Fresh green fields

The art of di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion on the farm is mak­ing a come­back – both for fi­nan­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal rea­sons.

Element - - Planet - ANDY KEN­WOR­THY

Al­most ev­ery farm in set­tlers’ times was a di­verse mix of dif­fer­ent an­i­mals and crops, many of them small and blended with large doses of sur­viv­ing wild­ness. This ap­proach en­sured a wide va­ri­ety of po­ten­tial sources of food, raw ma­te­ri­als and in­come. It also gave farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try a high level of self-suf­fi­ciency, partly by in­sur­ing them against the fail­ure of some of th­ese en­deav­ours. Un­til more re­cently, it also left a good mea­sure of New Zealand’s his­tor­i­cally rich en­vi­ron­ment to go about its own busi­ness, which si­mul­ta­ne­ously en­riches our own.

The rapid growth in food ex­port­ing from New Zealand led to suc­ces­sive waves of con­sol­i­da­tion and spe­cial­i­sa­tion as farm­ers worked to raise as much as pos­si­ble of the most lu­cra­tive crops and live­stock. By 2007 46 per cent of New Zealand’s farms were mainly en­gaged in sheep and beef farm­ing and a fur­ther 18 per cent were fo­cused mainly on dairy. Only one per cent were de­scribed as ‘mixed live­stock’. By 2010 the aver­age size of a New Zealand sheep and beef farm was 679 hectares, or 1,678 acres. This has con­trib­uted to a de­cline in the over­all num­ber of in­di­vid­ual farms across the coun­try, from 220,000 in 1983, to 160,000 in 2006. How­ever, the num­ber of small­hold­ings has in­creased in the past 30 years, and many of th­ese are be­ing run on more di­verse lines, of­ten un­der the ban­ner of or­gan­ics, bio­dy­nam­ics or per­ma­cul­ture de­sign.

All around the fringes of our agri­cul­tural sys­tem the de­sire to ease up on the land­scape and down­scale, com­bined with tough times in the wake of the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis in 2008 and the onset of cli­mate change and height­ened en­vi­ron­men­tal aware­ness, is lead­ing to a resur­gent agri­cul­tural com­plex­ity rapidly be­com­ing main­stream all over the world. A new breed of farm­ers and landown­ers are find­ing ways to buf­fer them­selves against the va­garies of in­ter­na­tional mar­kets, over­come the tyranny of end­less pas­ture and do their bit to bring life back to the coun­try­side that goes be­yond sheep and cows.

Grow­ing di­ver­sity and the fu­ture of farm­ing

Farm­stays and other forms of tourism are time-hon­oured ways to di­ver­sify farms, which can run ev­ery­thing from BMX races to mu­sic fes­ti­vals. When lo­cated on farms run­ning on the lat­est sus­tain­able prin­ci­ples they also pro­vide a valu­able op­por­tu­nity to ed­u­cate and in­spire. Cen­tre Hill Cot­tage near Ti­maru for ex­am­ple, rests among fields grow­ing or­ganic pota­toes, as well as rais­ing sheep. The Beach Front Farm­stay and B&B in Karamea, fea­tures its own small herd of elk, while pro­duc­ing lamb, beef, veni­son and or­ganic veg­eta­bles. Treed­i­men­sions in Motueka of­fers land use con­sult­ing on per­ma­cul­ture prin­ci­ples, is based in its own or­ganic orchard, and hosts a farm­stay. And the multi-award-win­ning Blue Duck Sta­tion near Owhango has cap­i­talised on its rich his­tory and wildlife, in­clud­ing con­serv­ing some of the New Zealand’s high­est con­cen­tra­tions of whio and kiwi, with a café, shop, ac­com­mo­da­tion and a huge range of ac­tiv­i­ties that com­ple­ment the work­ing farm. And all around the coun­try farms play host to artists, crafts­peo­ple, mu­si­cians, gyms, yoga classes and many other small busi­nesses that can set up shop in con­verted barns and sheds. Re­duc­ing the mid­dle folks and the food miles in the food chain by di­rectly dis­tribut­ing farm-grown prod­ucts is also be­com­ing more pop­u­lar. This can be as sim­ple as sell­ing meat on­line, like South Otago-based Marama Or­ganic Farm, which de­liv­ers na­tion­wide, do­ing a lit­tle honey pro­duc­tion on the side, or pro­duc­ing dairy prod­ucts for re­tail like Clear­wa­ter Or­ganic’s small fac­tory next to its milk­ing shed in Geral­dine.

Some farm­ers are ex­per­i­ment­ing with ex­otic or niche foods. Aroha Or­ganic Goat Cheese in­hab­its a niche, while

“Un­til more re­cently, it also left a good mea­sure of New Zealand’s his­tor­i­cally rich en­vi­ron­ment to go about its own busi­ness, which si­mul­ta­ne­ously en­riches our own.”

Cleve­don Val­ley Buf­falo Com­pany, which pro­duces award­win­ning moz­zarella from im­ported beasts raised on lo­cal pas­tures, def­i­nitely qual­i­fies as ex­otic, as does the self ex­plana­to­rily named NZ Os­trich Corp. The same goes for some un­usual crops. Farm­ers in Blen­heim grow saf­fron flow­ers as Gourmet Gold Saf­fron. The saf­fron milk cap, a Euro­pean wild-food del­i­cacy, is be­ing grown, al­beit in small quan­ti­ties, among some of New Zealand’s ex­ten­sive pine forests, af­ter re­search by Crop & Food Re­search proved it could be done back in 2008.

There are even New Zealand farm­ers look­ing be­yond sheep for com­mer­cial fi­bre. Wa­ters Edge Alpacas in Karaka is just one of dozens of mem­bers of the grow­ing Al­paca As­so­ci­a­tion of New Zealand. The 3,000-acre Stans­bor­ough Farm has been a sheep sta­tion since 1850, but now has an 80-strong herd of al­paca liv­ing along­side its 1,200 strong flock of spe­cially-se­lected ‘Stans­bor­ough Grey’ sheep. Fi­bre from the beasts is turned into de­signer gar­ments sold on­line and has also re­cently been made into cos­tum­ing for the Lord of the Rings movies and The Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

And then there’s hemp. The crop has been con­tro­ver­sial be­cause of its nar­cotic va­ri­eties, but non-nar­cotic in­dus­trial hemp has a be­wil­der­ing ar­ray of uses, in­clud­ing a highly nu­tri­tious food oil, cloth­ing fi­bre, man­u­fac­tur­ing and build­ing ma­te­ri­als, the pro­duc­tion of which is be­ing ex­plored at a num­ber of lo­ca­tions around the coun­try.

Th­ese are all per­haps just the first glim­mer­ings of the di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion that is spread­ing across the agri­cul­tural sec­tors of many coun­tries around the world, where a new re­la­tion­ship with the land­scape and its peo­ple is be­ing sought, one that com­ple­ments the ex­port dollars that we all know we need.

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