Helen Twose 's Opinion

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Success: Farming smarter, not harder

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Crisis shows the value of taking a scientific approach to agriculture.

Doug Avery says new farming systems saved his business, his family and his life. Photo / The Australian
Doug Avery says new farming systems saved his business, his family and his life. Photo / The Australian

Fifteen years ago Doug Avery was locked into failure.

The Marlborough sheep and beef farmer was barely coping, personally and financially, after years of successive drought had ravaged his farm.

"The severity of eight years of drought, including four one-in-one-hundred-year droughts, was so bad that I recognised the road that I was travelling was completely stuffed," Avery says.

His 1500ha farm, Bonaveree, overlooking the Dominion Salt facility at Lake Grassmere, has been in the family for nearly 100 years.

But the glorious sunshine and drying nor'westerly winds that create perfect conditions for extracting salt from seawater were destroying the 59-year-old and his farming business.

The turning point was a 1998 seminar run by pasture specialist and Lincoln University professor Derrick Moot, talking about using lucerne for grazing.

The deep-rooted, drought-tolerant legume wasn't new to Avery - his family had grown lucerne for hay and silage for 80 years - but Moot opened his eyes to new methods for introducing the plant into farming systems.

"That day a whole lot of pennies dropped through the slot. In one hour, one man changed my world."

It wasn't a case of overnight success for Avery, with some terrible times, but the small gains made in the next four years were just enough to keep up his enthusiasm.

"New Zealand farmers have become the world's best grass farmers but I believe that we've hit a ryegrass ceiling."

Avery says ryegrass is a poor performing plant that fails to cope with dry weather, providing little nutritional value for animals in drought conditions.

"I knew that I was operating with the last opportunity that I had because it costs money to change and I had nothing else in the tin."

In 2004 Avery and a group of local farmers formed the Starborough Flaxbourne Soil Conservation group, with the aim of arresting the environmental, financial and social degradation in their farming community.

Operating until 2008 with the support of the New Zealand Landcare Trust, a non-government organisation, and other environmental initiatives, the project transformed Avery's farm.

Between 2008 and 2010 - the year Avery won South Island Farmer of the Year - Bonaveree doubled its output.

Production doubled again between 2010 and 2013.

Last year, during a hot, dry summer, neighbour Dominion Salt harvested 90,000 tonnes of salt from its evaporation ponds. An average year's harvest is 60,000 tonnes.

"We endured that and have kicked on out of that to have a record scanning, a record lambing and record weight."

Avery says in the past decade he has turned back 30 years of landscape degradation, enhancing native plantings and fencing off remnants of native bush.

Not only that, a farm that barely supported Avery and his wife, Wendy, while they killed themselves with work now has six fulltime staff, including son Frazer, and "buzzes with science".

His gratitude for the systems that "saved my business, my family and life" has resulted in him talking to farming groups around the country, promoting farming practices that are high reward and low impact.

"I want to live in a country where the wealth and well-being is at the higher end, not the lower end, and for the last 20 or 30 years this country has been heading the wrong way.

"But I feel that we've turned a corner and there is a new air of ability and destination that will see us return to a higher place in the OECD and that will not be achieved by degradation."

Today he is wrapping up a series of "Beyond Reasonable Drought" seminars that have put him in front of farmers around the East Coast and Bay of Plenty.

"People coming to my talks expect to hear all about growing lucerne.

"Very few of them leave talking about lucerne. They leave thinking about how they might integrate into change."

Having opened his own mind to change and "just followed the threads of light that I could see coming out of that big long tunnel", Avery says the "poor devils" that continue farming the way they always have will just get left behind.

"I created the opportunity to fail and it was the hardest journey of my life to dig myself out of that but I feel real pleased with the way things are going."

- NZ Herald

Helen Twose

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Helen Twose is a freelance business journalist who writes regularly about KiwiSaver and entrepreneurial companies. She has written for the Business Herald since 2006, covering the telecommunications sector, but has more recently focused on personal finance and profiling successful businesses.

Read more by Helen Twose

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