Justine and Geoff Ross are experts in thinking differently. In 1999 – when there were few New Zealand spirits on the market – they created premium vodka brand 42 Below from Geoff's garage.
The idea was such a success, the company was bought by drinks giant Bacardi in 2006 for $132 million. So, in 2017, when Geoff, 55, mentioned he was keen on buying a 6500-hectare farm in the Southern Alps that the pair had casually looked at, Justine says she should have known it wasn't just a vague concept.
"Geoff has this wonderful ability to lull me into thinking something's not going to happen, while all the while determining that it will – and I always believe him!" laughs Justine, 54, who says she felt like a "Stepford wife" when she realised her husband was serious about leaving their comfortable Auckland home, relocating the family – including their two boys, Finn, then 18, and Gabriel, 14 – to the remote mountains of the South Island.
The entrepreneurs had been fighting a desire to change their Auckland lifestyle for a while.
"We had this growing sense of unease about our lifestyle and the planet – the consumerism, the urban congestion," says Justine. "We found ourselves leaving the city every chance we got, to go hunting or hiking, and reconnecting with the wilderness. Leaving Auckland felt best for all of us." But she wasn't expecting quite such a dramatic change.
"We'd been talking about purchasing a farm somewhere like the Waikato, so to go from that to buying this landholding was a lot!"
Both Geoff and Justine have rural backgrounds. Geoff was raised on a dairy and deer farm, while Justine's mother was raised on a dairy farm and her grandfather was a pioneer in horticulture.
The couple share their environmental values with their sons – scientist Finn and Gabe, who both work at the station. Gabe also won the Three reality series Tracked earlier this year.
But moving a 14-year-old from Herne Bay to a remote South Island farm had its challenges.
"Moving here was tough on Gabe," reflects Justine, who stayed in Dunedin with him so he could finish school. "He missed his former life. When you have a kid who feels like a fish out of water, you hang onto the long game and trust. I'd encourage him to invite a friend to stay, or arrange a trip up, so he never felt cut off from our former life."
The family moved to Lake Hāwea Station with ambitious plans to create a beef and sheep farm that complemented the ecosystem. "The yearning to develop land has been in us since childhood, but the idea was parked for 30 years," tells Geoff.
Despite their passing knowledge of farming, and knowledge of climate advocacy and environmental issues, the couple had no idea just what a mammoth task they'd taken on.
"When we started talking about becoming New Zealand's first carbon-positive farm, there was a lot of cynicism – to the point people would just laugh in our faces," reveals Justine. "But people were brutal when we said we were creating a premium vodka in New Zealand too..."
So began an intense and very steep learning curve. "At the start, we had no clue," admits Justine. "Watching Geoff at the ram sale, scratching his head to decide what ram he needed to make 5000 ewes pregnant! It's been terrifying and enriching, but it's one of the greatest gifts we've ever given ourselves."
Lake Hāwea Station is home to 10,000 merino sheep and 300 Angus cattle. It's also home to over 300 species, including 10 endemic and eight native birds, the last wild population of the western grand skink on Earth, and the country's second-rarest fish, the Clutha flat head galaxia.
"There's a huge amount of support in rural New Zealand – you can just call people and they'll pop round for a cuppa to share their knowledge," says Geoff.
Adds Justine, "I thought I was pretty street smart, but I most definitely wasn't one iota mountain smart!"
After plenty of trial and error, Geoff and Justine now run a successful farm and tourism business. This year, Lake Hāwea Station was named in Condé Nast Traveler: Gold List 2023 for the best hotels and resorts in the world. Do they have any regrets? "Only that we didn't move sooner," says Geoff.
Nods Justine, "Moving here has had its challenges, but we wouldn't want to be anywhere else."
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