Thursday, December 7, 2023

They have sanity, price and peace

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Buying your own farm requires a great deal of hard work, financial sacrifice and often lifestyle sacrifices too. It also requires immense fortitude to navigate and tough out the hard, lean times. Ross Nolly reports.
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They have been through some tight times but Taranaki farmers Daryl and Karyn Johnson’s resilience and ability to bounce back comes from their extremely strong and committed working partnership. 

The couple operate a 210 hectare farm at Pukengahu, 15 kilometres east of Stratford milking 440 cows. The farm is 171ha effective in dairy pasture, of which 35ha is medium to steep hill and 15ha sidings where young beef cattle are farmed. The rest is in riparian plantings and tracks.

Included in blocks added to the original 53ha were farms with hills and gullies which has given them the opportunity to create wetlands.

“Wetlands add value to the land and wealth to your total capital investment. They hold water on the farm and prevent it from drying out quickly, which is a more sustainable way of land management. They look nice and the aesthetics add value,” Daryl says.

“It’s in my nature to do it because I’ve always been on the land and enjoy being in the bush around nature. Eventually we’d like to rear some pheasants and quail to release into our wetlands.”

“We have a morepork in the tree by the house and feed the tuis, the kereru are over the back and it just feels right. We are privileged to have this land and the ability to do that,” Karyn says.

Getting that first wetland under way was an epic task. 

Daryl and Karen planted 700 plants in the first year while milking 300 cows and raising a young family. It took the entire winter and every spare day to complete the plantings around their regular farm work.

“A horrendous amount of weeds came up, mostly broom and ragwort. We planted another 700 the following year and spent the next five or six-years controlling the weeds.” Karyn says.

“We learnt from that and when we developed the next area we didn’t plant it for three years so we could control the weeds first.”

Last year a further 2200 plants and another 1650 this year were put in. 

“Planting is just the start. It took four people a month juggling farm work to plant 2000 plants and that didn’t include the fencing. It took a further three weeks during summer by two staff to free up those plants,” Karyn says.

Though Daryl is a fan of riparian planting and creating wetlands, he says the downside is that it provides habitat for pest species so there is a need to have a pest control plan.

Their environmental work gives them a sense of achievement. 

Karyn says it is a feel-good thing, a sense of sanity, pride and peace. But it also resulted in them winning the 2018 Taranaki Predator Free Farm Awards.

Daryl Johnson fills the calf feeder for the calves’ breakfast. They rear 80 replacement calves.

Daryl feels that through the life experience of their own careers they can look back and see how different situations might affect other people and it helps them recognise what others might be going through. 

 “At the start it was a bit overwhelming because we thought we had to be able to fix everything,” Karyn says.

“We’ve learnt that we don’t have to have all of the answers.”

They are well placed to understand the pressures of farming and be able to give advice from experience, having come under pressure themselves at times.

“At times things were tight. And when we say tight, they were really tight. During the global financial crisis we had three times the national average debt for dairy farmers,” Karyn says.

“It would be fair to say that we were under bank pressure but we were prepared to talk to the bank and say how can we get through this?” Daryl says.

“We believed that we were good enough to be bankable but we had to convince the hard-nosed bankers, be up-front, real and honest. 

“You can’t disengage. We used those people relationships through that time to talk to other bank managers about how we should be managing. 

“It was two very tough years but all of our family were on board and we did what was required to get through. You must be willing to work hard, it doesn’t just come to you,” Karyn says.

“We believe in budgeting and knowing our costs. Any decision had to save us money or time because we had neither. We’ve been big recyclers and like to repurpose, rehome and reuse. People thought we were nuts but we pulled out fence posts and even the wire and reused them.”

Each year they try to honestly appraise how and what they can improve on and are always looking for a more balanced approach. 

“We’re not the best but we keep trying to chip away and go forward. It’s really rewarding to take a moment to reflect on what you’ve achieved and see that we’ve done okay. And we’d like to think it has not been at the expense of anything or anyone,” Karyn says. 

 “I’ve come up with the 90% Rule,” Daryl says.

“If you can achieve 90% of something, it’s still one hell of a pass mark. It’s not perfect but perfection is different for everyone. By using the 90% Rule you automatically reduce some of the stress load. Everything becomes more achievable when you take some of that pressure off yourself.” 


Owners: Daryl and Karyn Johnson

Location: Pukengahu, Stratford, Taranaki

Farm size: 210ha, 171ha effective, run-off 40ha

Cows: 440 cows Friesian and Friesian-cross, a few Jerseys and Ayrshires

Production 2018-219: 180,000kg MS 

Target 2019-20: 170,000kg MS, first year of 3:2 milking

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