Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Faith, family and farming

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Southland farmers are community and spiritual leaders in the Islamic community. They put their faith above everything and answered the call to help after the Christchurch mosque shootings.
Reza Abdul-Jabbar grew up in West Borneo where his family looked after many orphaned animals including two orangutans, Jodi and Kilwon.
Reading Time: 10 minutes

On Friday March 15 Invercargill farmer and imam of the world’s southernmost mosque, Reza Abdul-Jabbar, was delivering his weekly sermon when a worshipper’s phone rang.

Until then it had been super quiet, as it usually is during the service.

He reminded the man it was a time for silence, not to take the call and continued. 

But other phones began ringing.

As he wrapped up the sermon he was told tragic news – a gunman had killed and injured dozens of worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch.

It stunned people of all faiths throughout the world and in the days following Reza was in Christchurch supporting the families of victims and visiting the wounded in hospital.

“I was there among the tragedy consoling people and doing what I could as an imam,” he recalls.

 Some of the victims’ families asked him to be responsible for their loved ones until they were buried. 

“I liaised with the coroners, police and other agencies and organised the funeral services.

“I washed bodies with my own two hands, shrouded them, led a prayer for them, did a eulogy and put the deceased martyr onto the final resting place and then consoled the families again.

“I know the extent of their injuries. I saw it first hand and it is something that will never leave me.”

He was so focused on helping he pushed his own grief aside but it all came to the surface as he was washing one victim.

“They brought in the body of a young boy and laid him next to his father.

“All I could see was my son’s face.

“I knew it wasn’t my boy but at the same time that is what I kept seeing. 

“As a father you don’t worry about yourself but think of your children. Even though I knew it was my mind playing tricks on me it was difficult.”

He spent several days in Christchurch and returned home the following week to lead prayers. By then news reports had come in that Dunedin and Southland might have also been targets.

“That didn’t worry me,” he says.

“As a practising Muslim I believe that if it is your time it is your time and nothing can change that. What will be will be.”

Reza and his wife Silvia believe it is fear of the unknown that creates hate. Because of this they never turn down an invitation to share their beliefs – not so they can convert people but more to educate and raise awareness of Islam.

“Islam is a tolerant and inclusive religion,” he says. 

“It is the only non-Christian belief that has an article of faith of believing in Jesus Christ – not many people realise that,” he says.

Reza wants people to talk about that fateful day and says though it was an extremely sad and difficult time there are lessons to be learned and it should be talked about for many years to come.

“Not talking is not the answer,” he says.

“The reality is families have been robbed of their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, uncles and aunties and that is not something you forget easily.”

At a recent dawn service a hollow feeling came over him again as he remembered seeing his 50 brothers and sisters lying on the floor of the mosque.

“It is still with me.

“Yes, the mosques have been repainted and fixed but it happened. The memory of those days and the images will be going with me to the grave.”

He now gives talks on Islam in schools, hospitals and hospices, is helping with a religious studies course and is involved with dairy production courses at the Southland Institute of Technology.

Since the tragedy Silvia has established Murihiku (Southland) Islamic Trust. 

“The aim is to help people gain a greater understanding of Islam and we are holding an awareness week in early November,” she says.

“The trust is also aimed at engaging social and charity work for the local community. We’re working in a wider community with the women’s group, youth, settlement trust and multi-ethnic community.”

Reza and Silvia say their faith is more important to them than anything.

“Faith, family and then the farm.”

They own two farms and two support blocks milking 1000 cows. It is a far cry from their upbringing.

Reza was born in Pontianak, the capital of the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan, West Borneo.  His father, Abdul, was a businessman dealing in pharmaceuticals, textiles and infrastructure construction. They even had an egg business with 15,000 ducklings and grew bananas, guavas and mangoes.

Their household was a colourful and vibrant haven for animals as their dad often brought home various wildlife.

“Dad used to bring home peacocks, deer, roosters, opossums and beautiful, colourful birds and parrots,” Reza remembers.

“It was bit of a zoo – we were an animal-crazy family. We just loved them all.”

One day their dad walked in with an orphaned female baby orangutan they named Jodi.

“Back then, you were allowed to keep them domestically. We raised Jodi as part of the family. She was amazing.”

A couple of years later Abdul came home with another orphaned orangutan, this time a new brother, Kilwon.

“He also became part of the family and they used to go with us whenever we went out or into town for ice cream.

“We were really lucky actually to have such amazing experiences growing up.”

His love of animals is what led him into farming. At the age of just seven he told his father he wanted to be a farmer though he did not have a rural upbringing.

“We had a good discussion around all of that, what I would need to do to achieve it and set out a plan. One of the things we talked about was my lack of English.” 

He went to Pontianak School for his primary and junior high years then in 1990 his father sent him to Singapore.

“Most Indonesian children do not get taught a lot of English and he knew the best way for me to learn was to go to a school where I could practise and develop it.

“I went to Singapore for a year so I could learn the language. Dad was very clever like that. He recognised what was needed.

“He and mum were amazingly supportive and Dad was the best mentor I could have asked for.”

Reza returned to Jakarta for a year and began to map out his farming career.

“I knew I wanted to go to New Zealand and the path into farming was to either go to Massey or Lincoln University.

“But to get into university I needed to have University Entrance or Bursary.”

In 1993 he did his final year of high school at Auckland’s Glenfield College then graduated from Massey University in 1997 with an applied science in agriculture degree. In 1998 he went to work for J D Wallace at Templeview near Hamilton, milking 700 cows while he completed his masters degree.

He started out as a herd assistant, was promoted to 2IC then farm manage

Silvia was born in Jakarta but growing up led a fairly sheltered life in embassies in various a countries including Holland, Africa and Egypt. In 1992 her father was posted to NZ.

“I went to many different schools that were all English-speaking but NZ is where I have lived the longest,” she says.

“I never want to leave. It is beautiful and has a special place in my heart.”

She wanted to be a business owner but never dreamed that business would be a dairy farm. She attended Massey University where she graduated with a business information systems degree in 1995. She is now studying for a Primary ITO business diploma.

“Until I met Reza I had never seen a cow.

“When he invited us to the farm I didn’t have gumboots or anything suitable but fell in love with the cute calves straight away.”

Calves still hold a special place for Silvia and each season the first-born calf is usually taken home and kept as a pet.

She met Reza at an international festival and jokes she did not pay him any attention.

“Actually, she took one look at me and was smitten,” he says.

Silvia says she was impressed by Reza’s knowledge and ambition.

“He was a Muslim teenager that lived by his faith and his commitment to Islam really impressed me.”

They married in 2000 and have five children, Aisha, 17, Hafsha, 15, Maryam, 12, Umar, 9, and Talha, 5.

In 2002 Reza became operations manager on Tony and Carla Fleming’s 1600-cow farm at Ngatea. Two years later he got his big break and went 50:50 sharemilking 1000-cows at Rotorua.

That farm was 334ha of hill country and hard work. 

They decided to buy a small 200-250-cow farm but realised at that size they would have to work it themselves. Then a friend pointed out they had only ever been on large-herd farms.

“We took that on board and started looking in Canterbury but weren’t too keen on the whole irrigation thing.”

They then heard of a 1000-cow sharemilking job in Southland with John Evans and signed up to milk 1250 cows.

“Then John mentioned adding more land and building another shed. Before I knew it we were up to 1800 cows,” he says.

They eventually bought the farm.

“I rang my mother, my father and even my sister to say we had our first farm. It was a great feeling,” he says.

And they did it all without financial help from their parents – something that was hugely important to them.

They set about converting the sheep and deer farm into dairy though the fences and races were already in place. Then the farm opposite came up for tender and he thought nothing of it.

“The morning before tenders closed I went and sat on the roadside and looked at it, went home and rang Dad who encouraged me to do it.  Two weeks later it was ours.”

Last season the herd averaged just under 400 kilograms of milksolids to produce 397,000kg MS and this season they are targeting 430,000kg MS.  

They spend little on supplementary feed and run a System 2, which is mainly grass-based with a bit of silage, crop and palm kernel in the shoulders.

A 20ha kale crop is planted for winter feed on the run-off and a further 30ha on the platform for when the herd returns before calving and to feed any cows wintered at home from June 1 to spring.

“The best yield we have had from kale is 21 tonnes per hectare,” Reza says.

“We find it to be half the cost of beets. We don’t have to worry about transitioning the herd and it is easy to feed.”

As part of their regrassing programme a 10ha summer crop of turnips is sown. The expected yield is about 18t/DM/ha.  They would normally plant turnips in mid-October but atrocious weather delayed them to the end of the month.

Last year they regrassed about 15% as they were targeting the less-than-perfect pasture and this year they are aiming for 12%.

“We are quite conservative with grazing our pastures because at the end of the day we want to be the best pasture-based farmers we can be,” he says.

“Paddocks are grazed at about 3300kg/DM and we aim to leave residuals of 1500-1600 but if paddocks are more than 3300 then we mow ahead.”

Reza says they are in a relatively summer-safe area though in the last several years they have experienced dry spells. The drought of 2013 was the worst and this autumn was one of the best autumns he has experienced. Though it can get a bit cold and frosty they rarely get a decent dumping of snow because they are almost at sea level. In June and July the farm grew more grass than ever before.

“In June we normally get about 8kg but grew 15kg and in July 10kg instead of 5kg so it was basically double the amount.

“We went into calving with a cover of 2550kg/DM/ha when we would normally have around 2350kg. Then the big wet hit in September.”

In early May they weigh their crops and depending on yield will keep 100 cows at home over winter.

The herd returns before calving, which begins on August 10. The heifers begin calving on August 1. They keep about 300 replacements, which are reared by Silvia with the help of calf rearers. 

The springer mob is checked every night and calves are left with their mums as long as possible.

“But we do give them fresh gold colostrum straight away as those first 12 hours are important,” Silvia says.

Calves are given Pro-calf twice a day as well as meal, straw and water. They recently invested in an automatic calf feeder, which, Silvia says, makes things a great deal easier.

“We no longer have to measure or bucket milk as it is all automated and recorded,” she says.

“The calves are a lot happier as they are not fighting for their share. The automation tells us if a calf isn’t drinking and we can separate her into a holding pen until she has a bit more confidence.”

Target weaning is 90-100kg depending on the calf as the crossbreed varies. Once weaned the calves are sent to the run-off and return as in-calf heifers.

Pre-mating heats are done a month out from mating, which begins on November 1. The herd is tail-painted and once they are detected as cycling, painted green then following AI they are painted blue.

Any non-cycling cows are identified and Metrichecked. This season only 3.8% of the herd had to be checked, which is well below the industry standard of 10%. Reza puts it down to keeping it simple but flexible and their management style.

When it comes to mating they like to keep things simple there too because they rear most animals. In the past they have dabbled with genomics but found there were not a lot of benefits. They do six weeks AI with premier sires and say they always get good stock from it. They then use a small amount of Hereford straws as a marker. 

Jersey bulls are run with the herd for a further three or four weeks depending on how the in-calf rate looks. Their six-week in-calf rate has been about 90%.

“We do a quick scan in late December, which allows us to check. If it looks good then we pull the bulls out early January,” Reza says.

The Waituna Creek runs through their property and they are part of the Conversation Department and Fonterra Living Water programme to improve the fish habitat and form an ecological corridor from Waituna Scenic Reserve to the lagoon as well as show farming can exist alongside water improvements.

“The lower part of the lagoon is a reserve and we have retired 10.28ha,” Silvia says.

Wildlife, fish and native trees have regenerated quickly and are flourishing.

“There are eels, crayfish, trout and giant kokopu and a large variety of birds have taken up residence.”

Away from the farm they are community orientated. Reza is on the Gorge Rd School board of trustees while Silvia is on the PTA and both act as translators for police and as consulate-general for Indonesia.

And, of course, he is the local imam though he is not formally trained.

“Whereas in a lot of centres the imams are trained scholars. I’m more of a Massey-taught imam,” he says.  

He often pulls up to the mosque on his fuel-injected, V-twin Harley Davidson wearing a black leather jacket, boots and jeans.

The roar of the motorbike is heard long before he comes into view and as he pulls his helmet off to reveal long, flowing, black locks. There is also a big grin on his face.

“I love it. It is such a neat feeling to get out into the open and feel the wind whistling past,” he says.

He whips off his jacket, changes into his robes and walks inside to lead the prayers.

The Islamic women are a tight-knit group who support and help each other. They hold Quran classes and do Janaza training in which the women wash and prepare a sister for burial.

During the holy month of Ramadan the family eats breakfast before sunrise then fasts till after sunset. Though young children are not required to fast, some of them take part.

In the evening the family will often go to the mosque for their evening meal, which is typically provided by one family each day.

“Everyone pitches in. It is a special time,” Silvia says.

They run an open-door policy and welcome all Muslim and non-Muslim brothers and sisters.

 “We are living a great dream,” Reza says.

“We have been so lucky. We had great bosses, mentors, friends, consultants and neighbours from the get-go,” Reza says.

“And I have Silvia and the children and our faith. I couldn’t ask for much more.”

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