Making a list, checking it twice
SHEEP: Awards entry has resulted in legacy farmers summing up their success, writes.
Fifth generation ‘Nua farmers Anna and Blair Robinson say their farm is still a family-run operation, after more than 100 years. Though Anna’s family, the Laws, have farmed the land for over a century, this is the first time they entered into the Ballance Farm Environment Awards for the Horizons region.
Their farm, Te Rohenga, near Shannon, sits on very hilly land, backs onto the O¯ hau River and is mostly situated 350m above sea-level, and at times it is as high as 400m above sea level.
“It takes 45 minutes to get to the back of the farm,” said Blair.
The pair came to the family farm from different backgrounds six years ago, when Anna’s dad decided it was time to semi-retire. Blair is from Marton where he worked in a sheep and cropping farm.
He is also a stock agent and has worked in the UK on a cropping farm.
Anna has had a career in banking with Westpac and has also worked for the Ministry of Justice.
Besides farming, the couple also run an events business on their property, holding team-building sessions for corporates involving archery, clay shooting and axe throwing.
“The old 1905 woolshed is now a function room for this,” she said.
Blair, with help from Anna’s brother William and dad Rob, runs the farm and at times does employ contractors for specific jobs. They also offer work experience to Massey University students, but it is really a family-run business.
They run beef cattle as well as Perendale sheep.
“We are the second oldest stud in New Zealand for Perendales. My forebears were friends with Sir Geoffrey Peren, who developed the breed specifically for use on steep hills,” Anna said.
Perendales are raised primarily for meat and have Cheviot rams and Romney ewe forebears.
“My dad and granddad have won many ribbons for our sheep at various A&P shows around the country over the years,” said Anna.
Minimising the impact their methods have on the land is important to them, as is animal health.
The couple have retired a chunk of their farm into forest and all waterways have been fenced off. Stock has access to water troughs and ditches throughout the property, so they are not tempted to try to get into streams. Planting has great benefits for the land as well as the stock.
The Robinsons aim is to supply good quality food to the locals and they take up to 100 cattle to local butcher Savilles a year, as well as supplying local restaurants.
“We have great feedback on the quality of our meat.”
They supply up to 3000 lambs a year as well as velvet from the 70 stags, for export to Asia.
Like everyone else they have had their Covid-19 frustrations.
“Lambs are ready when they are ready but when the butcher or meatworks in Wellington are down due to the pandemic, we have a problem. Personally we are lucky to be on a farm as there is enough room and there are plenty of chores we can do alone or in pairs.”
They gather their ewes once a year for drenching, purely to prevent issues, rather than try to tackle problems when they arise.
“Prevention is so much better that having to react to a problem,” Blair said.
He rotates his stock regularly so, even though they may wander off into the hills for weeks on end, every animal gets scrutinised on a regular basis and problems are found before they get too bad. All sheep get shorn at the homestead, another opportunity to get inspected.
Entering the Ballance Farm Environment Awards is a huge exercise.
“Much of what I do is in my head,” said Blair. “I had to put everything on paper.”
“We had a farm plan,” said Anna, “thanks to Horizons and that was a big help. The judges were helpful too. They got us to think about a few things. We got great advice on where they thought we could improve.”
The couple tries to farm sustainably, adapting to the market, but realise much of what they do is part of a long-term plan, such as planting douglas firs that will take a while to grow to usable size.
Their family might have been on the plot of land for over 100 years, they are quietly hoping their work will mean the farm will be profitable for the next 100 years and will remain in the family.
“Talking to outsiders about what and how we do things was great and putting that on paper helped us realise what we have achieved so far, Blair said.
“When I work on the farm I tend to only see the problems, such as bare patches of grass, fences falling down, battens not being straight . . . You do not often stop and think about what you have done and entering these awards has done that for us. Farming needs to evolve and you need to be aware of emerging changes.”
He said he has replaced kilometres of fencing over the past few years, as well as the 100-year-old cattle yards. They have had help with some of the expenses for this, having had funding for fencing for example.
Blair said his working relationship with his brother-in-law is quite unique.
“We work really well together and discuss things before we implement anything and others have noticed the effect that has had on the farm. Neighbours also kept telling us they thought we had done a lot of good.”
He said a friend with a cropping farm had entered the award years ago and said he had learned a lot from it.
“It helps you see the good things and you identify what needs work. I only see broken wires, and fences falling down, while visitors see health, happy stock, and beautiful green grass.”
The awards judges have summarised the Robinsons’ effort as follows: They profitably farm almost 5500 animals across 850ha. Most of their income is derived from sheep, including a Perendale stud and lamb finishing programme.
About 30 per cent of their income is from Angus beef and about 10 per cent from selling deer velvet. In 2020, 30ha of steep hill country was retired into a pine forestry block to sequester carbon.
Water and soil quality are carefully managed and greenhouse gas emissions are monitored. Trees have been planted across the property — boosting water quality, reducing soil erosion and off-setting carbon emissions.
Waterways have been fenced, complemented with significant riparian planting. An animal health plan helps to ensure that stock is kept in good condition, while ongoing pasture renewal is helping to boost production without increasing the farm’s carbon footprint.
The awards event is likely to be held in June or July. The Ballance Farm Environment Awards are run by the New Zealand Farm Environment Trust.