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3 businesses striking the right balance between environment and profit

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. Photo/Gareth Eyres.

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 Eyres talks to three of them.

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…”

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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, 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 mild-mannered 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.

At the Barton's farm, Charolais bulls are bred with Angus cows to maximise meat production, and stock numbers are carefully controlled.

The Taupo Beef Story

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.

Skipper Russell Harvey (right) and son Dan (centre) say eco-friendlier longline fishing also delivers top-quality fish.

Artisan Fishing in the Bay of Plenty

Three o’clock in the morning is a disturbing time to go to work, but for the three-man crew of the fishing vessel Coastal Rover in Tauranga, it’s standard operating procedure.

Captain Russell Harvey and his sons, Dan and Ryan, run the boat as a fishing family affair. They work the reefs and sand flats off the Bay of Plenty coast whenever the weather is halfway decent. But instead of trawl fishing, the Harveys employ more eco-friendly longline fishing. “And you catch better-quality fish this way,” says Russell. On a typical day, they will bait, set and retrieve up to 2000 hooks, the whole procedure taking the best part of 12 hours.

First, the boat steams out at a steady six knots to their chosen fishing ground, about 20-25km offshore. As they head out, the crew bait and prepare the lines. Mostly they use pilchards, salted down for three days so moisture is removed and the flesh is tough enough to stay on the hook. The hooks are a recurve style with a metal prong above to dissuade small fish from being hooked accidentally. Baiting is time-consuming; sharp hooks and knives are wielded with care.

At their destination, the crew drop their tori (bird-scaring) line first. Russell lobs a buoy that looks like a road cone with an orange soccer ball stuffed in its base. It’s attached to a long line of strong monofilament from which hang lengths of brightly coloured tape, to help scare seabirds away from baited hooks.

The tori (bird-scaring) line has lengths of brightly coloured tape, to help scare seabirds away from baited hooks.

The Ministry for Primary Industries has made it obligatory to run a tori line while longline fishing, and is introducing a more stringent monitoring programme for commercial fishers. Digital monitoring – comprising geospatial position reporting (GPR), catch reporting via e-logbooks and on-board cameras – will provide better information about commercial fishing activity, enabling better monitoring of fishing catch, bycatch and incidental casualties, such as pilchard-pinching seabirds.

All trawl vessels of more than 28m now operate under the GPR and e-logbook requirements. This development is an extra cost to the fishers, but some have already bought into sustainable fishing models – and not just because it’s the right thing to do. Line fishing not only reduces the amount of bycatch – from dolphins to ancient coral – it also commands premium prices in the markets of Japan, Singapore, the US and Australia.

On the Coastal Rover, the line is ready to be hauled in. It’s been down for around three hours, dropped over a patch of sand in 60m of water to the northeast of Mōtītī Island.

There’s a sense of anticipation as the top marker buoy is retrieved; the line is then hooked onto a large reel and brought to the surface. It’s a smooth operation and all about taking care of the fish – avoiding stressing or bruising them as they come aboard, then dispatching them humanely.

I set my stopwatch to time the catch transition. The first fish is undersized, and is quickly unhooked and returned to the ocean unharmed. The second is a 40cm snapper in excellent condition.

First, Dan pauses the retrieval reel, deftly removes the trace from the line, and swings the fish and its attached trace inboard, where it lands on the processing table. Here’s where you discover how much these guys care about the quality of the fish they catch. The snapper lands on a piece of foam – a cushion to prevent bruising of the flesh.

Russell takes the trace in one hand; his second hand holds the fish firmly on the cushion. He removes the trace and hook, returning them to a trace frame for tidy safekeeping. Ryan, meanwhile, takes hold of the fish and with an iki spike – a tool like an ice-pick – carefully stabs the fish above and behind the gill, into the brain.

The snapper is then slipped into a tank containing salt ice slurry. The lower freezing point of the ice ensures a rapid chill-down time for the fish – essential for maintaining perfect flesh.

Time elapsed since the fish left the water: 22 seconds. The Harveys repeat this manoeuvre up to 1000 times a day.

Top chefs scour the world for quality fish. Chef Daniel Chavez, owner of the Ola Cocina del Mar restaurant in Singapore, is visiting Tauranga solely to see where his fish comes from and how it’s caught.

Originally from Peru, Chavez has never been fishing, either with a humble rod or on a commercial vessel. I’m not sure what he’s expecting, heading out on the Coastal Rover in blokey New Zealand, but what he gets is pretty special; his delight as he catches his first fish on a rod and reel, a golden snapper, is palpable.

 Chef Daniel Chavez with his rod-caught golden snapper.

Dan Harvey is a bit of a chef himself. He prides himself on his raw fish salad and pan-fried snapper, normally wolfed down between slices of white bread and butter as a hot-fish sandwich to keep the boys going while they’re working.

Chavez has brought a bag of traditional Peruvian fixings to show the crew what he does with their fish in his restaurant. He has a passion for chilli, the basis of many dishes from his homeland. His ceviche ingredients include capsicums, lemons, red onion, fresh coriander, garlic, ginger, sugar, salt, Waiheke olive oil and a couple of sachets of a chilli preparation he bought at a specialty store in Auckland. The scene is set for a deckside cook-off.

The fishing complete, we steam back into Tauranga Harbour, pulling into a sheltered bay. As the anchor drops into pellucid blue-green water, a seal surfaces with a large octopus fixed in its jaws. The seal thrashes the cephalopod from side to side, tearing away bite-sized pieces, then gulping them down.

This is better than television. First, Chavez gets The Fishing Show, then Masterchef: The Fish Challenge and now it’s Blue Planet. For the Harveys, this is just another day; Chavez is on cloud nine.

While Russell and Ryan pack the catch into fish bins surrounded with salt ice, Dan selects a few nice-sized snapper, quickly fillets them and starts to prepare his dish. Chavez lovingly chops his raw ingredients and smiles as he looks at the perfectly chilled fillets set in front of him.

Chavez takes a bite of his Kiwi hot-fish sandwich. “What we’re looking for in a restaurant is flavour, which primarily comes from the raw ingredients,” he says. “There’s no magic behind it; if you use fish that’s been living in a clean environment like this, has been caught in a responsible, sustainable manner, then treated with care during the whole delivery chain – well, we’re off to a good start.”

In such a simple way, export relationships are born.

Mānuka can help improve soil health; kānuka also happens to reduce nitrate leaching.

Marginal Land Made Good

In the 1960s, it was called scrub. Whole hillsides and gullies full of mānuka (Leptospermum scoparium/tea tree) would be rolled over by ’dozers and diggers, then piled into heaps and burned. This made way for more sheep and cattle to be grazed, and contributed towards New Zealand having the largest sheep-per-capita ratio in the world.

Nowadays, many of those marginal hillsides and gullies are losing their fragile grass cover and slipping away, exposing scars on the landscape and spilling exposed soil into waterways. A worrying number of hill farms have land like this: scruffy hills crisscrossed with animal tracks and slips, and gullies choked with bogs and weeds.

Smart farmers, though, are reintroducing that scruffy old scrub, and not only for the goldmine that is the mānuka honey industry. A recent study, led by the University of Canterbury, found that mānuka and kānuka reduce nitrate leaching, as well as phosphorus and sediment run-off, which would otherwise contaminate waterways.

Paengaroa-based honey producer Comvita has gone a step further, growing mānuka to heal the land, while turning out a high-end product. Colin Baskin, Comvita’s chief supply chain officer, has been doing his homework. The company has identified areas that show potential for mānuka plantation development and aims to have 20,000ha planted by 2022.

Premium stock is vital, and the company is developing cultivars that have good flowering potential, a long flowering period and preferably a lower, bushier profile. With the discovery of myrtle rust in New Zealand last year, hardiness and resistance to infection are also being factored in. Currently, more than a million seedlings are soaking up the Bay of Plenty sunshine, with plans to have a total of three million planted by the end of this year.

Baskin says Comvita is investing now to catch mānuka honey’s growth wave: “Globally, honey production is diminishing. This is largely due to weather events – floods, fires and heat extremes – and deforestation. Other countries are ripping out the forest bees rely on and replanting in biofuel stock.”

New Zealand produced 19,885 tonnes of honey in the 2015/2016 season. Weather-wise, it wasn’t a great year for bees. The hot, dry weather going into the 2017/18 season looked promising, but a sequence of weather events led to a patchy return. Some areas had good honey flow, others were hit hard by heavy rain.

A profitable ratio for honey production is approximately 1.5 hives per hectare, producing close to 50kg of honey in a good season. Mānuka honey varies in price from $20-$200 per kg, depending on the level of antibacterial activity. Compare that to the price of common pasture honey at around $10 per kg.

The trick to ensuring a good production flow is clear access to the hives for the beekeepers, but also placing the hives near where the bees will collect their nectar and pollen – and that’s where plantation planting comes in. An ideal situation is to provide access via well-formed tracks to flat areas where the hives can easily be worked, and then plant the surrounding hillsides and gullies within the bees’ flight range, which is around 5km in diameter. Renowned for their ingenuity and energy-saving tricks, bees like to fly vertically uphill empty and fly back down full.

Test sites are springing up around the Bay of Plenty and Hawke’s Bay, and early results are promising. Comvita offers joint ventures with farmers who want to get involved, where the cost of access generation is shared, the farmer provides the land, and the company provides the plant stock and production. Profits are split between the two parties.

John Burke believes retiring some farmland from production should be an environmental priority.

John Burke used to work as a product manager for Comvita. Now, he’s involved in the improvement of two beef and sheep stations on the hilly escarpment overlooking the Tauranga Harbour. His pride and joy is a grazing unit named Pukekauri, which has been in the family since the 1980s. As we drive over the farm, his pleasure in what’s been achieved there bubbles over.

“We retired that piece 10 years ago,” he says, pointing to an area where the previous owner ran beef cattle. “Now look at it!” The patch of native forest rings with birdsong. Tūī flit around the edges, fighting over flax flowers. Kererū swoop and dip in pairs across the valley.

We drive across a low dam that has a fenced-off wetland upstream. Wildfowl burst into the air. A pūkeko charges down the track ahead of us. The water running through the outlets is clear and clean, with watercress growing at its fringes. “Look at the colour of the water. Three years ago, this was a useless FRAP, and now…”

FRAPs, Burke explains, are farm runoff aggregation points – the boggy bits you find in gullies and flat areas at the base of hills. They’re hotspots for waterway pollution, pooling E.coli, phosphorous and nitrates. FRAPs can make up to 10% of a farm’s area and are unlikely to be making a positive contribution to the business.

“In my view, retiring them – releasing the areas from production and replanting – is more important than riparian fencing, in terms of reducing farm water pollution; they should be deemed an environmental priority,” he says. “Preventing contaminated water entering a waterway is the key. Once polluted water has entered a drain or stream, it’s too late. Planting wetlands – nature’s kidneys – to slow and filter the water is a great way to reduce farm water pollution and improve farm production.”

Not only does Pukekauri look lovely, the balance sheet is also showing results: the farm is in the top 20% of profitable units in the area.

James Burke, with a trial plot of manuka behind him on a non-productive area of the farm where beehives will be introduced to increase profitability and soil health.

John’s son, James, is working a leased grazing unit close by. He and the farm’s owners, the Hicksons, are working with Comvita to develop trial plots of mānuka in non-productive areas of the farm. Tracks have been carved into the landscape to allow easy access to the hives.

Standing on a plateau overlooking the farm, you can see how it will all work. First, planting non-profitable areas of suitable farms in mānuka, then introducing beehives to increase profitability and soil health; taking care of existing native forest blocks; fencing off fragile areas to allow regeneration; creating wetlands as sumps that clean and filter water and runoff; choosing stock breeds that have a reduced impact on the land and managing them to optimal growth and potential before they start making a damaging environmental impact from their size and excretions.

All of this can have a downstream effect on our waterways and water reserves – and subsequently the health of the seas surrounding us. Fish stocks will improve, and the crew of the Coastal Rover will keep supplying a good sustainable catch. The bees will be happy. It’s all good Kiwi common sense, something we’re good at. It’s just high time we did more.

This was published in the May 2018 issue of North & South.