Ross and Ngaire
On one of those perfect autumn afternoons we’ve been enjoying lately I spent an hour with Ross and Ngaire Pannell. To reach their house I drove up their long driveway lined with trees resplendent in startling yellow. My search engine would not yield the name of the tree, nor would Ngaire’s but she said it would surface later.
We found Ross at work washing walnuts with the aid of a machine that tumbles the nuts and removes debris picked up by the harvesting machine. He flicked off the motor and we sat in the shade next to healthy citrus trees.
Dunedin, born and raised Ross Pannell was inclined towards the Scottish characteristic of keeping discussion at a practical level. Ngaire filled in the feelings behind the facts.
Hale and hearty at seventy, it’s easy to imagine Ross as very handsome twenty-year-old when Ngaire fell for him. Back then, he was crayfishing in Fiordland, starting his days at between four and five am for six months of the year. It was just Ross and his skipper, bringing in cray pots, rebaiting them and returning them for the next days harvest. He did that for two years, after a university career where he pretty much majored in playing pool.
Ngaire, on the other hand, was an exemplary student, completing a double major in French and English before heading off to teacher training college. She then took up a position in Invercargill, and Ross followed.
Ross’s first job in Invercargill was cleaning drains, but after six months he spotted an opening for a trainee hydrologist with the Southland Catchment Board. Despite his results from university, they took him on and two years later, when the other member of the two-man hydrology team moved on, he became the senior hydrologist,. Senior Hydrologist at the Southland Catchment Board (later Regional Council) was the title he retained for the next thirty years. By his account it was a great job, where he was able to evenly split his time between desk and field.
John Hargest high school (later college), where Ngaire taught, was the first school in the city to have a creche, so motherhood caused minimal interruption to her career. Breast cancer in 1996 caused a derailment, but she recovered from that and returned to work.
The three Pannell daughters followed different routes but all ended up in Nelson. Meanwhile Ross and Ngaire decided to move to Central Otago.
Years earlier they bought ten acres overlooking the Shotover River midway between Queenstown and Arrrowtown because it seemed like a good investment. Then, on the cusp of their fifties, having been a double income family for most of their married life, and with their children self-sufficient or nearly so, they embarked on a grand endeavour. They decided to build their dream house on the Otago property. Their planning and preparation was thorough. Ross then tendered his resignation, and joined his builder in the crisp mountain air.
It took two years to plan and build their wonderful house. Looking north from their lounge a view of Coronet Peak was framed by trees that Ross had planted, while to the south lay the Remarkables. The Shotover River coursed below.
In 2011, fifteen years after her first breast cancer, the cancer returned, causing Ross and Ngaire to make a choice between their house and property, and being close to family. Family won.
They moved to sixteen acres on River Road. Ross revels in a challenge, but their new property had been landscaped, was well maintained, and had a modern house. There was little else to do, except that the majority of the land was planted in walnut trees which would sustain Ross’s interest in things arboreal.
Not expecting an answer, I asked Ross how much money he’d lost growing walnut. He smiled. Such a question is like asking how much money you’d spent playing golf, restoring old cars, or having a boat. The rewards for Ross are evident in his enthusiasm for what he is doing. He has spent plenty on equipment, membership in Canterbury based marketing co-op, plant health, and consultancy services. The list goes on, and that’s not including all Ross’s and family’s unpaid work.
Ross and Ngaire’s property on River Road is lovely, but what they left was fabulous. There was, however, something very important that was missing at their alpine home. For the most part, their neighbours had been well healed and often absent, jetting in to enjoy the spectacular setting but not engaging with their community. Ross and Ngaire, from famously friendly Invercargill missed the community feeling which they rediscovered in the friendship and neighbourly support in rural Tasman. Also, enterprise has a way of sowing the seeds of rewarding relationships.
Some of the benefits of their growing walnuts have been:
Productive use of their land.
The beauty of a healthy plantation.
The anticipation of what the next year may bring (Walnuts are notoriously fickle)
The satisfaction of overcoming obstacles and finding better ways.
The friendships forged.
The satisfaction of turning out a good product.
Ross is not one for baring his soul. You know him by what he does rather than says, but his reply when I asked ‘what are his plans for the next ten years?’ … speaks volumes.
He said he’d like to keep tweaking the system to make it more efficient.
At seventy, that’s a great way to be.
P.S. Part way through the interview, Ngaire came up with the name of those yellow trees lining their driveway. They’re Gleditsia’s.