Valhalla Educational Farm

April 2014

Bridging the urban-rural divide one school or tourist visit at a time

Alec Olsen has opened his Hawke’s Bay farm and forests to the public, a move which is helping bridge the rural-urban divide.

Valhalla is a 310ha farm and forest on the banks of the Mangaone River about half an hour west of Napier, owned by Alec Olsen.  It also features a gravel quarry which is part of the ancient Mohaka riverbed, 50ha of forestry and woodlots and 54ha of steep riparian kanuka forest along the Mangaone River covenanted with the QEII National Trust.  Alec farms sheep and cattle on the 200 effective ha of pasture.  

Alec says, “My father always let fishermen go through the farm.  The Mangaone River is the back boundary of Valhalla so I grew up with the principle of sharing the place.   Access then was rudimentary. Over time we improved the access to get trucks, coaches and cars to the top of the Gorge”.

“My partner Heather, who was teaching then, started bringing school children out in the mid 1980s.  Associations with schools are absolutely dependent on individual teachers who want to make the farm work for them.  They use the farm environment as a context for teaching the core curriculum, collecting data to use in the classroom.  Now about 500 students a year come to the school on the farm, most coming out for three days and two nights.   Most are intermediate school students, with 350 coming from Napier Intermediate, and there is also a special needs group from Fairhaven who use a small area of bush near the camp where they designed and built a wheelchair-friendly track for access.

We have a good campsite with toilets and water and cooking facilities.  We have three schools which come in regularly on camps.  And we have the EIT agriculture and land skills groups, Napier Boys High and Taruna College from Havelock North who all use the farm.

The Taruna College students are studying organics, but we are not organic.  I teach them how to match tree species to site. “

With the school children, Alec teaches them to be safe and warns them about the dangers on the farm.  To do this he uses a mnemonic called PIGSWAVE.

He lines each class of children up with their teachers and parents and goes through this:

•P stands for poisonous plants such as tutu and ongaonga

•I is for insects and bee stings

•G is for gullies, gorges and gravity

•S is for sun

•W is for water

•A is for animals

•V is for vehicles

•E is for electricity

Alec says that organised groups are no problem at all, but individuals can be a little bit worrisome.  “Pony clubs are great and the Astronomical Society has built its own observatory here, and we have history groups, hiking groups and Forest and Bird.  They couldn’t be better.”

“The astronomical  people were looking for a place to put an observatory which had easy access and didn’t have any light pollution.  They camped up on the site all night, and saw no visible light from highways or buildings.”

Alec says opening up his farm is his way of educating for the future by sharing what he has.  If farmers don’t share what they’ve got, nothing is going to get any better.

“And for me I can get inside the kids’ heads to a point.  The message people often get about farms is that farmers are bad for the environment and are a pack of polluters.  That annoys me a lot.  Most farmers care about the environment and their animals’ welfare.  Occasionally the kids come across a dead animal and they get the message that animals die sometimes and it is not a crime for an animal to die.  And they see that sheep shearing is not cruel.  We talk about how meat comes from animals, that some farm animals are dangerous, and that “gravity has consequences”.

“One of the advantages of this work is the personal reward I get from meeting a lot of very interested and generous people.  We have a wonderful cross-section of parents and grandparents here during the school camps.”

Gary Sparks from the Astronomical Society explains, “I was teaching maths at the time and chaired the Maths Teachers Association in Hawke’s Bay for a number of years.  I met his partner Heather and I bought out a bus load of 50 maths students to the farm for a day.”

“Later Alec was enthusiastic about offering the farm when he heard the Astronomical Society was looking for a site for an observatory.  He picked out a few spots and the first spot he showed us looked fantastic.  A friend and I pitched our tents and stayed up all night there.  The site has 360 degree views, and no artificial light source.  It was so pitch black, it was fantastic. Now we have a deed of access with Alec.”

“The project started as a dream about 10 years ago and within a few months we will have it completed with the power on and telescopes installed. Altogether the value of the donations of time and labour and the grants we have had will make the project the equivalent of around $50,000.”

“We have a lot of very good telescopes and using them close to town is hopeless. We think this will be used every weekend.  And we will also be working in with the camp programmes to show school kids the observatory. It’s a fantastic opportunity because the night sky is entertaining with or without telescopes.”

In Hawke’s Bay Alec is acknowledged as someone quite special.  He is enthusiastic about learning and sharing his knowledge with children of how farming works and what the countryside is all about.

“The kids are gobsmacked to be out on a farm.  It is a fantastic learning experience.”