Art and Helen Blom related their life’s journey from milking cows in Southland to producing mussels in the Marlborough Sounds, at the 2018 SIDE conference. Jackie Harrigan reports.

From milking cows to growing and selling mussels via a world trip and a move to Marlborough has been a busy adventure for dairy farmers Helen and Art Blom, who originally hailed from the Netherlands.
The pair arrived in New Zealand as 21-year-olds for a year to learn about dairy farming. It took them only two months to decide they wanted to stay rather than go home to their family dairy farm – but three months to pluck up courage to tell their parents.
Helen’s father could see the allure – after booking a ticket and checking out the NZ dairy industry he said he would have done the same if he was as young.
So the 21-year-olds hatched a dream – to milk 1000 cows and have six children at the same school.
Working on their dream together, through different structures and opportunities they built up their business to three dairy farms and 1500 cows, while having four children over seven years.
“That’s where it got hard,” Helen said.
“We were trying to make a go of family life, manage lots of people, work the land and take care of the cows – we felt we were doing crisis management, not living our values or making progress, had no time to spend with the children and things felt out of control.
“And then there was always the debt pressure – we needed a new plan.
“We are passionate about farming and the dairy industry has given us unbelievable opportunities, but a few things were getting in the way of our wellbeing – we were always busy and our children were growing up too fast, farming was becoming repetitive and we were commodity price-takers facing mounting pressure in the environmental area, on human resources and profits,” Art said.
The new plan was simple and allowed them to come out with their sanity and equity preserved – they sold some land, reduced debt and set the farms up so they could realise another dream – to travel the world for a year with their children.
The couple spent the next two years selling two of their farms, setting up a team to manage one farm and supporting long-time team members to lease the other farm. They also bedded in their vision of ‘Long-term employment and growing and eating as much grass as possible’, along with professional values of team spirit, doing what is right, challenging boundaries and making it happen. Once they had set up the farming business, their “Adventure-is-us” family set off on a year of adventure – Helen, Art, Nick, Maegen, Emma and Art (junior) all having chosen one place they really wanted to experience – ranging from Machu Picchu, cycling in Vietnam, the Amazon River in Brazil, camping in Africa and sailing the Mediterranean.
Because of the team’s commitment and effort, it all worked out for the Bloms to be away for a year from their farms on the other side of the world.
“If you are going to be away for a couple of days, you prepare for that, but if you know you are going to be away for a long time you prepare differently and you start behaving that way – no short cuts and good systems,” Helen said.
“We had developed a communication system where the managers and the rest of our team took real ownership of onfarm and financial data – with clear expectations, targets and a detailed budget. We could access reports from Dropbox anywhere in the world.”
The Blom family adventure had many highlights – but Helen said being together, getting to know each other better and getting along well made the trip really great.
“The people were a highlight – meeting people, talking to people, making new friends and renewing old friendships along with all the active adventures that challenged us. We had a relaxed attitude and every day turned out differently to how we expected – almost always better, and there was delicious food everywhere.”
The family came home with lots of new ideas, knowledge and inspiration for the next dream.
“The main lesson was that our team on the farms performed really well without us being there – it was successful when the team got the chance to take on responsibility with a good support system around them.
“We were careful not to step back into the day-to-day running of the farm, we spent time refining those support systems and, while keeping the farms, looked forward to where our lives would take us next – perhaps a different place with different opportunities for us all.”
Having spent time holidaying in the Marlborough Sounds, the family headed there to forge a life that would allow more family time and more opportunities for the children to be involved in their business. Art was interested in aquaculture, so attended a mussel farming conference and talked to many people about the industry. Within a couple of weeks they were approached to buy a live mussel distribution operation: Mills Bay Mussels.
Art had caught the mussel bug and was excited about the possibilities of marketing, branding and promoting and adding-value to a superfood product, greenshell mussels.
“We brought lots of transferable skills from dairying into mussel farming – and despite it being a steep learning curve, we love it. We saw a business opportunity, a cash-flow business, the chance to add value to a product and work directly with customers and consumers and it is a new challenge,” Art said.
The family have now put their own twist on the place and have a mussel processing factory with a café to showcase and celebrate mussels and with a team of 10 employees supply live mussels into the South Island and lower North Island.
While contemplating their options, the family tramped into On the Track Lodge in Nydia Bay, and after much weighing up of pros and cons, decided to buy it and move to the bay, accessible only by boat and walking track.
“Nydia Bay felt like a really strong foundation and a good base we had been looking for. Our four kids went on Correspondence School for the first year and we filled our days with schooling, learning about remote and off grid living as well as living with the tides, supporting the farm team, hospitality to trampers, the mussel business and fishing of course.”
“It’s another adventure that connects us as a family.”
With the new tourism and mussel business they are all connected at different levels, Helen said. “The cool thing is that it is new for all of us – so we are all learning together.”
The Blom offspring are all involved; Maegen is heavily involved with marketing, branding and the café, Nick is learning about different ways of farming in the Outback of Australia, Emma cooks mussels in the café and helps out at the lodge and Art also helps out at the lodge and is a star at shucking mussels at the café.
“One of the family values is to inspire and empower each other to realise our dreams,” Helen said.
“The kids have their own dreams and aspirations too, which is exciting , we are sure there will be more adventures to come.”
While Art says they don’t know where the next part of their life is going to go, they do know they want to be respected employers, to have 5% annual equity growth, to create business opportunities together with their children and do it within their family and professional values.
“But most importantly we want to continue enjoying the journey.”