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