Saturday, March 2, 2024

‘Do the best you can and never give up’

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Geoff and Jo Crawford show that large-scale dairy farming in the challenging Hikurangi flood control scheme can be environmentally sustainable.
Every day brings challenges and motivation to Geoff and Jo Crawford, Northland’s farm environment champions for 2022. Photo: Alan Gibson
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This article is part of Famers Weekly’s annual Land Champions series. Read the full series here.

Geoff Crawford led on the rugby field for Northland from 1988 to 2001 and he has represented New Zealand several times in world and Pacific spearfishing championships.

If he wasn’t already busy, Geoff was recently elected to the Northland Regional Council, on his reputation and community standing.

Over 30 years Geoff and Jo have built a farming business of three dairy farms totalling 505ha effective and 1400 cows and two beef-rearing and finishing farms integrated with the dairying.

The road to the farming enterprise began with agricultural contracting after leaving school, followed by forestry site management employing up to 80 people at peak.

With his unique drive and demonstrated success, Geoff has employed, advised and mentored dozens of young people.

Jo has reinforced his energy and entrepreneurial skills with care, encouragement, accounts management and community nursing.

“We wouldn’t have a business without great people working alongside us.

“Motivating people to join us on the journey is how we got to where we are today,” they said at the national farm environment awards event in Christchurch in late November.

“We have had many team members over the years who have become friends and gone on to be successful in their own ventures and it is a great feeling to be part of their journey and know we have made a difference in their lives.”

Widespread disillusionment among older farmers comes around every 40 years or so, currently affecting those who can’t be bothered with the compliance load.

“There is more opportunity now than I have ever seen before for young people who can think differently,” Geoff said.

“People are lined up to give young people a start and encourage them.

“They can work for wages, take on responsibilities, contract milk and then within 10 years be able to buy a herd.

“You have to dream of farm ownership, and you will never get there unless nothing else matters more.”

Geoff said the very best decision he had made in life was marrying Jo because they are so complementary in skills and in outlook.

They bought a dairy farm on Crane Rd, Hikurangi, 27 years ago and still live there. The land has been very much improved with new pastures, fencing, tracks, native planting, drainage, a wedding venue and a QE11 covenant over 25ha of bush on Parakiore mountain.

Some 20 local landowners have joined the Pest-free Parakiore Programme to trap possums and mustelids and create the conditions for the re-introduction of kiwi.

Typical of the Crawford’s community spirit has been 10 years of grazing heifers on 35ha of Māori-owned land close to home at Ngāraratunua Marae, cleaning up the weeds, repairing fences and installing stock watering.

Two more dairy and associated beef farms are about 5km as the crow flies west across the Hikurangi scheme, and another combination some 20km away at Byles Rd to the north of Hikurangi township towards Whananāki.

Geoff Crawford’s participation in the Pest-free Parakiore Programme was highlighted at a recent Crawford Farms field day

The Crawfords have contract milkers on their dairy farms, not share milkers.

This season the contract rate went up by 40c/kg and the contractors have above-average earnings with the focus on performance and production.

“We don’t want money to be the reason they work for us or leave our relationships,” Geoff said.

Owning all 1400 dairy cows means that all calves are reared and retained for the complementary dairy and beef farming operation.

A local woman is employed as a calf rearer and Geoff looks after the beef farming side himself.

He is also very keen on summer maize cropping, pasture renewal and trialling different species, doing most of his own tractor work like power harrowing and oversowing.

Buying a large dairy farming operation seven years ago within what is known locally as the Hikurangi Swamp is the riskiest decision the Crawfords made.

“After the recent flood which damaged 150ha of pastures, you question your fortitude,” Geoff said.

“But research showed the property had the second-best farming soil type in Northland and it has a fantastic infrastructure, which money couldn’t buy now.

“When things are going well it is a great place to own, but setbacks come along.

“I probably underestimated the mental and financial costs of big floods, even after farming within the swamp on a smaller scale for decades.

“It is times of stress when your leadership qualities have to come to the fore.

“It has been the most mentally taxing experience of my life, but I have learnt a great deal.”

Regularly resowing after floods with alternative species, along with making choices of varieties, machinery, techniques and timing, has increased Geoff’s farming skills.

He is a spokesperson for the scheme residents, liaising with the Whangārei District Council, which manages the 60-year-old scheme.

The pumps, stopbanks and spillways all have to be maintained and repaired after adverse weather events because the 5000ha scheme is the flood collection for 45,000ha upstream hill country and the delayed release mechanism for the giant Wairoa River catchment extending westwards to Dargaville and the Tasman Sea.

Annual production from the whole scheme area is estimated to be $50 million, underpinning the viability of the nearby Fonterra Kauri dairy factory.

“A big flood might cost us $500,000 in lost production and restoration, but if our farm is doing 20% more milk production than the best in Northland, then it is worth it.

“The day I start complaining about Hikurangi flooding is the day I should be looking to sell out.”

The Crawfords were early adopters of DNA testing of all cows and their calves, to target the best milkers for replacement heifer calves when combined with sexed semen.

After the breeding decisions for replacements are made, other cows are artificially inseminated with beef sires, Angus, Hereford and lately Belgian Blues, after which Belgian Blue bulls from Sir Lockwood Smith are run with the cows.

The judges for the Farm Environment Awards were very impressed by the energy, drive and achievements of the Crawfords.

They always have goals to strive for but they also concentrate on great experiences, not purely profit.

“Always do the best you can, as it always works out. Never give up,” said Geoff.