Swapping city life for country life: We moved from Sydney to a pig farm in Manakau

Faced with cramped spaces and long commutes, this family chose to swap city living for a country lifestyle on a pig farm in Manakau.

Fifteen minutes. That’s how long Claire Ongley has to drive to have a coffee made by someone else.

Home for the 44-year-old is a 32ha free-range pig farm in Manakau, a tiny settlement between Otaki and Levin that consists of a dairy, pub, school and tiny church where Claire married her British husband Daniel Todd in 2014.

Roll back the clock a few years and the couple were living in Sydney where Claire was working as a digital product manager and Daniel (45) was running a consumer electronics company. Both were seeking an escape from corporate life and wanting to start their own businesses.

“I’m a city girl and although I wanted to come back to New Zealand, I didn’t want to move to the country,” admits Claire. “We reached a compromise – Daniel agreed to move here if I agreed to live in the country.”

It was Daniel’s chance to pursue his long-held dream of starting an ethical free-range pig farm.

“So many people don’t know where their pork comes from or how the pigs are raised. Daniel saw the opportunity not only to start a business but to educate consumers.”

The couple spent six months scouring the North Island for a suitable farm, finally settling on the relocated villa set among land where animals used in Sir Peter Jackson’s films were once kept. It cost them about the same as what they would have had to pay at the time for a small Auckland apartment.

Despite his only experience being a two-day course and lots of YouTube videos, Daniel set up Woody’s Free Range Farm on his own. At its height, the couple farmed 300 pigs, but in 2017 Daniel handed the pig raising to friends in the Wairarapa to focus on butchering, product development and sales. Meanwhile Claire’s company, Izzy and Jean, imports Turkish towels which are sold both online and to retailers nationally.

Although it took Claire longer to adjust to the quiet life than her husband, she’s grateful to be able to raise their children Fred, five, and two-year-old Rupert in a rural environment. “The kids are happy mucking around in the dirt and welcome any opportunity to help on the farm or throw rocks in the river that runs through our property.”

She also lists the space, fresh air and a friendly community as positives.

“Having lived in big cities where I didn’t even know the people next door, it’s been a breath of fresh air to live in the country where everyone knows everyone. A couple of years ago, we had a terrible flood and the water was rising around the pig houses. We panicked and called the neighbours and three of them turned up in the middle of the night to help move the pigs. They probably thought we were crazy townies who were in over our heads, which we probably were, but they got stuck in and never gave us any grief!”

Ask Claire about what she misses about her former life and she’ll mention Sydney’s weather and the beaches – “although not the hordes of people on those beaches”.

“And of course I miss being able to walk to a café, shop or park. But Wellington is only an hour away if we need dinner at a nice restaurant, although I don’t want to live there. We were both at stages in our lives where we’d ‘been there, done that’ and have never regretted our decision.”

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