Two weeks before the hop harvest of 1965, a freakishly powerful wind blasted through the usually tranquil Motueka Valley, where the Thorn family has been growing hops since 1928. Bearing the brunt of its mighty force, 10 acres of towering, hop-laden bines toppled like a giant house of cards, as several hundred support poles snapped off at ground level.
Ian Thorn was barely into his teens but, even now, at 71, he still marvels over what happened the following day.
“The next morning there were around 100 cars parked along our road and on our farm. People came from everywhere to dig the snapped poles back into the ground – enough to get the hops standing upright again so the air could keep going through them.
“Dad hadn’t even called anyone to ask for help, but obviously word got ‘round and all those people just showed up in their droves,” he smiles. “It was amazing, really - that community spirit, everyone looking after each other. Those people saved our crops that year.”
Until three harvests ago, Thorn Hops farm, which is nestled beneath the picturesque Mt Arthur Ranges and alongside the Motueka River, was the only home Ian Thorn had ever known. Nowadays, Ian and Joss Thorn live in Motueka and the hop farm is owned and run by two of their children, Matt and David.
Ian is supposedly retired - but walking away from what has been one’s lifeblood for more than 50 years is clearly not the easiest thing to do. On most days he can be found out in Ngātīmoti, helping maintain the farm.
Growing up helping his father Sid on the farm whenever he could, Ian says there was never any doubt he would become a hop farmer, but he studied sheep, beef and dairy farming at Telford Training Farm in Balclutha for a year, “just to be sure.”
In his early 20s, working fulltime alongside his Dad, it was a given that he would take over, once his father retired. But tragically, unexpected heart failure took Sid’s life when he was just 51. Ian and Joss were suddenly in sole charge of Thorn Hops.
Sid Thorn’s legacy lives on in the farm’s robust Bruff hop picker which ever-reliably does the job, each and every frenetic harvest.
Matt and David affectionately joke about the Bruff being “Dad’s fourth son,” such is Ian’s passion for hop farming and maintaining the classic 1953 hop picking machine.
Ian grins at that.
“The smell of the hops just gets into you. The smell of freshly picked hops is irresistible.
“My father bought the Bruff from the Fry family in Riwaka in 1961,” Ian remembers. “They partially dismantled it into three sections, then they bolted wheels underneath and used three tractors to tow it home.
“My father went into Motueka to see if he needed a permit to transport such big machinery along a main highway. The local traffic cop, Ian Duncan, said to my father: “I usually go over the hill to Takaka on a Thursday. Would that work for you?”
The slow but steady journey almost went off without a hitch, until the temporary wheels under the machinery sunk deep into the Thorn’s newly gravelled driveway and had to be freed with a jacking system.
“I was only 11 years old, but I remember being at school and running over to the fence to watch the tractors going by.”
Nowadays, Thorn Hops’ owners, Matt and David, manage the business with the expertise of key staff, including an engineer who keeps the Bruff in top shape.
“David manages the hop-growing and the harvest, and I come over from my home in Wellington regularly” says Matt. “The more you go away from a place like this, the more you realise how beautiful and amazing it is.
“The smell of the river at dusk and the sun setting on the hops, always makes me feel eight years old again,” he says. “Dad always gave us boys the best jobs, too, like driving the tractor and sleeping beside the kilns during harvest time while he dried the hops, just like he did with our grandfather.
“Hop farming is in our blood, so when the opportunity came to buy the farm from our parents, we didn’t think twice.”