Brent Mountfort likes to say that when he was growing up he wanted to be a conservationist or a farmer – but now he gets to do both.
He and wife Antonia Mountfort are proving that doing good things for biodiversity can also be positive for farm management.
The Bay of Plenty couple run about 620 breeding ewes and 130 breeding cows on 270ha (160ha effective) at Manawahe, just up the coast from Matatā.
Earlier this year, in a combined project with Bay of Plenty Regional Council and QEII National Trust, they celebrated fencing off and putting under covenant another 6ha of the farm.
Brent, president of Federated Farmers Bay of Plenty, says he and Antonia are glad that “a really nice bit of bush that’s full of rimu and four of five different varieties of rata” are now protected for future generations, no matter who owns the land.
These latest 6ha are in addition to another 30ha under covenant on their property, as well as gullies, slopes and relatively unproductive areas the Mountforts have augmented or entirely planted out themselves.
Before going into farming, Brent’s career headed in a different direction.
After school and a few years’ O.E. in London, he landed back on our shores and started training to be a bank manager.
That paid a double bonus: he met Antonia, who was working at the bank’s head office, and by age 24 he was manager of the bank’s branch in Ngongotaha, Rotorua.
It wasn’t until 2008 he and Antonia and their two children returned to the family farm.
The couple bought the farm outright from his parents Chris and Antoinette in 2020. Between Federated Farmers meetings and tending to livestock and beehives, they’ve planted at least 30,000 native trees in the last 15 years.
“Some of that is in newly established areas but a lot of it is filling in gaps around existing bush,” Brent says.
“It’s expensive and time-consuming but it’s also really satisfying. You just get on and do a bit every year.”
Putting the last 6ha under covenant and protecting it with 1.2km of deer fencing has been a long-held ambition.
“They (deer) only have to turn up once every few months – just one or two of them – and they can do a huge amount of damage,” Brent says.
“In bigger numbers they’ll clean out the under-storey. You’re wasting your time planting anything apart from mānuka and kānuka because the range of native plants you need for a healthy ecosystem won’t survive the deer – or the pigs and wallabies for that matter.”
One aim for the project, which the regional council is interested in, is a comparison of bush growth behind the deer fence with tree survival in another nearby piece of bush without deer protection.
The work was supposed to happen last May but the fencer Brent had lined up was called away to help with urgent Hawke’s Bay cyclone repairs.
“I was quite happy about that, but it meant we didn’t get underway until July and everything got squeezed up, with lambing on and 6,500 plants to put in around the existing bush.
“We were just fortunate that some really good people stepped up for us, including volunteers from Fonterra and ANZ.”
While the Mountforts take huge delight in the biodiversity they’ve created and protected, and longer term have ambitions of hosting visitors and tourists, Brent says retiring less productive or erosion-prone parts of the farm makes good sense.
“The stock would get down into some of these gullies and it was really had to get them back out.
“It’s a pretty farm but it’s quite steep and difficult to move stock from one site to the other with three gullies that run in between. So, you do your planning with that stock movement and other farming practicalities in mind.
“Now I’m only farming the better bits, putting fertiliser on places that are going to grow the good grass that then grows the good animals. You’re retiring some land but profitability actually goes up.”
For now, Brent and Antonia aren’t pursuing carbon credits for the bush areas they’ve planted. They want to give it time in the hope of some “cross-party agreement” on those issues, including the talk of biodiversity credits.
“I don’t want to blast off and do something that then becomes subject to rules that lock things up in a way that prevents me from farming properly.”
Nevertheless, Brent feels even more farmers would get into protecting or covenanting land if there was at least enough reward to cover what can be quite high costs for fence establishment and pest control.
“It shouldn’t be a burden on the farmer. These special areas are protected for the wider public good and future generations.”
Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.