Special feature: Blue Duck Station

The stunning book Blue Duck Station by Nicola McCloy offers an intriguing insight into what’s undoubtedly one of Aotearoa’s most environmentally significant stations

Blue Duck Station owner Dan Steele. Photo: Martyn Davis, Plateau Productions

Below is an extract from the book with commentary from station owner Dan Steele

Having created Blue Duck Station out of a number of smaller properties and worked hard to improve the land and protect its flora and fauna, Dan sees the property as a legacy that he and Sandy will pass down to their children and the generations of their family to come. Here, he talks about his plans and dreams for Blue Duck’s future.

I don’t like being a numbers man with farming. I don’t want to just produce more lambs for the sake of it. Who’s eating those lambs? I’m not looking them in the face asking if it was a good lamb. I’m not into selling more and more sheep and only caring about the numbers. That’s just factory farming to me.

I don’t think New Zealand should be like that because this place is bloody special. We are the only place in the world down here, out on our own with huge biodiversity and an enormous ocean all around us protecting us. We should command our own value. We never have, and that annoys the hell out of me.

Why are we selling commodities offshore, like unprocessed logs, then buying back finished timber products from the country we’ve sold the logs to?
It makes no sense to me.

We live in a world of so much compliance, regulations and minimum wages, yet we’re still happy to pay overseas workers a dollar an hour or a dollar a day. How do we compete
with that?

Smoko on the ridge. Photo: Blue Duck Station

I’ve always had a steadfast belief that New Zealand businesses should look after their own backyard and not leave it to the government. It’s more important than ever that we take responsibility for our own businesses, homes and lifestyles. We love living rurally, but we know that the decisions we make today affect us today, tomorrow and in 20 years’ time.

A lot of farmers have been born into a greedy, capitalistic system. It’s fuelled by corporations and banks, and there’s pressure to borrow as much as they can so they can produce as much as they can. The banks and corporations are effectively farming the farmers.

The ones who rise to the top do all right, but they’re cash poor and asset rich. Then they get to 70 and they’re worth $15 million and everybody holds them up as a hero. They’re dead two years later and their kids aren’t talking to each other because they’re fighting over who gets the land.

The system’s broken and there’s a lot of us who are starting to think differently. Perpetual growth just isn’t sustainable. There’ll be the odd year when we make a bit less and that’s fine too.

We need to stop acting like there are infinite resources on a finite planet. We’ve treated it like things could never end. Every year, humans want to get wealthier, wealthier, wealthier and it’s simply not feasible.

Dan drenching some of the stock. Photo: Sophie Haugh

Mother Nature is what we’re all about — New Zealand has to tie its future to a really healthy ecology and be a leader in the world around health, wellbeing and conservation. Part of that is about putting a peg in the sand and saying that New Zealand is the biggest conservation project in the world. Everything matters and we’re all connected here, so let’s make this place really, really great. We have the walking tracks throughout the country, we have the cycleways, we have all 15,000 kilometres of coastline, we have lots of things that need protecting, so let’s have environmental schools and big-picture future thinking.

If we go that way, the world will shine a light on us. They’ll see that what we’re doing is working. People all over the world will then wonder how they can get involved and how they can make change in their own places.

Frontier Lodge. Photo: Blue Duck Station

We should develop the reputation that if you come to New Zealand, you’ll live longer because we’ve looked after our biodiversity, our air is cleaner, our water is cleaner and there’s less pollution. We might be small but when we do something right, the world will take notice.
Predator Free New Zealand is a part of this but the whole plan needs to be bigger than just getting rid of predators.

We can be a green light for the rest of the planet and say, ‘You can have a good economy and a good ecology.’ In fact, you have to have a good ecology to have a good economy long term. If we can showcase that and be a part of that journey, that’s something I’d dedicate my life to.

We’ve been in this growth mindset for about 100 years, and it’s been brainwashed into us that if you’re not growing, then you’re going backwards. You have to keep ahead of inflation, you have to do this, you have to do that. Financial institutions need growth to keep their business model going, so their business partners — all businesses — must grow. If you’re well fed, well housed and looked after, what’s wrong with just sustaining a lifestyle and having enough?

Dogs play a vital role on the station. Photo: Sophia Haugh

In some ways we’d be better off to regress society and start moving back to more of a village model. In the village, you’ve got your local potato grower, your local hunter, your local cheese producer, your local builder. It’s a society where you’re much more connected to everyone who does everything in your world.

I don’t know if we can ever realistically go back to that, I reckon it would be a fantastic model.

I’ve been part of the model of borrowing a whole lot of money to get the land I wanted to set up my business on and to keep it growing, which keeps the bank saying. ‘Good on you, boy’, but that’s a model I’m trying to break out of. I’m just fortunate that I have enough land to do that.

It seems pretty natural to me to have lots of different strands to my business. I’ve been fortunate to have things like the ETS [Emissions Trading Scheme] come along when I had unsustainable land that I knew shouldn’t be farmed. Next thing, someone was going to pay me to grow the scrub. That was more good luck than good management but I’ll make the most of it.

I know I’ve made this place a bit crazy at times, but we’re actively changing our business structure, so what we offer people is all going to change. We’ve tried to be everything to everyone, but that’s not sustainable so we need to pull back on that a bit. I think it’ll be good if we don’t open to guests for some parts of the year, so that when we do open, we can do it really well.

Blue Duck Station hi-res.jpg

Blue Duck Station: The land, the rivers and the people by Nicola McCloy, published by Bateman Books, RRP $69.99, Release date 9 October 2023

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