Friday, July 8, 2022

The way of the future

Glenn Mead, the chair of the Organic Dairy and Pastoral Group (ODPG), believes in five to 10 years most New Zealand farmers will be using organic farming methods. “Whether it’s because of environmental concerns, or for human and animal health or because it is consumer driven, organic principals will be what a lot of farmers will be using in the future,” he said. “The world knows us through the 100% Pure campaign and although we’re not 100% pure, we are probably the only country in the world that is close to it. People know this is where you come if you want really good food.” Formerly the Organic Dairy Producers Group, ODPG welcomed members from other pastoral sectors a few years ago and now has nearly 200 members, with about 65% organic dairy farmers, 15% organic drystock farmers, 10% industry professionals and 10% conventional farmers.

Glenn is a fourth-generation farmer who grew up on sheep and beef farms in Waikato and Northland before attending university and then playing rugby in Scotland. While in the United Kingdom he met his future wife, Kate, in Yorkshire.

“The first time I was there the BSE outbreak was happening and then when we went back, when our first child was born, it was foot and mouth disease, so that shaped our thinking.”

He then went farming with his brother and father in Wairarapa but wanted to go out on his own. Land was better value in the South Island so he went south  eight years ago – to a 260ha drystock farm on Waitahuna West Rd, between Lawrence and Clydevale in Otago.

Attraction

The other attraction was there were already organic farmers in the south and he and Kate had decided that was the way they wanted to farm. Within half an hour’s drive of their house there are eight organic farms and 100 overall in Otago and Southland.

“About 80% to 90% of NZ’s organic lamb exports come from around here.”

Glenn and Kate’s children, Jake, 11, Ben, 8, Will, 5, and Isabel, 3, have made the area home. Although frustratingly dry at times, the farm gets only 800mm of rain a year. Rain often goes around them, as does the snow.

Glenn describes organic farming as a mindset rather than a different type of farming practice.

“It’s about getting away from reactionary farming and instead preventing problems before they arise,” he said. “But when things do go wrong we are still covered, just like every farmer, with the basic animal codes and if an animal needs to be treated we can take it out of the system.”

He gained BioGro accreditation in 2007 and also has United States Department of Agriculture National Organic Program (USDA NOP) accreditation.

He fattens about 50 steers a year and lambs 1450 ewes. Although he started with a West Otago Romney flock he went to Romdales (Romney/Perendale cross) for their hardiness and lately he has used Wiltshire rams, which have self-dagging traits and fewer internal parasite problems.

His prime lambs are sold to Canterbury Meat Packers (CMP), which he has a contract with this season for $6/kg carcass weight, finishing at the end of May. It is more than a dollar above the conventional schedule price, which is dropping rapidly.

“Organics, from a farming point of view, is challenging and rewarding, especially when you see challenges overcome like basic animal health issues,” he said.  

“When we first started we were told we had to five-in-one vaccinate our ewes before lambing or they will all die. We stopped vaccinating and have had no increase in our mortality rate.

“When you drop things out of the system, things that you often spend a lot of money on, it takes a lot of forethought and you realise a lot of farming is reactionary when it really shouldn’t be.”

He’s been a member of ODPG for four years and on the executive for two years. At its last annual meeting in March he became chair. It’s a three-year position and has him travelling regularly throughout the country as ODPG holds field days, seminars and discussion groups, as well as dealing with a network of suppliers who keep in touch with farmers through the group.

Glenn is also chair of the livestock technical committee for BioGro New Zealand, which reviews livestock standards for farmers to become certified. BioGro is celebrating this year 30 years since it began in this country. At the outset the standards fitted on an A4 piece of paper – now they take up a small booklet.

In touch

Although a sheep farmer, Glenn keeps in touch with the dairy farming members of ODPG and is in talks with Fonterra to increase its organic business. In 2011 the co-op announced it would not renew organic contracts with farmers outside Waikato and Bay of Plenty as the world recession reduced demand for organic products but Glenn is hopeful this year will turn that around.

“Already there has been a 14-15% growth in demand for organic products internationally. China has increased its demand 20%,” he said. “The demand is growing again and it is going to be huge.”

Research into mastitis and other issues on organic farms, funded through DairyNZ and the Sustainable Farming Fund (SFF), is building databases of information for organic farmers to use.  

“The trial work is proving useful,” Glenn said. “There are a lot of misconceptions out there and it is good to see the evidence of what really happens.”
However, some NZ research he’s not so happy about, especially a genetically modified cloned cow AgResearch produced last year, which lacks a tail and is capable of producing low-allergy milk.

“Why are we jeopardising our GE-free status?” he asked. “This is science for science sake. Camels’ milk is similar to the milk this cow produces, so why did we have to clone it?”

Worried

He’s also worried about the amount of supplementary feed being brought into the country for dairy cows that could be genetically modified, such as cottonseed, soy and canola.

“Most farmers won’t even be aware that what they are feeding their cows has been genetically modified. They wouldn’t even have thought about it.”

Research done in the past 18 months was proving GE was passing through the food chain, he said.

“We have an opportunity to get away from all that, to have GE-free milk, GE-free lamb. The consumer demand is there for such products and as we are a niche player, NZ shouldn’t be a commodity producer. We can meet that demand and it can give us even greater economic opportunities.”

The Transpacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) is also worrying him.

“As far as agriculture goes, being in control of what we do as a country is crucial. If the TPP starts dictating how we farm then we will lose our point of difference with other countries. It is about brand protection. We don’t need trade agreements to open doors if we produce really good food the world wants.”

Although the number of organic farmers in NZ has been static the past few years, Glenn hopes this will change as demand and economic returns for organic produce grow.

“We are really encouraging farmers to take a look at it,” he said. “Everything is looking very positive for organics for the next two to three years. It’s pretty exciting. China is so much focused on food safety that it is driving demand for organic produce.”

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