Noel Moleta admits he barely gave a thought to the swathes of lush, green hop gardens surrounding the Tapawera property he’d bought to farm sheep and beef. All his working life, he’d farmed animals in the isolated reaches of the Pelorus Sounds, where the rolling hills of his farm, ‘Waitui,’ meet the sea, and its location is so far north, it’s actually further north than Wellington. Since the 1970s, when his father, Vince, bought ‘Waitui,’ Noel has been carrying on the sheep farming tradition his Italian immigrant grandfather Antonino Moleta established on D’Urville Island more than 125 years ago.
Almost a four-hour drive away, with the Pelorus Sounds end of the journey being a winding, unsealed track-of-a-road, the Tapawera farm purchase in 2015 was Noel’s and his wife Debbie’s plan to spend more time living closer to civilisation.
“All I knew about hop farming was that the industry had struggled through a downturn for quite a few years,” Noel remembers. “But then I saw a real estate advertisement for a hop farm up in the Sunshine Valley with an asking price of $10 million. I was amazed. I realised hops were very much in demand again.”
By the time he had introduced himself to his hop-grower neighbours, who willingly shared their knowledge about the industry, Noel was envisaging hop gardens stretching across his Tapawera farm, rather than paddocks filled with sheep.
A particularly serendipitous moment in those early days of his investigations was realising the most reliable hop-picking machine, favoured by most hop farmers, would be one manufactured by Wolf in Germany – which is where his son Aeron just happened to be living.
Aeron remembers the ‘phone call from his father to the home he shared with his German partner, Melanie, in the small village of Oberhof.
“My parents were coming to Germany and Dad wanted us all to make the trip to Bavaria to visit the Wolf factory,” Aeron remembers. “I’d never even been on a hop farm. I grew up in Marlborough, so I really didn’t know anything about hops, other than beer was made with them. I started researching on-line, finding out everything I could about growing hops.”
Through e-mails and ‘phone calls, Noel arranged the visit to Wolf, which has been manufacturing hop pickers and various equipment for the hop farming industry since the 1950s. By the time their two-hour visit to the factory was over, the Moletas were ready to put in their order for the machinery and equipment which would fill four shipping containers and take many months to arrive in New Zealand.
Aeron and Melanie packed up their life in Oberhof and moved into the farmhouse at Tapawera – naming the property ‘Kotare Hops’ in honour of the many resident kotare (kingfishers).
Aeron says he learned as much as he could, as quickly as he could, by joining the team harvesting hops in 2017 on Dean Palmer’s hop farm.
The shipping containers arrived on the Tapawera property with two Wolf technicians and, over the following months, two-person teams arrived from Bavaria in relays to get the Wolf WHE513 up and running. Throughout the project, each team worked alongside Aeron and his older brother Braden, who is a well-qualified aircraft engineer and had also spent several years living in Germany.
The whole process was really quite incredible,” says Noel. “We were spending a huge amount of money, so I didn’t want to risk that investment by bringing in second-hand equipment. By buying brand new from Wolf, it meant Aeron and Braden had the benefit of the Wolf technicians teaching them how to run the whole set-up. That was invaluable because we were coming into the industry with no background experience. It also helped that Aeron and Braden speak German!”
Transforming the land into hop gardens cost approximately $55,000-a-hectare, the machinery from Wolf and building the complex to house it, along with the drying kiln, topped $3 million. The Moletas also paid for the technicians’ airfares and their wages. The set-up project was completed just in time for Tapawera’s newest hop farm to harvest its first crop in 2018.
With its new equipment and buildings, Kotare Hops boasts one of the most state-of-the-art hop sheds in the region. The gardens cover 28 hectares on the 144-hectare farm and around 700 sheep have been brought in from ‘Waitui’ to keep the bines nicely trimmed.
This is very much a Moleta family operation. While Braden runs ‘Waitui’ throughout the year, he brings his mechanical expertise to Kotare Hops during harvest.
Noel says their daughter Laura is “the shepherd in the family,” caring for the sheep based at Kotare Hops and pitching in with her husband Shawn Bentham at harvest time.
While the original intention to move closer to civilisation hasn’t quite come to fruition for Noel and Debbie, it’s still on their life plan. Come harvest time, they’ll join the family at Kotare Hops because, Noel jokes, “someone’s got to be there to sweep the floor.”
Written by Victoria Clark – 2021