6 Jul 2018

Lon Johnson and Gilly Darbey: the joys and challenges of rural life

From Country Life, 9:20 pm on 6 July 2018
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Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

The garlic bulbs used to be big, plump, long-lasting and in demand. But last year, they were black.

Lon Johnson and Gilly Darbey's Central Otago garlic crop was wiped out by a fungal rot.

"Anything that was kind of a bulb seemed to be suffering in the area. Anything allium; spring onions, shallots," Gilly says.

The Moa Creek organic gardeners couldn't turn to chemicals for a fix.

Usually, the harsh climate helps - the couple says they grow in 'freeze or fry' country.

"We're not having the deep hard frosts like we used to. I would say in the last couple of years we have barely had a hoar frost and they used to last for a week or two ... it was pretty much guaranteed to kill off any diseases, but it's got warmer and warmer," Gilly says.

A tractor in need of repair also meant Lon couldn't make the most of summer's scorching days.

"So I wasn't cultivating the ground... which when you cultivate ground in the hot sun it actually kills all the soil organisms. I think the fungus was allowed to build up."

So, not for the first time, Gilly and Lon have had to look for other opportunities to make ends meet.

Gilly used to be a professional musician before moving to be with Lon and adopting an almost self-sufficient lifestyle.

"I think you have to be prepared to have a go at anything. Just to do whatever you can to keep going, really, and that's what we do," says Gilly. "We've found all sorts of resources I certainly never thought I had."

Lon has chopped wood, washed dishes, tailed sheep and cleaned bedrooms. He currently works on a neighbouring dairy farm.

Gilly designs colouring-in books, paints t-shirts, has shifted cattle breaks and has worked as a cook.

She says they are lifestyle-rich and always, somehow, manage to pay the bills.

"Perhaps being a musician teaches you resilience, you know rejection all the time. But it's such a beautiful place. I mean look around. How could you not be happy, really? I think we are really lucky and when I get out and ride my horses through the hills, I am in heaven."