Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Reaping rewards for cultivating a sustainable green system

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The Arable Farmer of the Year is a progressive, innovative farmer, writes Annette Scott.
Hugh Ritchie’s goal was to at best match productivity under traditional methods. The fact that he is producing greater returns with sustainable farming is a bonus.
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Humbled by his win in the 2023 arable industry awards, Arable Farmer of the Year Hugh Ritchie says it is a great honour. 

“I’m absolutely rapt, bit blown away really. It’s certainly not something I aspired to but it is a great honour to be nominated by your peers and then to be selected the winner.

“And no way do I think I am the best arable grower, it really isn’t about that. There’s a lot better than me,” he says.

The Arable Farmer of the Year award recognises an arable farmer who excels in all aspects of the arable industry, with the judges looking for a sustainable farm business that balances production and profitability, and a grower who shows evidence of a long-term commitment to the industry.

The judges said Ritchie is progressive and innovative.

“He’s always looking to do better, always looking to see what he can learn, reaching across sectors and integrating them to strengthen his farm business,” the judging panel said.

“He is proactive and supportive of the Cultivate Investments concept delivering innovation for New Zealand’s growers and farmers.”  

In his time on the board and as chair of the Foundation for Arable Research (FAR), Ritchie was a key driver of the Cultivate Investments project, investing in bold and impactful companies transforming NZ’s food and fibre sector.

“We [arable] were always seen as the poor cousins in farming. As chair of the FAR board I looked at how we do things, how we could change things and find new ideas to leverage investment and take our business closer to market,” Ritchie says. 

“It was all with the backing of the board that as an industry we created this investment fund with the focus being to create more opportunities for farmers.”       

Meanwhile he almost missed his opportunity to take the top honour.

The all-important interview date as a finalist for the awards was set down but Ritchie was taking family time away from the farm.

“It was one of those times. I forgot all about the 1pm interview with [FAR chief executive] Alison Stewart. She got me on the Mt Hutt ski field.

“There was snow everywhere, I was shielding my phone in the snowstorm to try hear her, the kids were skiing on thinking. ‘Oh yeah, Dad is busy on his phone for work again.’”

But despite the interview challenges Ritchie clearly made an impression, his perseverance as evident on farm as it was in the interview in a snowstorm.

Ritchie and his wife Sharon run Drumpeel Farms, an intensive arable and livestock operation across two properties – the home block at Ōtāne and a second property south of Hastings.

They have an emphasis on efficiency improvements in soil health to keep their greenhouse gas emissions down, with the over-riding caveat being to make the farm operation sustainable.

Ritchie is pragmatic in his approach to changes that need to be made around GHG emissions, acknowledging that the ability to be flexible and willingness to try new ideas will help propel the business forward while addressing climate change regulations.

“No farmer would argue about being efficient and making changes to be more efficient. It goes a long way to making gains on the emissions journey and you look at that as positive and move forward.

“The ultimate aim is to reduce our carbon emissions; if you look at the massive zero outcome as an end goal you lose sight of the journey.

“It’s how do you eat an elephant; you know it’s one bite at a time. Start on part of the business and make some gains there and then move on to the next bit.”

Hugh Ritchie and wife Sharon run Drumpeel Farms, an intensive arable and livestock operation across two properties. ‘We are cropping 880ha with two and half people,’ he says, ‘the half being me.’

Ritchie used opportunities such as his Nuffield Scholarship to travel to investigate different farming methods and he has continued his strong involvement in local research and innovation to progress his farms productivity. 

With a total of 2050ha, the farming operation takes in 880ha of cropping incorporating half of that in cereals including autumn malting barley, spring oats and barley, wheat, vegetable seed production as well as process carrots, beans, peas and sweetcorn for McCain and export squash. Maize is the biggest chunk of the cropping in both area and tonnage.

The home block property has been in the family since 1962, when Ritchie’s parents David and Sally moved from Canterbury and purchased the farm in Hawke’s Bay.

“Dad was reasonably innovative and not afraid of change so that helped me when I came along, keen to make some changes,” Ritchie says.

Zero tillage to promote soil sustainability was a goal.

“First and foremost I was looking at efficiencies. 

“In 2000 I started strip tilling and direct drilling all on the back of Nuffield. We are now using track machinery reducing soil compaction, with precision agriculture and GPS allowing us to be very accurate in what we are doing, and the fuel load per hectare is a lot lower than it has been in the past. 

“Organic matter is increased, erosion from both wind and water is decreased, earthworms are increased and internal drainage is increased.

“We are using variable rate irrigation, getting the right amount of water in the right place on the right soil types.   

“Rotation has been a big part of the farm for 60 years. There is not a lot of tractor work and the five-year rotational concept is limiting the amount of fertiliser going on.

“We are cropping 880ha with two and half people, the half being me.” 

Livestock is involved in the system, helping to encourage nutrient cycling and, together with rotational crops, makes the system as efficient as possible.        

More sustainable farming methods have not only improved the soils but also the bottom line on the farm accounts.

Initially the goal was to at best match productivity under traditional methods.

The fact that they are producing greater returns with sustainable farming is a bonus. 

“The technology is there now; you can do a lot without too much cost,” he says.

The farm took a huge hit from Cyclone Gabrielle, but the diverse farm system, built to survive, is slowly but surely recovering.

“We had 300ha that just looked like a moonscape.

“Going back to eating the elephant, you can’t do it all in one bite; recovery has been broken down into manageable chunks. 

“We have had tractors, diggers, dozers – levelling, aerating and incorporating silt into the soil. Support has come from far and wide. We are making progress. The soils will take time to recover – we will get there, eventually.” 

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