Saturday, December 2, 2023

Tradition meets transformation as a family changes its farm

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The speed of change – too fast, too slow – is tough for everyone to negotiate but they’re trying, writes Daniel Eb.
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Farmers Weekly’s new column, Eating the Elephant, will be written each week by one of four millennial farmers and agri-professionals with progressive views on farming. Brought together via the Nuffield farming scholarship programme, they are parents of young children and come from a range of backgrounds, from the New Zealand Army to start-up life in San Francisco, agri-consultancy and urban communications. 

They describe themselves as having skin in the game in the form of their family farming businesses, and feel that pro-change, progressive perspectives are missing from the sector dialogue. They want to see positive changes happen further and faster, and are open to big ideas and experimentation to meet entrenched challenges.

Our farmhouse looks onto a hill. It’s steep, but gives way to a gentler roll at the bottom with some decent feed for our Angus herd. 

I’ve spent dozens of hours, maybe hundreds, looking at that hill and getting angry. Like countless other hills around New Zealand, it is cut by cattle tracks. Slowly but surely, our animals have pressed and packed down the soil. One day the hill will slip. Then nothing but moss will grow there, clinging to the bedrock. 

I don’t want to leave a hill like that to my daughter or nephew. 

The cold fact is that our animals shouldn’t be on that hill, or the other 60% of our rolling-to-steep Kaipara farm. The other cold fact is that our beef-raising business survives on that marginal land. 

It’s hard to acknowledge this, but we’re running a business model that is slowly eroding the natural productivity of our land. 

Three years ago, we decided to start to change that business model. We would still be beef farmers, but we’d become foresters, poultry-keepers, orchardists, bee-keepers and carbon sequesters too. We would try to let individual hills, flats and gullies tell us what production systems to lay on top of them. 

To pay for all this, we would create our own farm brand and sell direct to customers – adding product marketers, social media content creators and supply chain managers to the new job description list too. 

We would hire an ecological consultant. I describe his job as being the voice of the land and soil, always advocating for what this flat or that hill wants us to plant or run there for intergenerational productivity. This was a new perspective on our farm for us. Often it was hard to hear – because it made us feel guilty, dumb or overwhelmed by how much work was ahead. 

It’s a few years in now, and we’re getting there. Marginal blocks are being retired, the first syntropic tree rows are in and the flats are slowly being resown with multi-species mixes. Having some communications experience, business skills and off-farm capital in the family has helped a lot.  

But the heart of my family’s farming story isn’t about ecology, diverse production, brands or business models. That’s just the outcome. Our story is actually about three people in our family, and how transformative change demands something from each of them.   

My dad is a 68-year-old stockman. He’s worked with animals all his life. He primarily sees the farm as a grass-growing engine that enables him to continuously improve the quality of our cattle. 

Then there’s my sister and brother in-law. They chose to move to the farm from sales and marketing jobs in the city, put their shoulder to the wheel and do the hard graft to make the change happen. 

They came in with no preconceptions about what the farm is or should do. They love the stock, but are also the driving force behind the syntropic tree rows, native restoration, honey and the farm brand. 

The changes they are driving are sometimes hard for Dad. There is an argument over most new fence lines – him to keep more grass, them to retire into it some kind of forestry. He sees these new ideas about holistic farming, retiring land and diversifying production as a quiet threat to his beloved herd. 

This push and pull between the forces of tradition and transformation can be tiring and painful at times. To keep working well together and the farm moving forward, the process constantly demands something from all involved. 

From Dad, the change demands that he questions some long-held beliefs. Like taking seriously our concerns about a rapidly changing climate, or that the cattle tracks he has looked at for 20-plus years represent something wrong with the way we’re farming. That’s not easy. 

From the newcomers, the change demands an openness to compromise on the speed and scale of the transformation, and a willingness to shut up and really listen sometimes. That’s also not easy. 

In watching this messy process of change happening in our family and on our farm, I can’t help but see a wider food and fibre sector grappling with the same contest between tradition and transformation. 

I think there are two lessons to take from my family’s story. First, our big change is only happening because of the drive, creativity and open-mindedness of new people. We simply wouldn’t be moving forward without them. Second, we’re lucky to have an existing leader who continues to give those new people support, time and resources to experiment and redefine the farm – even when he finds the new way hard to accept at times. 

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