Not for sale

As he focuses on environmental good practice, dairy farmer has another idea for his coastal property.

Bay of Plenty farmer Tom Houston has a dream: sometime in the near future he wants to open his dairy farm up to the public so he can show town and city dwellers what sustainable farming is all about.

"It would be an exciting thing to do," he says. "My idea is to have open days to show people where dairy products come from, the effort we put into looking after the cows and the land - what is done to get the food we produce on to supermarket shelves."

Houston has been running Cheddar Valley Farms for three years - a small 73ha property which runs to the edge of the Ohiwa Harbour near the coastal settlement of Ohope, owned by the Houston Family Trust.

Despite being brought up on dairy farms (his parents worked on several throughout the North Island) it was the four years he spent working as an electrical contractor in Hamilton that helped shape his idea of having open days.

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"I realised there is a bit of a separation (among urban people) in what they know about dairy farming. It doesn't always have the best reputation and I would love to demonstrate our farming practices and what we are doing to look after and improve the land."

Which, as it turns out, is a lot. Not only is he working with the Bay of Plenty Regional Council to develop a farm environmental plan, Houston and his partner Kelsey Waghorn (who lives with him at Cheddar Valley) have invested about $5000 fencing off four wetland areas on the farm and planting over 3000 native trees.

They include plantings of kahikatea, totara, manuka, kanuka, karaka and cabbage trees. About half the trees have been supplied by Trees That Count, a conservation charity which runs a community marketplace connecting native tree planters with funders.

Houston is carrying out the work with help from his brother Cameron (who works for the Department of Conservation and is, says Houston, passionate about the environment) and his parents Jim and Gill.

Photo / Supplied.
Photo / Supplied.

These measures are important not only for the management and health of his own land, but for the Ohiwa Harbour. Houston says he is eager to prevent as much run-off as possible from flowing to the harbour – separated from the farm only by the width of a road running along the fenceline.

According to the regional council, the harbour is home to a multitude of marsh and shore birds, shellfish and fish and is popular with recreational users for sightseeing, boating, swimming and fishing.

An article on the council's website says environmental monitoring shows the harbour's water quality is slowly improving with a reduction in the amount of nutrients entering its waters. However it says erosion "is still bringing too much sediment and more work remains to be done to address this."

Houston, who runs about 160 cows, says around 8ha of the farm is in regenerating native bush and wetlands.

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"It has been quite challenging for us," he says. "About half the farm is flat and half is steep hill country. We get a lot of seepage off the hills and because it (at the lower levels) sits on reclaimed harbour land, it means it can be quite wet – so it can be hard to keep on top of where the water is going.

Photo / Supplied.
Photo / Supplied.

"When we took over the infrastructure was lacking, pasture was run down and most of the wetlands weren't fenced off. Cows were always getting stuck in them, so it was a no-brainer to fence them off." A well-managed wetland is also efficient at catching sediment and nutrients from run-off water before it gets to the harbour.

Houston says he has also got rid of a lot of "pest" trees and plants within the native bush stands such as gorse, willow and blackberry: "We have been taking them out and replacing them with natives."

Long term, he is looking to reduce his stock numbers (probably down to around 100 cows) so he can diversify into horticulture.

"The farm is too wet and too steep to be hugely profitable as a dairy operation so we are thinking about reducing the grazing area," he says. "At the moment we are still looking into what plants would work."