Queenstown Hill’s man of land notches 50 years

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One couple has literally sat in the midst of Queenstown’s boom for 50 years, but maintain they’ve made little profit off it.

Isabelle and Arnold Middleton have weathered the challenge of farming Queenstown Hill since 1963 after initially thinking they might only last five years.

Their sheep farm is flanked by million dollar properties stretching from the Commonage, to Arthurs Point, to Tucker Beach, and to the subdivisions above Frankton Road.

“It’s a circle really and we’re right in the middle of the whole thing,” Isabelle says.

“I don’t know why – it hasn’t benefited us at all.”

In the early days, Isabelle says whenever they thought about selling, no one wanted to buy.

More recently, they’ve had more opportunity to cash up.

“We could have a couple of nice homes,” Arnold says.

“It’s quite a challenge this place, it’s always been. That sort of keeps you going. I like just like stock and dogs,” Arnold, brought up farming, says.

The couple now co-own their property with their four children – and jointly farm it with their youngest, Kelvin Middleton, an ex-Super 15 Highlanders rugby player.

Arnold recalls he and his then-fiancee paid just 20,000 pounds or about $40,000 to buy their 1200 hectare farm.

Just 22, he’d come off a family farm in West Otago. Queenstown Hill wasn’t in good nick and fences were down.

Arnold recalls being mortified to find 30 of his sheep on Frankton Road one day while on his way to watch rugby.

A stray cattle beast also used to frequent downtown Queenstown, he says drily.

In 1978 the Middletons fenced the farm above Queenstown and a year later, freeholded their land.

Isabelle traces their progress through upgrades to the main farm track.

Initially Arnold rode horseback on what she calls “this tiny horrible little track”.

“Then it got a bit bigger and Arnold got on a motorbike. It got bigger again and Arnold got his truck and now you can drive up in a car.”

Isabelle says Arnold continually planted trees – “even when we had no money”.

Farming Queenstown Hill might sound an idyllic lifestyle but it’s always been tough, like most farms in the Wakatipu, Arnold says, adding: “The views up top are amazing but it’s all just rolling tussocks – it’s not much use for grazing. It’s pretty hard country.” 

Wilding trees have also been a threat but Arnold commends the work of the local wilding conifer control group.

The biggest challenge has been paying the bills, he says.

“Your costs are rising – you’ve got to accept we’re at the end of the chain by the time everybody else gets their cut. And the council rates are pretty high.”

Wool prices have also deteriorated in recent years, he says.

What helps, he adds, is they lease another farm, round Lake Johnson, and graze some others.

Arnold’s also put up with his share of dogs worrying his sheep – and admits he’s shot “quite a few”. 

“But the last few years have been pretty good – council’s clamped down on stray dogs and people are much more careful with their dogs.”

Arnold, however, believes it’s inevitable the farm’s days are numbered, saying it’s too small to be economic: “You really need 4000 ewes to be economic, we’ve got 1800.

“I think tourism and subdivision will be the main thing on Queenstown Hill in the future, but I think there’ll always be some sheep to keep it tidy.” 

The Middletons lease their property to a quad bike operator, while the wires remain from the former Fly By Wire adventure attraction.

Quite often they also host TV commercial shoots.

Arnold’s even entertained transforming his farm into an international airport to replace the constrained one on the Frankton Flats – an idea floated last year by prominent local investor Sir Eion Edgar.

“But you’ve got all that infrastructure around Frankton now so I think you can forget it,” Arnold says.

The Middletons also have a large area of residential-zoned land above Frankton Rd which they’ve yet to develop.

“It’s really a matter of access but it will happen,” Isabelle says.

Arnold, 72, and Isabelle, 70, who celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary next month, say they’re happy plodding on.

Arnold says the future’s in their children’s hands: “You’ve got to leave something for the kids to sort of think about.”