Masterton, New Zealand — "Clover," explained Rick Vallance, "is the secret of the New Zealand pastoral farming system." The clover, Mr. Vallance told a visitor on a steep hill on his farm, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Wellington, helps put nitrogen in the soil, eliminating a need for expensive and petroleum-based nitrogen fertilizer.
The sheep eat the clover and through their waste spread the nitrogen. With New Zealand's generous rainfall and emperate climate, clover quickly grows to the size of a man's hand. Thus, Vallance has only to order the aerial spraying of phosphate and sulfur once a year to keep his grass healthy. He doesn't have to buy any extra feed.
Farmers such as Vallance are quick to insist that this system permits New Zealand to produce lamb, wool, and dairy products at the lowest cost in the world. These products contribute 75 percent of New Zealand's export income, earning it the foreign exchange it needs to pay for oil imports.
The natural fertilizer also helps keep labor costs low. A Maori shepherd, his six dogs, and a hired hand keep watch over 8,000 sheep and cattle spread over 2,000 acres of Vallance's farm.
Mr. Vallance is the sixth generation of his family raising sheep on this piece of land, which is still called by its Maori name, Kahumingi, meaning covered with Mi (a form of gorse). He, his wife, Fiona, and two young daughters live a comfortable though isolated life. Like most sheep farmers, they are nearly self-sufficient, using their own lambs and cattle for meat and growing their own vegetables.
Vallance's family lives in his retired father's colonial-style farmhouse, and his parents have move into a cottage on the property. In a high-ceilinged, wood-beamed living room with fireplaces blazing at each end, the whole family sat down to a lamb roast dinner Fiona had cooked and talked about the political and social affairs of the valley.
Prime Minister Robert D. Muldoon is in trouble with the farmers, they say.Inflation is battering the farmer, high transportation costs are making it tough to sell products abroad, and the New Zealand dollar is overvalued. There was no doubt, mused the younger Mr. Vallance, that the family's long- awaited vacation to Fiji was probably going to cost more once the New Zealand dollar was devalued to a more realistic level.
As important as politics is, the local Rugby team in the Wairarapa Valley draws a watchful following, but it had lost again, the Vallances groaned. They said there was no way a farming community could sport a team of ruggers who could match the skill of players from industrialized areas. When it came to shearing sheep, however -- well, just come back for the "golden shears" contest, the Olympics of the shearing world, which is held every year in Masterton. There was no doubt the valley could hold its own there.
For the most part the sheep raised in New Zealand are Corriedales, which have a coarse coat to cope on the rough land they roam. Their wool ends up as carpeting and tough- fiber clothing.
To make the best use of his grass, Vallance rotates the herds from paddock to paddock, cordoned off with 27 miles of fences. In theory, he says, sheep should be moved to the sweetest grass before the lambing season, thus making them happier and giving the farmer better odds for twins.
The rotational system of farming is beginning to catch on, even though it requires costly fencing and more management of the sheep. A few of the large farms have computers to tell operators when to move the flocks.
For the most part, however, sheep farming is still done the traditional way, with the farmer on his horse, accompanied by dogs.
Over the years the constant movement of the sheep has eroded the hills to resemble the terraced rice paddies of Bali. Since nearly 50 percent of New Zealand is steep hills, subject to dramatic erosion problems, even four- wheeled vehicles are limited. To get around his property, Vallance uses a three-wheeled Honda, much like those used on golf courses. Even after 24 hours of rain, Vallance, wearing gum boots and slicker, can still make sure his sheep are on high land.