Kōrakonui couple Graham and Tess Smith are hosting a field day at their property this Sunday afternoon - to show the operation that won them the title of 2020 Husqvarna North Island Farm Forester of the Year.
In 1988 Graham was share milking and, always looking for an opportunity, checked out a 37.4 ha property on Wharepūhanga Rd with a friend.
The pair were walking around and over a rough run off, with a stream on two sides of the boundary and a steep hill covered with scrub on the other.
His friend told Graham he wouldn't touch it – "it's waste land".
Graham thought it as a challenge and scraped up enough finance to purchase Miraka Farm.
Three decades later there is no evidence of waste land.
The small farm is 60 per cent flat silt loam and the rest is rolling to steep Mairoa ash.
The small 80-head herd has 28 ha, with a few paddocks on easy hill country.
The jersey friesian-cross herd is milked once a day through a 12-a-side herringbone cow shed.
This job starts at 5am throughout the season, so the days are long when combined with the many activities that have developed over the years.
On the back steep rocky hill is a strong freshwater spring, which has been tapped to gravity-feed a third of the dairy area, the main house and cowshed tanks. From here, the water is pumped to the other two-thirds of the farm grazing paddocks.
Graham belongs to Fonterra's small milk suppliers' group for farms with less than 300 cows (Smash) and writes on his blog giving advice on trees and cows.
He has frequently been asked about sustainability, diversification, succession, tree planting and management.
The Mangatutu stream on the farm's boundary starts in the Pureora Forest Park and has pristine clean water that brown and rainbow trout inhabit.
Fishermen and women come from around the world and stay in the lodge accommodation provided by Graham and Tess.
This is a popular catch and release holiday for many people in park-like surrounds with farm walks along the tidy cow races and nice tree plantings.
Abseilers come with rock-climbing gear and hike up to a significant large rock face, surrounded by native trees.
The rock face is 50m above the valley alluvial flat land and is used as a training and skill test area for climbers on rescue operations.
Graham has helped provide a significant structure onto which the abseiling ropes can be secured, and a clear access to start their descent and return climb.
Official judge for the NZ Farm Forestry Association, Nick Seymour, says managed trees are significant, with mature plantings and, on the steep land of 9.4 ha, are there for soil retention.
"Radiata pines planted in 1992 were pruned, thinned and harvested in 2013, for a net return of $1100/ha per year," he says.
"The same year 300 Cupressus Lusitanica (mexican cypress) were planted and in 2014 900 eucalypt stringybark ( Mulleriana, Globoidea, Laevopinea and Sphaerocarpa ) were added.
"These have been pruned twice and thinned, with Globoidea ahead of the rest in growth form. Graham also planted 220 macrocarpa as a canker resistance trial.
"There are 300 kauri trees growing around the dairy paddocks, although self pruning, Graham has pruned them to allow sunlight onto the cow race and pasture.
"The growth is good, as is a group on a steep sideling, which will be a farm feature in the future.
"Poplar has been planted near the riverbank and pruned to 8m. They shade the river and stabilise the riverbanks, and later will provide timber."
Graham has added amenity trees throughout the farm for colour and shade.
They are liquidamber, london plane, chestnut, english walnut and black walnut, swamp cypress, poplar, silver birch, pin oak, scarlet oak, english oak, maple, elm, totara and rimu. All are pruned to let sunlight onto the cow race and pasture.
Two creeks from the hill country flow in two directions and into the Mangatutu River.
Nick says to stop farmland nutrients leaving the farm, Graham has created and fenced two wetlands.
"His water tests prove that it is working, with only clean water leaving Miraka Farm."
Graham leases 9.4ha nearby, which has no trees, but is useful for grazing his young heifers, carry over cows and provide supplementary food.
Nick says the most interesting part of this property is Graham's ability to master the tree species Paulownia, for the benefit of his cows, pasture, fodder, shade and timber.
Paulownia trees are deciduous, have a very soft bark, coppice when felled and sprout off their roots.
The timber is noted for being very light but strong and is used in surf boards and boat building.
The farm has three Paulownia nurseries, which provide up to 200 trees a year to plant out. The saplings are at 5 to 6 metres tall at planting out.
"In February I saw last year's scions, near 2m tall, a straight stem and pruned," says Nick.
"They will be planted out this winter with roots and soil.
"Placed onto a flat deck trailer they are then planted into a hole and rammed tight.
"Iron standards with insulators a metre each side of the trees carry a highly charged electric fence wire to stop any amorous cows' 'love of the bark' behaviour.
"To date the spacing of all these trees has been 5m apart, in long rows, but this is changing to 15m apart for there is an opportunity to have the whole farm in the Emission Trading Scheme."
Graham prunes annually, normally in the autumn, with a hand pole saw. The final height of pruning is 7m to let the sunlight in to keep the pasture growing.
The cows are onto the branches after the next milking, first eating the palatable leaves then twigs leaving only the larger branches.
These are soon sawn to lay flat and are picked up by the tractor with front end forks and stacked in a heap to burn later.
"The countryside in February 2020 was very dry as little rain had fallen, but the pastures here on Miraka Farm were green, due to partial shading, 'an oasis in the mist' of drought, the Paulownia leaves being good supplement fodder," says Nick.
When the trees have a breast height diameter of 100cm or turn 20 they are ready for harvest.
The 6m clear wood trunk is trucked to a local sawmill, timber fillet stacked, bound by straps and returned to Miraka Farm to be air dried.
Once dried to Graham's requirements, the 100mm x 50 timber is ready for grading. Any faults in the timber are dock sawn out, and then each plank has its length written on the end and is racked ready for sale.
The niche market for this clean white, light timber is small but growing.
It is mainly used for yacht and motorboat interiors, surf boards, model makers and exporting. Graham manages this market and is very keen that it is not over-supplied, so monitors the supply chain carefully.
Graham says he will continue tree planting, silviculture and harvesting.
With more Paulownia planting at wider spacing, the minimum requirement for registration with the Emission Trading Scheme, another income can be generated with annual carbon units. The whole farm planting is currently being determined.
Service to the community
Tess is very involved with lodge accommodation and farm activities, and is known for her stunning photographs. She is president of the Te Awamutu Camera Club.
Graham has been involved with the Mangatutu River Catchment group and worked on the Waikato Branch stand at the National Field Days.
He has been involved in the Waikato Regional Council – Waipā sub-committee for management and costs, and in Waipā Catchment erosion and river work for 15 years.
Graham is an active member of the Waikato branch of Farm Forestry New Zealand, serving on the committee, newsletter editor, attending branch field days and hosting field days on Miraka Farm.
After having the Country Calendar crew film their property in 2018, 140 people, mainly dairy farmers, attended an eye-opening field day.
Nick says in 2015 Graham and Tess were awarded the FFA Landcare Trust Award for Innovation in Forestry and this year richly deserve the association's premier award.
A field day is planned for this Sunday, March 14 at 12.30pm. Miraka Farm is at 1291 Wharepuhunga Rd.