DOING IT RIGHT
We’ve been riding on the sheep, cow and snapper’s back too long. Our soil and sea can’t take much more – but a growing number of primary producers are showing there’s a way to extract value over volume, while stepping lightly on the land and water. Gareth
Our farming and fishing endeavours are fast exhausting soil and sea, but Gareth Eyres finds there are ecofriendly ways to extract value over volume.
Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer once described New Zealand as an “indubitably pluvial country”. It rains a lot, in other words. Meanwhile, Tourism New Zealand plugged our 100% Pure brand to the world and primary producers piggy-backed on that clean, green image to sell their wares overseas.
Well, the time for smugness is long gone. The country as a whole may still be well off for water, but in dry regions such as Tasman, Canterbury and Otago, the extraction of water from rivers, lakes and groundwater has reached the limits of sustainability. Furthermore, too many of our lakes and rivers are polluted. Massey University professor of freshwater ecology Russell Death puts it plainly: “Toxic algae blooms in rivers and lakes all over New Zealand; increasing nitrates in Canterbury groundwater; four deaths from the Havelock North incident; and drinking water all around the country below standard…”
Above water level, the intensification of agriculture and push into hitherto “unproductive” landscapes is also testing our ability to work within nature’s limits.
After writing in North & South about a waterborne infection that nearly killed me following a kayaking trip on the Whanganui River (see Deadly Currents on NOTED.CO.NZ), I received a number of emails and social media comments from readers, outraged that such a thing could have happened in one of our treasured rivers. The most virulent message was from an intelligent and usually mildmannered woman friend. It read, succinctly: “F…ing dairy farmers!”
It summed up a divide that’s been forming in our country, pitting townies and greenies against farmers and commercial fishers – not helped by the previous government’s feeble freshwater standards and enthusiasm for giant irrigation projects. However, primary producers still earn much of the foreign exchange that pays for our cellphones and e-bikes, and many of them have the same concerns for the environment as those who’d prefer New Zealand to remain a pristine playground. North & South visited three producers who have found the balance between making a living on the land and sea, and doing it right.
AS FAR AS big bangs go, this one was a cracker. The blast that occurred about 1800 years ago and created today’s Lake Taupō was one of the world’s most violent eruptions in 5000 years.
The caldera, or collapsed crater, left behind has been partly filled by what is now New Zealand’s largest lake. Areas nearest the lake were covered in up to 100m of pumice and ash, which over the years has been compacted and riven by streams, creating gullies and waterways that flow into the lake and the Waikato River. It’s the presence of this debris that has created the surrounding region’s “well- drained soils” – a strong point for real estate agents selling farming land. It engenders good grass growth, and healthier hooves for the cattle and sheep that graze on it.
On the lake’s western flanks, high rhyolite cliffs form an imposing wall through which streams and creeks find their way. Trout love these waterways and lure fishermen to their banks to cast a line in the cold, clear waters – hoping for that trophy fish. Mike Barton is one of those fishermen. He was introduced to the area as a kid from Auckland, hunting and fishing with his father and brother. The serenity, streams and bush hooked deep. He knew in his heart he’d live here one day.
Mike took his time becoming a Taupō farmer. Alongside a university teaching career in Auckland in business management, he developed smallholdings south of the city, which he cleared and fenced and on-sold. But the desire for a real farm remained. In 2004, in their late 50s, Mike and his wife, Sharon, decided to make the break from city life and bought a 150ha farm with views of Lake Taupō, in Tihoi.
The area was covered under the Lake Taupō Regional Plan Catchment 5; in 2011, Environment Waikato imposed an “N cap” – strict limits on the amount of nitrogen that farms in the catchment could leach into the lake. The main source of nitrogen is not applied fertiliser, but animal urine. Controlling this means controlling stock numbers per hectare. For example, dairy farms in the area are capped at 1.82ha per cow, beef at 1.25ha per animal, calves 0.3ha each.
Mike and Sharon realised they were going to have to think outside the square to make their 150ha work for them, and turn that “negative” of reduced stock numbers into a positive. So they invited scientists to study the nitrogen impact on their working farm. Small sample labs popped up in their paddocks. “I suspect we run the highest rate of scientists per hectare in the country,” Mike says wryly.
They breed Charolais bulls with Angus cows – proven performers in meat production. Heifers are preferred over steers. The animals are kept until they’re two, the optimal age when the bulk of what they eat is translated into meat production rather than excreted onto the land.
They’re moved around every three to four days, spending the last few months of their time on half-hectare paddocks of lush, green growth to maximise their condition. The Bartons have invested in a sensible fencing plan, which enables them to move the animals easily and without fuss. “It doesn’t take long before they know my voice – just a few days,” says Sharon. “We don’t need dogs – the cows just follow me into the next paddock.” They’re a well- cared for, handsome herd.
While we stand in shin- deep grass waiting for a photo opportunity, one of the heifers takes a long, nitrogen-rich pee. I suggest it’s not a good look in a photo. Mike glances over his shoulder and says, “And there lies the problem. By the time that urine reaches the lake, I’ll be dead and my grandson will be older than I am now. It will take 80 years for that urine to have its full effect on the environment.”
This means that what’s being practised by farmers now is critical for the future, and we can only work with the tools we have to estimate the long-term impact on the environment. “Science tells us all food production has an impact on the environment, be it vegetables, cereals, meat, rice or dairy,” says Mike. “Eating is simply the final step of the agricultural process.”
So how to reduce that impact? In beef and dairy farming, the easy answers are to reduce stock
numbers, plant more trees, practise riparian planting and fence off marginal land, especially gullies that become waterways in heavy rain. Commendable actions, but they also risk reducing the financial viability of a farm serving the commodity food market.
With farm costs rising and their herd numbers constrained by the nitrogen cap, the Bartons began developing their high-value, environmentally friendly Taupō Beef brand in 2009. They went to market as a trial two years later, supplying the product to top local restaurants at a premium price. Mike says the results were outstanding. “All the restaurants wanted to continue.”
Six years on, all their cattle end up as Taupō Beef, and the Bartons now have eight other farms supplying the brand. “We’ve extended it to lamb as well. Venison is next on the list.”
To gain maximum return from their 270kg animals, the whole carcass must be used. Selling a prime steak cut in a Taupō restaurant to a visitor who has seen the lake and bought into Taupō Beef’s conservation story is the easy part. Try getting that extra value for a tray of mince in the supermarket. Cleverly, the farm’s cheaper meat – the casserole cuts, brisket and mince – can be found at Taupō’s Pak’nsave, so locals who won’t be eating those prime fillets aren’t neglected. The Bartons also work with an Auckland distributor, Neat Meat, to reach customers with a conscience who are prepared to pay a little more for their “eco” steaks and roasts.
Sharon has articulated the ethical farmer’s dilemma at TEDX talks. “The environmental cost has never been billed into our farming production,” she told an audience recently. “New Zealand food is not government-subsidised. There’s a cost involved to protect our waterways and no one wants to pay for it… the farming community can’t afford to pay for it on their own.”
The Bartons believe by giving consumers the backstory to their beef, including the farm’s role in preserving water quality, customers can make an informed choice about whether to pay a bit more for the product. As Mike says, “It’s not all marketing department arm waving.” It’s proven science and hard work that’s seen the Bartons win Sustainable Business Network and Ballance Farm Environment awards over the past three years. Mike was awarded a QSM in 2014 in recognition of his efforts to preserve the Lake Taupō environment and services to farming.
But will the brand appeal beyond our shores? Late last year, the first shipment of grass-fed Taupō Beef was exported to Japan for sale in a high- end supermarket chain. The New Zealand brand’s environmental message was well received by Japanese consumers, says Mike, and Taupō Beef now has an agreement to supply a container a month.
“Science tells us all food production has an impact on the environment, be it vegetables, cereals, meat, rice or dairy. Eating is simply the final step of the agricultural process.”
Mike and Sharon Barton on their farm in Tihoi. They recoup money spent on minimising the environmental impact by selling their beef at a premium.