A passion for farming with a holistic approach and bringing off-farm skills into the business have bagged Otago farmers Steven and Kellie Nichol the top Ballance Farm Environment Award for 2023.
The couple, who farm Auldamor at Clarks Junction, were announced as the 2023 National Ambassadors for Sustainable Farming and Growing and recipients of the Gordon Stephenson Trophy at the National Sustainability Showcase at Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington.
“We’re pretty honoured to be given the award,” Steven Nichol said.
“There were some fantastic regional winners. We got a chance to meet them and learn about their operations as well. We were inspired by some of things that are happening around the country.
“For Kellie and I, the key benefit has been to meet up with like-minded individuals – people from diverse backgrounds that give you alternative ways of looking at things.”
The 1498ha Auldamor property is managed by Grant Bezett and is primarily a sheep-breeding and finishing operation, with additional cattle grazing, and carbon and production forestry.
The Nichol family have been farming in the Clarks Junction area since 1871.
In 2007, Steven and Kellie leased 976ha from Steven’s parents and purchased it outright in 2010. In 2019, the farming operation was extended with an additional 522ha neighbouring lease block. The team runs 4500 ewes, 1500 hoggets and 80 rams, and grazes an average of 290 mixed-age beef cows each year.
Stock performance and profitability have been continually improved by adapting farming systems and emphasising on-farm measuring and monitoring.
The property’s biodiversity has been enhanced through the planting of shelterbelts and forestry stands, along with significant fencing of native shrubland and waterways.
Nichol said they placed a lot of emphasis on understanding “our natural resource on farm”.
“We use that information to try and match the right land use capabilities to the right land use. We try to understand the risk involved with that land use and we make sure we monitor and measure progress as we go along to ensure we are walking the talk and not having a significant impact on the environment.”
Some of the key projects undertaken on the farm include allocating 5-10% of the total land area to exotic forestry. It was a matter of “putting the right trees in the right place” and selecting sites to enable restoration of waterways, but to also ensure those areas are not damage when the time comes to harvest the timber.
Some waterways have a high ecological significance, and were home to populations of native galaxids and fresh water koūra (crayfish), so “we want to protect that as well”.
Areas of the farm not suitable for forestry have been over-sown with annual clover to increase productivity.
Some land has been retired and negotiations are underway about placing it in a QEII covenant.
“They’re areas of interesting natural vegetation. We wanted to protect it and still have opportunity to put an ETS application on that so we’re able to generate an income source off that as well.”
Nichol is also involved with the local community catchment group and is one of several local farmers participating in a greenhouse gas mitigation project that is primarily focused on reducing gross methane emissions.
He said when he first went farming he was a typical farmer who thought he had to do it all himself.
“Kellie and I had some pretty tough years early on. The climate was challenging and we didn’t really have control over the farming system. It was fluctuating.
“Kellie’s a rehabilitation specialist with Te Whata Ora and she made me realise the value of having a team around you.”
The couple then set up a farm focus group, which included friends, mentors and consultants, and looked closely at their farm systems and what they could do better. The group helped identify opportunities on the farm that could improve but not at the expense of the bottom line.
“The way we look at success is a little bit different. While profitability is a really important part of the business, we call it the triple bottom line. Profit, planet, people.
“A lot of focus is on our impact on the environment. Generally, the better you look after the environment, the better your farm works.”
The regional judges commended the Nichols’ high level of knowledge about all aspects of their farm, their farming business and their guardianship of it, noting that – along with farm manager Bezett – they make a great team, with many complementary skill sets.
“Steven and Kellie Nichol certainly demonstrated that they will be excellent ambassadors for the New Zealand Farm Environment Trust and are worthy recipients of the Gordon Stephenson Trophy. They articulated clear, intelligent and insightful responses to our questions demonstrating an ability to communicate often complex ideas and issues in an easy-to-understand manner. Combined with their on-farm judging experience we know they can and will ‘walk the talk’,” national judging panel chair Dianne Kidd said.
The panel also commended the Nichols for their “passion for farming with a holistic approach, bringing off-farm skills into the business”.
Nichol said they want to use their success to promote sustainable farming.
“But we also want to get out there and celebrate all the goods things that are happening already.
“There have been some tough years for farmers but we want to demonstrate that there are opportunities out there on their own farms. We want to make sure we can share that knowledge and celebrate the good stuff.”