BY THE RIDERS, FOR THE RIDERS
How a grassroots Southland event grew into an international phenomenon
Words By Simon Makker
Images by Simon Makker & Ben Karalus
On an overcast, windy day just after Christmas 2007, a small crew of Kiwi mates spanning different riding disciplines came together on a 2600-acre sheep and beef farm near Winton, Southland for a day of riding dirt jumps.
It was about as low-key as you could get. A smattering of local farmers who’d tuned into the bush telegraph rolled up in their Hiluxes to watch the action. The jumps—while perfectly sculpted—were a small set of tabletops, a sketchy wooden ramp into a half-filled foam pit, and a smallish “big line”. The prize money was sourced solely from the minimal entry fee, and practically everyone walked away with a spot prize of some description.
It was a no-pressure comp where the 30 riders sessioned for an hour, then judged each other on best whip and best trick, before the votes were tallied in a crude democratic fashion. The format nullified the opportunity for riders to whinge about the bias of a faceless panel of judges, and instead provided a platform that encouraged progression without the pressure-cooker environment. The crazy thing is, it worked.
Little did the farm-owners know, but their little gathering of mates and like-minded peers would become one of the most iconic two-wheeled action sports events on the planet, and the Farm Jam would capture the imagination of the world’s biggest names in action sports.
Over the years the word has spread; the 2020 installment of the Farm Jam marked just the 10th running of the now-biennial event. There are a few key moments that certainly helped expand the Jam’s appeal and capture the imagination of action sports fans and athletes.
“Having the support from the likes of Red Bull has definitely helped,” reflects Farm Jam co-organiser Dan Frew. “They’ve always brought out a fleet of international riders and created lots of content. We also had Unit clothing back us for a number of years before they went under, and they always pumped out amazing footage for us and helped publicise what we were doing down here.”
One of the most pivotal moments came in 2016, just days before the Farm Jam was scheduled to run, when Kelly McGarry passed away. McGazza had been a long-time supporter of the event and a great friend of the Frew family, and the news of his sudden death rattled the industry.
But with almost 100 international and national athletes about to descend on the farm, the Frews had to find a brutal balance between taking time to grieve the loss of a close friend and work like hell to ensure the Farm Jam appropriately honoured the big fella.
“Abandoning or postponing the Jam day wasn’t an option,” Brett Frew explains. “There’s no way Kelly would’ve wanted that; he would’ve wanted everyone to be together sending it harder than ever and having an amazing time as one big family. That was why we decided it was only fitting that we dedicated the day to him and to his memory. We just wanted to honour him and his life the best way possible.”
Ever since that 2016 event a McGazza mega-train of all 100-odd MTB and BMX riders has become one of the staple features of the day and never fails to raise goosebumps.
McGarry’s legacy has also inadvertently boosted the mountain-bike ranks of the Farm Jam. The annual McGazzaFest is always held a week prior, and, combined with the recent trend of professional riders escaping the northern hemisphere winter for a Kiwi summer, there’s now no shortage of talent eager to converge on the Farm, catch up with old friends and establish new bonds with other passionate riders.
“I think when we first started this thing we realised we had something special here that no-one else was doing, but we never expected it to become as big as it has,” divulges Dan. “To now have Brandon Semenuk, Brett Rheeder, Carson Storch, Reed Boggs, Ethan Nell, Ryan Howard, Tyler Bereman and Logan Martin lining up this year, man, you can’t get much bigger than that.”
Keeping It Real
Despite the tsunami of international interest, the Frew brothers—who were both professional riders themselves—have always placed a heavy emphasis on the grassroots nature of the Farm Jam.
There are always spaces allocated for local shredders in both the FMX and MTB classes, to give up-and-comers the opportunity to ride and learn from the best in the business, while the burgeoning BMX field now features separate “Bros” and “Pros” classes.
“In 2016 the BMX field hit about 70 riders. We couldn’t fit everyone in who wanted to ride, and it was going to be too difficult for the riders to judge, so we made the call to split the class in two,” explains Brett. “Usually we’ll select a handful of the best Bros to step up for the Pros session as a bit of incentive, but the main aim is to give the local boys a bit of a platform and an outlet to ride in front of a big crowd.
” The remote location and the backdrop of rolling hills also plays a significant role in helping keep the Farm Jam grounded. Mobile coverage is patchy at best, and the rustic charm of the property is well capitalised on. The FMX pits were housed inside the functioning woolshed (which also features a BMX mini-ramp to keep the riders entertained during bad weather), farm ATVs constantly ferried spectators from the carpark base area to the top of hill where the courses are, and punters could buy fresh Southland lamb rolls during the event.
Camping, too, is a great equaliser. While there are Airbnbs and motels 20 minutes’ away in Winton, most athletes chose to camp on a sweeping, willow-lined river flat across the road from the courses. “Camp Runamuck” is aptly named, and three days in close quarters with fellow riders quickly sees friendships strengthened, with many a beer shared with the neighbours.
Over its 10 instalments, the Farm Jam has continuously evolved. Some years see dramatic changes (such as the years the popular hip-jump line and the bottom trick booter were first built), while in others the changes are small, incremental adjustments to an already winning formula.
This year saw a smattering of both minor and major upgrades: Brett Frew and his hardy gang of volunteers built a smoother, slightly larger quarter-pipe for the BMX and MTB riders, Dan Frew oversaw the creation of a completely new quarter-pipe and hip jump for the FMXers, while an online ticketing and registration system and portable showers for the campers were brought in to make everyone’s lives easier.
The evolution in dirt jumping over the past 13 years has seen the farm’s jump lines change significantly. The first two Farm Jams were held both on a trio of short, steep tabletops and a “big line” carved into the uphill side of a farm track consisting of a northshore drop-off, three doubles and the quarter-pipe.
While the drop-in has long gone, the bones of the “big line” are still there, though both the up-ramps and landings have been heavily modified with shark fins, off-centre take-offs, and larger, steeper landings. Prize money and sponsorship, too, has come a long way. Gone are the days when prizegiving consisted of spot-prizes randomly handed off the back of a ute. Now the top five riders receive a reasonable wad of cash and prizes, thanks to both mainstream and industry sponsors.
This year, though, was by far the hardest the Frews had had to scratch around for sponsorship.
“I don’t know what it was, but obtaining sponsorship and funding was bloody hard going this year,” admits Dan. “A few times Brett and I looked at each other and wondered if all the hard work was worth it. We have a proven event and brand that’s hugely popular with both riders and fans, but for some reason it was really hard to get sponsors to commit.”
The surge in popularity means the Frews have had to make tough calls about how many people are allowed to ride and camp on the farm, and upset a few people in the process.
“The whole Farm Jam is run on private property and to keep ourselves and the riders safe, we’ve had to limit the number of people camping and keep the rider list to invitation-only,” explains Brett. “We get hit up by hundreds of riders keen to come and ride the Jam, but for everyone’s safety we really need to keep a lid on it and limit the entry numbers. If that means saying ‘no’ and upsetting some riders, well, that’s just one of those things.”
The Moths & The Flame
Even though the 2020 Farm Jam was heavily affected by near gale-force wind (the FMX contest had to be modified into a demo and the MTB and BMX comps were run in a more limited capacity where only the bravest and hardiest riders put on a show for the 3000+ spectators), no rider had a negative thing to say about the event’s organisation, atmosphere and the passion of the Frew brothers.
“Hands down, this is my favourite event of all time,” states American freeride legend Tyler Bereman. “It’s the only event organised by rider for riders, and the clash of cultures between the two-wheeled sports is something you won’t find anywhere else in the world. It’s so rad.”
Although fellow American Ryan “R-Dogg” Howard elected to sit on the sidelines of the Jam due to the heavy wind, he had no regrets about attending his second Farm Jam.
“I love the fact that this event covers all aspects of two wheels and dirt, and everyone’s got so much respect for each other,” he elaborates. “No-one cares who wins; it’s all about a game of progression with the homies and feeding off each other’s riding. We’re all having fun. While I didn’t ride the actual Jam this year I was totally content being a spectator and feeling like I’m part of the big family.”
Meanwhile, Best Run winner Brett Rheeder had a blast at his first-ever Farm Jam and made the most of the opportunity to ride an event he’d heard so much about.
“It’s such a fun day and full of good vibes with guys and girls from all around the world,” the 2019 Crankworx World Champion describes. “If you stayed low and picked your timing between wind gusts the jumps were definitely rideable. So I just went out, made the most of it and tried to put on a show for the crowds. I had a blast.”
In the lead-up to the 2020 Farm Jam, and in the weeks that followed, rumours have swirled that this was the last one ever. Certainly the sheer amount of work that the Frews have to undertake in the months before and after each event—on top of their regular full-time jobs as sheep and beef farmers—is a mammoth undertaking, and any money they make is negligible for the hours they put in.
Still, the passion the brothers have for action sports and for this special event that’s gained a cult-like following around the globe, runs strong. “It’s a really intense time for us and our families, and when you’re out hand-slapping dirt jumps at 10pm for weeks on end you do question if it’s worth it,” admits Dan. “But we do love it; we love having all our mates here, we’re really proud of what we’ve created and the overwhelmingly positive feedback we receive from both the riders and spectators. That’s what makes it worth it.
2022 & Beyond
As for 2022? “It’s too early to make a call on what’ll happen then,” says Brett. “We’ll take a breather, spend time with our families, focus on our proper work for a year or so, then take a look at if we’ll run again, or if we modify the event somehow. I honestly don’t know what the future holds, but we’ve got a thousand ideas of what we could do here, including focusing more on filming projects, so we’ll have to wait and see.”