Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Farming in a fishbowl

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Just a 10-minute drive from Auckland’s bustling Queen Street lies a farm where our future farmers are being taught. Sonita Chandar reports.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

It's not easy being a farmer at the best of times but when you are surrounded by townies who just have to look over their back fences to see what you’re up to it is even more important to get it right.

Peter Brice is the farm manager at the ASB Mt Albert Grammar School (MAGS) Farm in the middle of Auckland city. 

Its 8.1 hectares milks fewer than 10 cows, has seven chickens, 21 Suffolk ewes, a Gold kiwifruit orchard and a native tree nursery.

But as difficult as it is to be under a microscope, it is probably one of the more interesting if not one of the less labour intensive farm manager positions in the country. 

“It’s a pretty unique resource,” Brice says.

“The farm is a multi-million dollar property in the middle of Auckland being used as an educational facility for ag students to get their hands dirty. Here they learn the ropes of various agriculture sectors.”

Funding is allocated by the school but not in a normal way.

“MAGS basically takes money out of its back pocket to keep us going as the farm is in no way profitable so we are extremely lucky that it is supported by the school and a couple of key sponsors. The fact it is still running is awesome.”

The ASB MAGS Farm at Mount Albert Grammar School was established in 1932 when the New Zealand Institute of Horticulture decided city children were losing knowledge of farming practices and asked the school to teach agriculture and horticulture.

The Trustees of Auckland Savings Bank (now ASB) bank bought the land from the Kerr-Taylor family and leases it to the school. In 2013, a 99-year lease was signed for a peppercorn annual rent of $1. 

The MAGS farm was given five cows – a Friesian, Jersey, Kiwicross, Shorthorn and an Aryshire by the Kirkham Group from Waikato.

“Our milking shed is anything but flash and in fact, though the two-stand plant still works, it’s almost at the end of its life and needs replacing or upgrading.

“It is not ideal for training purposes either. I compare it to training someone to use a computer using Windows 3.1. The students can get a feel for milking but it is not pleasant squatting down on a stool.”

As the plant is not food grade quality they cannot do anything with the milk so it is fed to whiteface calves that are bought in, steered and raised for the lifestyle market.

They have three Speckle Park calves from their original herd, which have become stars of the farm.

“They are just so funny and have personalities of their own. They just wander around and go wherever they want. Hopefully, they will get sold to lifestylers.”

With the lockdown in place and the sale yards closed, the beef heifers could not be sold. He eventually managed to sell them but got only $520 a head or $2.35 a kilogram, which was disappointing but at that stage he just had to get rid of them.

The cows are mated to AI in June so they calve about mid March.

“Going forward, we will used sexed semen so we get five replacement calves over five years to build a desirable herd instead a lot of different breeds. 

“This season we’ll milk six cows, calving should be over two weeks rather than months and we’ll rear about 25 calves. I think we can do that quite easily.”

Eggs from the chickens are sold to staff for $5 a dozen. However, during the lockdown with the school closed Brice and his partner couldn’t get rid of them so ended up eating lots of scrambled eggs, omelettes and other egg dishes.

Sheep have always been a part of the farm and in the wool shed are stacks of ribbons won at various shows. At one time there were also pigs and Brice still gets inquiries from people wanting to buy one.

On the horticultural side, the school has been granted a licence from Zespri and given the root stock to grow Gold kiwifruit.

“Growing the kiwifruit gives the students greater exposure to another aspect of the industry and shows them there are a multitude of possibilities in the sector.

“Our agri students have just completed an NCEA achievement standard on kiwifruit so having the vines here has been of great benefit.”

Students from the tech department built a chicken coop while others have jumped in and helped with fencing using Future Posts made from recycled plastic.

“Using sustainable products is not only a good look for dairy farming but also for our urban critics.”

Last winter they planted 2000 trees, another 600 in June and still have 3500 to plant in a small gully. 

“We fundraised and received a $14,000 grant from the Sustainable Business Network and Million Metres programme. The money didn’t go far as it cost about $8500 for 2000 trees but we have a native plant nursery on the farm which will boost tree numbers.”

Water Care funded half of this year’s planting project. 

Brice says the farm is starting to look really good, which is a great motivator for students.

“We get a lot of primary school groups visit with their parents who often have quite curious questions. With lots of visitors we are all aware of the image we are portraying and do everything possible to ensure it is a positive one.

“Our cows will be fat, the sheep are fat and woolly, the calves look amazing, the trees are growing and the waterways will be fenced so I believe we are projecting that positive image. 

“The farm is great example of somewhere the students can get their hands dirty while getting real hands-on experience. You can’t get that from a textbook.”

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