Saturday, April 20, 2024

Farm rescuer protects nature

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Kaipara Mayor Dr Jason Smith wants to bring kiwi back to 47ha of regenerating native bush on Greenhill (Rehia) overlooking Ruawai in Northland. He owns the 430ha farm Greenhill in which the reserve is the centre and embodies a blend of history, family, farming and community service that impressed Hugh Stringleman.
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Fifth-generation Kaipara sheep, beef and cropping farmer Jason Smith has brought his family’s farms back into profitable, sustainable production in just six years.

From a worse-than-standing-start he had to contend with some boundary fences that weren’t stock-proof, large paddocks up to 30ha, a huge area of old-man gorse, no recent fertiliser history, completely inadequate livestock handling facilities and a theoretical carrying capacity of 2500 stock units.

In reality, a small number of Hereford cattle and some sheep ate what they could find among the weeds and drank from creeks, seeps and dams. They roamed freely into bush blocks, eating the under-storey.

In 1994 Jason, born and raised on Greenhill by Clive and Colleen Smith, got an honours degree in science in agriculture and land management from the Royal Agricultural College, England, established in 1845 and the oldest ag school in the world.

He then added a doctorate in economic development from AUT University in Auckland in 2010.

On his 1994 return to the farm from England he found sustainability was a foreign concept and conservation wasn’t popular so he set about introducing those objectives to Kaipara farming.

His began an eco-tourism company called Kauri Country, spotlighting the logging and gum-digging history of the family, the farm and the district and it was a New Zealand Tourism Awards finalist in 2000.

Hundred of visitors to Greenhill and thousands of school children bought a tour and presentation from Kauri Country and many of them planted kauri trees for posterity between 1997 and 2002.

Then Jason worked in Dargaville heading the Economic Development Agency for Kaipara District and encouraged the kumara industry to look for export markets.

In 2012 it was evident Greenhill would be lost to the Smith family unless Jason took ownership.

“With my background and training I knew what had to be done to rescue the property and make it viable.

“It was so run down I had everything to do and nothing to lose.”

With regular commuting to his partner Diane in Auckland, Jason decided from the outset not to get a team of dogs going for himself.

Farm managers Shaun Macdonald, 2014 to 2016, and now Craig Douglas have provided the engine power and practical advice along with young exchange farmers from his UK alma mater.

First was subdivision in the front of the farm on the easy country, construction of new cattle yards and crush, restoration of the family house, woolshed and barns, electric plant and electric fences with reticulated water.

Two Conservation Department grant fences were erected to exclude stock from the main 47ha Greenhill bush.

A main access lane was begun, to avoid having to take livestock through the farm paddock-by-paddock. It has since doubled in length to nearly 4km, from front to the back of the farm.

The gorse and boundary fences in the most reverted northern corner of the farm were tackled, followed by subdivision.

Reticulation was extended to the moderate and steep hills with solar-powered water pumping to lift 96m to a hill tank.

Riparian fences were erected and now protect about 80% of the banks of the source and headwaters of the Manganui River, which flows a very convoluted route northwest to join the lower Wairoa near Tangowahine.

Much of the water that flows off Greenhill Farm does a big loop of possibly 100km before it meets the Kaipara Harbour to the south and within sight of Greenhill.

Jason generates mapping layers for development history and infrastructure changes, resources, reticulation and livestock movements with a programme called Where’s My Cows?

He does the farm accounts and he also flies a drone to remote parts of the farm to check on livestock and water supplies.

Twitter is a good platform for sharing seasonal pictures and informing the public on farmers’ views and conservation initiatives, Jason believes.

Jason contested and won a by-election for the Kaipara District mayoralty in February after former Fonterra director Greg Gent retired unexpectedly.

Styling himself a farming mayor, he said the job needs full time commitment, including weekends, and he has pulled on the gumboots only a dozen times since taking office.

His background, skills and even location, midway between the two biggest populations centres in Kaipara – Dargaville and Mangawhai – suits him very well for the role.

After several years under administration the council has a big public-relations job to do with its own ratepayers, along with very challenging environmental, water quality and treaty settlement claims ahead.

“I wouldn’t be able to be absent from the farm and be mayor without a great manager and the information technology.

“Having caught up on 30 years of neglect Greenhill is now placed ahead of other farms in many respects with infrastructure and technology, so why not use it?

“The Kaipara is like  a big playground in the back yard of Auckland and it has many great aspects.

“It remains a community based largely on primary industries and we need to focus on those things we do well, including producing the food for our biggest population centre just down the road.”

Jason harked back to his economic development agency days with the slogan Growing the kai in Kaipara.

His background as a trained land manager with added economic development should continue to be of considerable value to Kaipara as the treaty claim on behalf of Ngati Whatua and Te Uri O Hau covering the entire 600,000ha of the harbour catchment proceeds.

Iwi representatives recently toured the harbour by boat with Treaty Negotiations Minister Andrew Little and Auckland mayor Phil Goff when Jason said everyone gained a new appreciation of the size and resources of the Kaipara.

Jason’s great-great-grandparents were Richard Christie Smith and his wife Catherine, two of the Albertlanders who were among the first European settlers into Kaipara Harbour locations, in their case Matakohe in 1862.

They felled and milled kauri trees and broke in farms and settled members of the family in the Matakohe and Ruawai areas. 

Descendant and former MP, government minister and high commissioner, Sir Lockwood Smith, continues to breed Belgian Blue cattle near Greenhill and Flat Farm.

Greenhill Hereford Stud was founded by Jason’s grandfather 75 years ago.

The first and second NZ-born generations of Smiths at Matakohe were friends and neighbours of the first elected, NZ-born Prime Minister Joseph Gordon Coates, a farmer who entered Parliament for Kaipara electorate in 1911.

Coates was also a Hereford breeder in later life, before his death in 1943, and he attended the house-warming party for the Greenhill homestead in 1936, which was built by Jason’s grandparents.

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