Eating Air: Discover the farm life in New Zealand

Dr Arthur Chin with his sheep on his farm in Palmerston North, New Zealand. PHOTO: MONSTER DAY TOURS

SINGAPORE - My last farmstay dates back more than two decades ago, when I was a wee toddler visiting Cairns, Australia, with my family.

Despite the time gone by, I can still remember feeding grass to the goats and cupping fluffy chicks in my hands.

So my recent Sunday morning virtual trip to a farm in Palmerston North, New Zealand, would be nostalgic, I assumed.

The "Animal Farm and Nature Highlights" tour is marketed as an educational experience that offers glimpses of life on a farm single-handedly managed by Singaporean Arthur Chin, who used to work in the banking industry but moved to New Zealand in 1996.

Other highlights include getting "up close" with the farm animals and learning about sustainable farm practices.

I set up my laptop at the dining table and casually tell my mother I will be headed to New Zealand for a while. Soon, Ms Cora-Leigh Lauren, 33, our co-host for the day, appears on my screen and gives a rundown of the Zoom functions available to our "tour group" of more than 30 participantsover the next 90 minutes.

We are placed on mute so there is no overlapping chatter and are encouraged to ask questions and participate in a trivia game in the chat box. There are prizes to be won.

Then she introduces us to our tour guide and owner of the farm, Dr Chin.

The 46-year-old, who has a doctorate in strategy and international business, pops onto the screen, blue skies and sprawling green pastures stretching out endlessly behind him and, suddenly, we are in New Zealand.

The first 10 minutes are spent introducing the farm - which houses hundreds of sheep, chickens and pigs - and talking about wool harvesting.

Between finding out that around 9kg of raw wool sells for only $1.50 and wondering why my Uniqlo Merino cardigan costs nearly $40, I catch myself wishing I can also feel the New Zealand air on my skin.

In tandem with my thoughts, Dr Chin says it is about 3 to 4 deg C there, so I try to ignore Singapore's tropical heat for a fuller experience.

The tour continues in a back-and-forth fashion, with Ms Lauren conducting pop quizzes while Dr Chin walks to his next location.

He positions his camera in a paddock of bleating sheep and a couple of wandering kunekune pigs - a short-snout, medium-sized domesticated breed native to New Zealand.

There is Anna, Elsa and Olaf - three lambs named after the main characters of the 2013 movie Frozen - and two kunekune pigs named Porkahontas and Iron Man.

Dr Arthur Chin with some of his animals, including a kunekune pig, on his farm in Palmerston North, New Zealand. PHOTOS: MONSTER DAY TOURS

During lambing season, one of Dr Chin's many responsibilities is to make vats of milk for the lambs' three-hourly feeds - a chore he admits is tiresome.

Some curious sheep come so close to the camera that it feels like I can reach out and pet them. Dr Chin does us a favour and lifts a lamb to the screen, describing it as "cuddly and soft" - the rest is up to our imagination.

His red shaver chickens are up next, strutting around an open field. By this time, the chat box is brimming with participants volunteering to be farm hands.

This is a sustainable farm where rainwater is collected and treated to be repurposed as drinking water. Solar panels and a wind turbine generate electricity.

And to run his one-man show more efficiently, technology is tapped to manage the farm. For instance, he uses drones and radio-frequency identification tags to keep track of the sheep.

As he closes the tour, someone types a question asking what motivated him to pivot from banking to farming.

Dr Arthur Chin explaining how wool is harvested and sold. PHOTO: MONSTER DAY TOURS

He has always loved animals and the environment, he replies. And while the drastic change in job scope was difficult to adjust to, there was an undeniable sense of fulfilment. "Life is about having fun and having good experiences," he adds.

Following Dr Chin's exit, there is a round of applause via emoji, in true virtual-tour fashion.

When our Zoom call ends, I am reeled back into my dining room where I surmise that virtual travel has a strange way of rousing and dousing my wanderlust.

On the one hand, the scenic views and the animals nonchalantly crossing my screen create a unique New Zealand escape amid the pandemic.

On the other hand, farm tours - or any nature-filled tour for that matter - tend to be especially sensory experiences. So the bits I cannot experience first-hand, such as inhaling crisp air and hugging woolly sheep, leave me wanting.

Nonetheless, I am filled with nostalgia and can imagine that the children on this tour must appreciate a morning excursion to the farm, as I did years ago.

The rest of my Sunday afternoon is spent revisiting old photographs from Cairns and persuading my family to do a farmstay again when leisure travel returns.

Monster Day Tours Animal Farm and Nature Highlights tour

What: A virtual tour of a farm in Palmerston North, New Zealand, conducted by Monster Day Tours, with a focus on the lifestyle, animals and practices on a farm.

Admission: $20 a person

Info: Tour runs for 1.5 hours, with the next public run on June 27 from 10.30am to noon. Private tours are also available. Contact the company for alternative arrangements at Book your tour at this website.

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