today, and who we can be in the future.

Climate change is providing an urgent reason to change up farming practices – what new methods are you exploring?

It is a challenge to grow food for an international population that is rapidly expanding, and New Zealand farmers are the best in the world when it comes to maintaining balance. However, it would be dangerous to sit back and feel smug about how great we are. Kiwi farmers are adept at keeping up with the latest technology and farming methods to reduce emissions and help the planet, but unfortunately this comes with a price tag – and the cost will ultimately be passed on to the consumer.

On our farm we embrace change as much as we can – for example, we increase carbon sequestration by no longer growing crops that leave paddocks fallow for long amounts of time. But it is up to every New Zealander to make positive choices and do something conclusive that will affect the future of the planet.

Under a Big Sky (Allen & Unwin) RRP $34.99.

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