Monday, April 22, 2024

Farming duo’s unconventional approach proves fruitful

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Reading Time: 9 minutes

A West Coast couple have diversified their dairy operation, resulting in providing fresh locally-produced products to their community.

A West Coast couple who cheerfully admit they don’t really do “conventional” prefer to find alternative ways of farming.

Anna Emmerson and John Marshall’s own and operate Your Farm. Their business strategy is to stack as many businesses as they can on one piece of land and at the same time care for their environment, following regenerative-type principles.

The couple milk 180 cows on their 152-hectare (128ha effective) property at Moana, near Lake Brunner, well back towards the Southern Alps that divide the South Island.

They also run chickens, sell eggs, raise meat birds and are growing the beef side of their business.

They’re far from finished trying new things and every year they plant 200 trees, anything from maples for maple syrup, to mulberries, fruit and nut trees.

Their newest venture of selling farm fresh milk direct to the public came about in their first year on the West Coast, which was tough going thanks both to it being even wetter than normal in this part of the country and because the payout dropped to $3.90.

While the payout was in the doldrums, the couple were thinking about how they could make their business more resilient and how they could level out their income, even as the milk price was volatile.

They realised that none of the milk produced on the coast was sold as fresh milk, it was all processed, and they weren’t very impressed by the homogenised product sold in supermarkets, preferring the old-fashioned way, where the cream rises to the top.

They investigated the feasibility of producing their own fresh milk and selling it through stores, cafés and supermarkets on the West Coast.

“We were thinking about it before we came over here. It’s about stacking businesses,” Anna says.

“It’s getting more value for the same milk that you do every single day, putting more value on top of it, but not actually a huge amount more work.”

First, they found a pasteuriser for sale on Trade Me and bought it.

“We were stoked because we got it for a good price but then we were like ‘what are we going to do?’” she laughs.

They approached Foodstuffs and talked to the “big guys” in their Christchurch office, to see whether they would sell the fresh milk in their West Coast supermarkets.

“They loved our story, they were chuffed and said ‘this is so exciting’. We shot into the New World in town here and got the same response from the owner who said ‘this is awesome’.”

But their excitement was short-lived because along came covid 19 and the country was thrown into lockdown.

“Then they told us not to do it now as there was no money on the coast,” she says.

They waited out the lockdown but after a few months began to wonder what they were waiting for.

But setting their operation up was stressful, John says, because they had to buy more equipment and satisfy all the requirements of MPI.

They already had a room attached to the cowshed they could use but, as well as a pasteuriser, they needed a bottling plant, bottle steriliser, a UV treatment plant to get their stream-fed water supply up to standard and “ice banks” to get the temperature of the milk down quickly.

After pasteurisation the milk is chilled from 63degC to 3.6degC.

“If you get the temperature down quickly, it gives you a better shelf life, with less bacteria and less baddies in it,” Anna says.

They’re running a separate herd of about 30 cows, milking them once-a-day. Some of the cows have been carried over from the previous season and some are leased. The management of the farm is being tweaked and for the first time there’s been split mating to facilitate year-round milking.

John and Anna have been running the fresh milk operation since June and are producing about 100 litres a day. They deliver to cafés and stores every second day, but expect that to increase when the supermarkets come online.

A sample from every batch has to be sent to Christchurch for testing and so far, every test sample has passed, giving them confidence they have the operation running as it should, but the two-day wait for their results can be agonising, because no product can be delivered until it’s approved.

“We’re sitting here watching because we’re delivering tomorrow, we’re waiting for results,” John says. 

“We’re thinking ‘it better be good, it better be good’ and then it’s, ‘oh yeah no, we’re good to go, we’re off, pack’em up’.”

They now have a portable tester, which confirms whether pasteurisation was done properly and they can supply on the basis of that result, but final sign-off still requires a lab test.

Anna and John have gone door-to-door around West Coast cafés and stores and say demand is growing steadily among consumers who like their milk in glass bottles, with the good old-fashioned cream on the top.

“We’ve even got one customer who tips the milk into one of those containers with a tap on the bottom and his wife takes it from the bottom and he ladles it out of the top,” Anna laughs.

Anna worked with her sister-in-law on the marketing material and packaging and they designed and built their website (www.yourfarm.co.nz) and created the artwork on their delivery van.

“We’re also a bit sick of everyone being so politically correct, so our van’s got a picture of a cow sitting on a beer crate so it looks like a cow’s driving the van. We’re just trying to have a bit of fun with it for everyone,” she says.

The milk is sold in bottles and e-supermarkets and stores have agreed to take the used bottles and replace them with full ones, as long as John and Anna take them home and sterilise them before reuse.

“The milk business is our way of doing value-add, which is something other people aren’t doing,” John says.

“We thought ‘no one’s doing that, let’s give it a nudge’. People told us we couldn’t do it but just watch us – we like a challenge.”

They both grew up on the drier side of the South Island; Anna on high country station Forest Range in the Lindis Pass and John on a sheep farm near Maheno in North Otago, but six years ago they moved to the coast where they could afford to buy a farm of their own.

They’d both made their mark in farming in Canterbury, with Anna producing the world’s finest bales of Merino wool for six years in a row and John sharemilking 1200 cows.

“I bought Forest Range’s finest wethers and took them down to the lowlands of Mayfield (Mid Canterbury) and got the finest wool in the world, 10.9 microns,” she says.

“Then I broke my own record and produced another 100kg bale of 10.67 micron fibre.”

To help produce this wool, she built a large shed to house her 200 sheep and entered the (Italian fine wool miller) Loro Piana Challenge to find the world’s finest bale of wool.

Competitors from Australia managed to win that competition but by then she was ready to move on to a different challenge with partner John. He’d started milking cows when he left school, rising up the career ladder and moving north to Canterbury to get experience with large herds, eventually becoming a lower order sharemilker.

The couple met in Mid Canterbury and eventually decided to pool their resources to find new opportunities.

First, John sold his herd and had six months of what he calls being “idle”, though he did have time to put irrigation on Anna’s small dryland farm, as well as looking for a farm to buy. He looked as far afield as Wairarapa, but he soon realised he was a South Islander at heart.

“I went and looked at four or five places and I came back and said ‘we’re not living up there’. I don’t want to live in the North Island, I don’t know why. There’s some beautiful country up there,” he says.

“To be fair, you were looking at sheep and beef places and you still had your head in dairy,” Anna laughs.

Then they found the farm at Moana.

“The reason we bought this place is because it’s got a massive barn on it,” she says, reasoning that would help them farm in this high-rainfall area, where they can expect 2.5 metres annually.

They bought the farm as a going concern, including the herd from a Belgian couple – now close friends – who had built the barn, looking to recreate a more European way of dairy farming. Soon after they moved onto the property they modified the barn, removing the free stalls that had sand underfoot.

“We ripped it out because what was happening was we were always pushing all the crap outside and it was in the rainy season and all you’re doing is putting crap on your paddocks in the rainy season,” she says.

There was a small shed that could hold three weeks’ worth of effluent but even with that, the system seemed environmentally unsustainable to Anna and John. But with their modifications they believe they have something that works much better.

The cows are now housed when the paddocks get too wet with the floor covered with layers of sawdust and straw and even paper, which absorb their effluent and begin composting.

“The cool thing is when you put the probe in, it’s 22degC in the pack so it feels like they’re on a wee electric blanket. They love it,” she says.

At the start of the winter they put down about 45cm of straight sawdust and through the months the cows are in there, more straw is added to keep the surface clean and dry, all the while building an ever deeper base.

“We stir it up and let it heat up and as soon as you let the air in it starts becoming compost,” he says.

“At the end of the winter we get out about 480 cubic metres of compost.”

The compost is left to work for a year or so and is then spread on the paddocks once they’re dry to add fertility and build up the soil on stony ground.

As well as creating compost, the barn system is better for feed utilisation than feeding out in the paddock, with almost nothing trampled underfoot. And while the cows are inside staying warm and dry and making compost, the paddocks are protected from pugging in the heavy rain that often falls in the area.

“In our first year we had three weeks of summer,” he says.

“It rained right up to about February 14 and then sort of stopped for three weeks for a nice summer and then it just started raining again.”

John was starting to wonder if they’d made the right decision coming to the coast until Anna told him he had to get off the farm for a bit.

“I said to John one day when it was that bad, ‘Go to the pub, get out of here’ and he comes back and goes ‘it’s not normal Anna, it’s not normal. All the locals have dried off’,” she laughs.

“Two days later, we dried off,” he adds.

“We were battling away and I was like ‘God, what are we doing?’”

They were learning fast what it takes to farm when it’s so wet you can hardly get on to your paddocks and quickly came to appreciate what a valuable asset their barn was. They’ve also come to appreciate their environment and live with the rain.

“We’ve been here six years and the bad weather is all forgotten on a beautiful day. It’s stunning,” she says.

Their 165-cow commercial herd still generates most of the farm income. The herd is 50% Friesian, 35% Jersey and the rest crossbred, producing 440kg MS/cow.

They’re wintered on-farm, fed on grass and when the weather turns too wet for the paddocks, the herd is brought into the barn and fed on silage made on-farm. Getting supplementary feed trucked across the hill from Canterbury is generally too expensive, but they do buy straw for their barn from a cropping farmer over there. 

Calving starts on August 25, though John’s thinking of changing that to September 10 because that’s what farmers used to do in the area 30 years ago. They keep nearly all their calves, with very few bobby calves. In the future they plan to have zero bobby calves. 

Mating runs for six weeks and then a mixture of bulls are used, including Speckle Parks and a few Hereford, as they move to have more beef animals on the farm.

Anna says the Speckle Park genetics are good for marbling and she likes the look of the breed. They finish some of the animals themselves and sell others at 100kg to a regular client in Canterbury.

They plan to expand the beef side of their business and believe customers will like the fact their animals are not sent away as bobbies, but are fattened on-farm and enjoy a longer life.

“And because we’re real big on healthy soils and all the rest of it, hopefully the meat will be even better,” she says.

In future she hopes customers will be able to buy half a beast from their Your Farm business and then come out to the farm and see the animal as it grows.

“We want to sell our products straight into our community so that people in town have a connection with us and the land and know and understand what we do. It’s all about selling good old-fashioned food from our farm to our community at a fair price for all,” she says.

“Our key focus is to ensure that our animals are well looked after. We start by following the five globally recognised gold standard freedoms in regards to animal welfare: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, and disease; freedom from fear and distress; and freedom to express normal and natural behaviour. 

Another side of their business is chooks and they sell eggs at the gate. That business is being kept relatively small because once they go over 100 birds, stricter regulations kick in and so for now, it’s gate-sales only.

The hens follow a couple of days behind the cows’ grazing round and they work their way through the cow dung, spreading it about as well as gobbling up any worms the cows excrete. They graze on grass, grass grubs and other bugs, grains and seeds by day and at night, go into the mobile henhouse Anna and John built.

The hens’ biggest enemy are harrier hawks, which can take adult birds, and John says magpies that he would once have shot are now welcome because they’ll happily take on the hawks.

They also run meat birds, which Anna says are pretty much the same as Tegel chickens. They arrive as one-day-old chicks and grazing on grass, take about eight weeks to grow to full size. For now they rear 60-100 birds a year for their own consumption, but they’re looking at growing that operation when the time is right.

“We’d only do that once a year and the customers could order them in advance, so they’re pretty much sold when they arrive as one-day-olds. They grow so well in the heat and they’re absolutely delicious,” she says.

After six years here, they are committed to the West Coast and describe themselves as locals, though they accept they won’t be considered Coasters until the family’s been here for a generation or two.

“It was certainly a change coming here but we love the area and the people. I reckon they’re just about better than Cantabrians,” he laughs.

Farm facts

Owners: Anna Emmerson and John Marshall

Location: Moana, West Coast

Farm Size: 152ha, 128ha effective

Cows: 180, Friesian, Jersey and crossbred

Production: 2020-21: 79,200kg MS

Target: 2021-22: No target as too many variables

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