By Luke Chivers
On the south side of Banks Peninsula, where the wind gives the tussocks a permanent bend and the next stop is Antarctica, Roger Beattie is mustering his next big plan.
The wild sheep breeder, blue pearl and kelp harvester and would-be weka farmer wants to explain how unique foods and fibres can be produced by combining the diversity of nature with Kiwi can-do ingenuity.
He takes a bite of seeded slice, sips a freshly brewed tea and for a moment there’s silence.
“How do I put it? If someone says something’s black, I’ll say it’s white.
“I’ve long been a contrarian,” he laughs.
Not far from us, on the slopes of Kowhai Vale, one of three farms that Beattie owns in rolling-to-steep hill country across the water from Akaroa, live Pitt Island wild sheep.
It’s a breed he so admired while working on the Chathams he brought some home.
And now he has his clever scheme, one that pulls together the wild sheep and another of his great, slow-burning projects, wekas.
Beanies, scarves, gloves, socks as well as throws and blankets, a new category of high-end woollen products, are exploiting the unique properties of the Pitt Island fleece, which has a helical crimp and a twist that gives it great bounce and stretch.
“It’s amazing wool.
“It’s very light, it traps a lot of air, it’s so cosy, it doesn’t itch and it has a luxurious feel.
“We get it organically scoured at Washdyke, spun by Wild Earth Yarns in Christchurch and then knitted in Dunedin and the socks done in the North Island.”
They weigh two-thirds of Merino knitwear but they’re far warmer, made from 50% Pitt Island fleece, 30% Bohepe mid-micron wool, 20% possum fir and a small amount of nylon for strength, he says.
“To me, really, the farming sector and the health sector should be absolutely in parallel. We should be in the same field. If it’s not in the soil then you aren’t going to get it in your food. You are what your food eats.”
Meanwhile, in the shadowy waters of the Akaroa Harbour is giant bladder kelp, or Macrocystis pyrifera, one of two species of kelp the Beatties harvest. The other, known as wakame, is commonly used in Japanese cooking and Beattie long ago identified it as a viable export.
Nicki runs the kelp operation, marketing it as a healthy pepper-like condiment high in nutrients. But in recent years the Beatties have shifted their focus to the agriculture, horticulture and animal production markets under a new brand, Zelp.
They also farm paua for their jewellery business, Blue Pearls.
Wild sheep, giant kelp, native birds – what’s the common thread to the Beatties ventures?
“They’re all dealing with native or near-native species, all adding value where none existed before, all creating something unique and marketable and brandable,” Beattie says.
They’re nowhere near finished, either.
“We want to become a more profitable organisation and be a catalyst for changing away from heavy chemical use farming,” he said.
“Farmers can do it,” Nicki says.
“The reason why we can do what we do – and we have a lot of businesses on the go – is because our farming system is so low-cost, easy-care.
“Really, we have zero inputs apart from buying pink Himalayan salt for using on our kelp.”
The couple feel good about their business and say other farmers should, too.
“We don’t have to put masks on.
“I genuinely feel the way we farm is the right way.”
They believe modern chemical farming is only a blip in the sector’s history.
“Farmers have only been using chemicals for the past 50 years. This is not the norm.”
You can, only for so long sustain a degenerating system, Beattie says.
We pause and reflect.
Beattie takes another bite of slice and downs his now-cold tea.
“Nature has been around far longer than modern chemical farming practices and has a way of ensuring its own survival. It would be truly remarkable if we thought we had more wisdom than nature,” he says.