Sunday, March 3, 2024

Helping farmers tell their stories

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There’s an increasing awareness of the need for farmers to tell their stories to help explain to urban New Zealanders the realities of life on the land and the contribution the primary sector makes to the country. Lisa Portas of Palliser Ridge is determined to help get those stories across, as Colin Williscroft found out.
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 For farming stories to truly connect with an urban audience they not only have to be told well, they need to be authentic and that means they have to come from farmers themselves, Wairarapa farmer Lisa Portas says.

If that’s going to work farmers need to become more comfortable being their own narrators and not be afraid to use a range of channels from social media to open days to encourage a wider understanding of agricultural industries, the people involved, the processes and the reasons why decisions are made.

Farmers need to be committed not only to their business but also to getting stories about life on farms out to a wider audience. 

Just like they do at Palliser Ridge in south Wairarapa where Lisa and her husband Kurt have lived since 2008.

When the couple arrived Lisa continued with her career as a retail manager that saw her work for Farmers and Briscoes in Wellington and Masterton.

But as sons Beauden and Axel came along she wanted a way to combine her previous life as a business manager with her new one as a stay-at-home mum.

That opportunity arrived in 2015, when the first of the farm’s expansion projects was established.

These days there are five of them: meat, honey, wool, tourism and accommodation.

Lisa manages the projects, which are designed to diversify the business while providing opportunities to market the farm, its products and experiences to end consumers.

Those same projects provide the business with the means to portray a more accurate representation of how farms operate.

“We do a lot of storytelling here. It’s important to us,” Lisa says.

“As farmers it’s important that we show others who we are. That we’re people just like them and their families, just doing a different job.”

The Palliser Ridge story can trace its roots back to 1987 when Jim and Marilyn Law, former Wellingtonians who also lived and worked overseas, bought two blocks of land, one 100ha and the other 26ha, north and south respectively from where the central hub of the farm is today.

Despite pursuing a corporate career Jim always had an interest in farming.

“When I was a kid I had access to a farm through family,” he says, adding he had a lambing beat in his teens during his August school holidays.

Sheep are an important part of the Palliser Ridge operation.

Most trade lambs are sold to local farmers as forward stores at about 36kg.

Palliser Ridge is always looking to harness opportunities to generate brand recognition and for product and operational innovations.

In 2017 it became the first farm in New Zealand to reach the international Responsible Wool Standard (RWS). Having that certification meant the following year Palliser Ridge was able to supply certified RWS wool to Wools of NZ for a range of ethical blazers sold by Marks and Spencer in Britain.

The farm is also GAP (Global Animal Partnership) rated, which means it can supply lamb to Atkins Ranch or to finishing farmers who supply Atkins Ranch.

About half of the lambs sold by Palliser Ridge go to an Aitkens Ranch finisher, with the other half going to a finishing farm that supplies Silver Fern Farms. Cattle go to SFF.

For Lisa, the focus is on the expansion projects, which as well as marketing Palliser Ridge products, provide opportunities to connect with urban consumers.

The first three of those projects involves products produced on-farm.

Top-quality, traceable meat is supplied to Greytown Butchery after it’s been processed by Cabernet Foods Wairarapa while they also supply a number of food establishments who choose to cook with the prime product.

Building on that theme of quality and traceability, a partnership with Sam and Lou Vollebregt means honey, mostly clover and manuka blends, is taken from hives all over Palliser Ridge to the Vollebregts’ processing unit 20 minutes up the road, where it’s put into pottles ready for sale.

For wool, Lisa buys, at a contract price, lambs’ wool produced on the farm that, after being scoured in Hawke’s Bay and turned into yarn in Wellington, is used to make products such as jerseys, beanies and blankets along with home furnishings. The yarn is also available to buy.

Lisa says the chance to share the beginnings of Palliser Ridge products and the way of life on-farm logically lent to opening the farm gates and letting the public in. The farm experience tours, which can cater for a range of group sizes, illustrate what life on a farm can look like.

The most recent addition to the expansion projects is the Kaikoura Lookout, a one-bedroom, off-grid retreat set in native plantings with a view from the hot tub of the Kaikoura Ranges.

It’s all part of telling a story to people who might be unaware of how things work in rural NZ.

“There are so many other farm stories out there that need to be told,” Lisa says. 

“It’s a way of challenging some of those misleading stereotypes about agriculture.”

However, it’s important to think carefully about the messages being put out and the media used.

“There are a lot of passionate people in the ag sector and posts on social media are not always the best way to try to influence people.

“I realise this is what we do every day and sometimes it’s hard not to be emotional, hard not to get up in arms about some of the things you read and hear.

“We need people to say: ‘I’m sick of that, this is what I do on my farm’.

“And we need as many people as possible to tell those stories, not just the bloggers and others who are already doing that.

“There are a lot of people doing some really good things in this space. We just need to hear more of it from more people.”

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