Since Rick and Rose Powdrell took ownership of a large part Emerald Hills in 1986, they've gradually transformed the 446ha — with 382ha effective — into a diverse drystock operation with environmentalism at its core.

"My grandfather Jack bought the property in 1939. Both Jack and my father John were forward-thinkers," says Rick. "They did some great things which have benefited the land, such as fencing off steep gullies and gorges.

"They fenced off the areas because they kept losing cattle, but the environment also benefited from having heavy stock removed from vulnerable slopes."

"As times have passed and focuses have changed, I always say many past generations were doing things that were good environmentally, but they were doing them because they were good from a management perspective."

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In the early 1990s Rick and Rose approached a newly-formed Bay of Plenty Regional Council to undertake environmental protection work on their property.

"The first thing we did with BOPRC was create a soil and water conservation plan, and we've just carried on from there."

The Powdrells have fenced off significant waterways — unusually that form most of the property's boundary — and planted thousands of trees for the benefit of their own property and the greater Kaituna catchment.

Steeper paddocks have become sheep-only zones.

Pinus radiata was planted as part of earlier projects in retired areas — but Rick says most early-retired land was left to regenerate naturally.

"We find these areas first get covered with bracken then natives pop up and eventually they overtake."

Today some fenced off areas have received mānuka plantings.

"This is primarily because we have wild deer at the back, so we have to manage them along with other pests. And they don't tend to worry the mānuka."

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Rick has also worked with BOPRC on biological controls. In the 1980s he established a receptacle weevil to help control nodding thistles. In the 1990s the BOPRC established a gall fly to curb the same thistle.

"I used to say to people I was growing nodding thistles for council," laughs Rick. "But that has been successful, and we certainly have a lot less nodding thistle than we had before."
And he says any natural organism that can assist in producing a better environmental outcome than the spray alternative "is a win for me".

Involved with Federated Farmers for a long time — he's served as BOP Provincial president and Federated Farmers meat and fibre industry group chairman — Rick says it wasn't until he was elected to the board that he really got involved in the politics of environment.

"This focused me to look at my own property and say: 'What are the environmental issues we've got and let's focus on those'."

Four years ago Beef + Lamb NZ approached the Powdrells, wanting their property to become one of two Environment Focus Farms in the central North Island.

The three-year project's goal was to highlight on-farm environmental work being done, how to go about it and how farmers can involve local bodies.

One significant result of the project was installation of troughs across a large portion of the Powdrell farm, which previously relied on spring-fed dams.

Drilling for water and installing troughs is an expensive exercise but takes stock away from natural waterways where they muddy the edges and dirty water to the detriment of downstream ecosystems.

Other work has included planting poplar poles and mānuka seedlings, and installing detention dams to alleviate washing out in gullies.

"Our biggest problem here is surface runoff and what that might take with it in the form of phosphorus or sediment, so we've put in a lot of dams to catch sediment to ensure we're minimising our losses of nutrients and sediment."

The Powdrells did a Level 3 Environment Plan as a focus farm.

"It was a five-year plan so we're still working through that."

The focus for the next three years is on fencing off gullies, wetlands and now-redundant dams once used for stock water.

Today Rick is also proud of the farm operation's diversity. It runs 1950 Romney ewes — one-third are mated to South Suffolk, the rest to Romney — plus 500 hoggets.

"This produces a high eczema-resistant flock and I've been working on that for many years," says Rick. "Prime lambs are a big part of our operation — as we aim to finish all of our lambs."

The beef operation currently has 130 brought-in 100kg beef calves, 77 one-year beef steers and 23 one-year beef heifers, 50 two-year beef steers being finished now — predominantly of Simmental and Hereford and Friesian-cross breeds — plus, 170 dairy heifers and 170 dairy calves.

"One of our big drivers has always been diversity of our operation, which includes our sheep, dairy grazing and beef and amongst the sheep you've got prime lambs, mutton and wool.

"I've always had a philosophy that if I'm going to have wool on a sheep I'm going to try and grow a good as a fleece as I can," says Rick.

He entered the Farm Environment Awards in its early days.

"Back then we learnt a lot and realised we had a lot we wanted to do and over the years I've been pressured by people to enter again but I always felt I wanted to get to certain point I was comfortable with.

"We certainly want the property to be as good — and hopefully better — environmentally and more sustainable when we leave it than when we came. So, I think it's time to get some feedback again and see where we are at."

The Bay of Plenty Ballance Farm Environment awards ceremony is on February 22 at Trustpower Baypark Arena, Mount Maunganui.