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New Zealand family farms make a come back
A rickety white truck drives along the long dirt road. The sky is clear azure in color, with the occasional white puff of cloud, like drops of milk in a never-ending sea.
Though the truck drives toward the mountains—a canvas of greens and browns and greys splattered together in every direction—they never appear any closer. The mountains are an endless, eternal presence, watching over kilometers of golden grass.
Suddenly, the truck veers off the path. Sheep appear in the distance. First one, then two then 40 basking in the sun. It is early, still cool enough for them to enjoy the morning breeze brush against their thick, woolen coats.
Eighty ears prick up in unison. Forty heads turn, listening to the sound of the truck rolling along the dirt and gravel.
At the sound of the truck’s horn, 160 little sheep legs begin to run.
“Every day’s different and very seldom do we do the same job all day,” Bruce Nell, a New Zealand sheep farmer, said as he smiled out the car window at the sheep ahead.
Middle Rock Farm is a working sheep farm an hour outside of Christchurch, home to up to 10,000 sheep at a time. The farm once belonged to Bruce Nell’s father until Nell and his wife, Lyn Nell, took it over in 1973.
However, sheep farming has been a tradition in New Zealand long before the Nell family acquired their land.
British settlers brought the first sheep to New Zealand in 1773 but sheep farming didn’t take off until the 1840s. By 1856, sheep farming was the most important farming industry in New Zealand. It remained that way for 131 years.
At the time, sheep were used for wool and meat. Frozen sheep meat was sent to Britain for the first time in 1882, further expanding sheep farming across the country. Exporting meat was extremely important to the country’s economy and money made from wool and sheep meat contributed to much of the agriculture profit in New Zealand from the 1880s to the 1980s.
In the 1980s, due to a budget crisis, the government removed farm subsidies—money from the government given to farmers. Sheep farming became less profitable. The sheep farming industry wasn’t the only one that suffered from Britain's move to the European Union.
Small, family-owned dairy farms across New Zealand had to grow or risk disappearing altogether. While many of the farms did not survive, some, like John Vosper’s family farm, held on long enough to see an increase in revenue in the 1990s when, for the first time, dairy farming surpassed sheep farming as the country’s most profitable agricultural industry.
It took Cleave Vosper, John’s grandfather, more than a month to drive his herd of cattle across 300 kilometers (186 miles) of rugged New Zealand terrain, which stretches from the foothills of Mount Taranaki to the rural farmland of Matamata. The trek was no small feat for the early 20th century dairy farmer, who would come to be remembered as a pioneer of Jersey cow farming in the North Island’s Waikato Region and the namesake of Cleavedale Farms.
Today, John, who returned to take his grandfather’s place on the farm in 1991, sits squarely at his kitchen table. Still operating under the careful guidance of the Vosper family, Cleavedale Farms is now known as the home to Jersey Girl Organics, an organic dairy farm and small-scale processing facility. John’s son, Michael, a youthful dairy farmer who—if it were not for the New Zealand accent—could pass as an Alabama cowboy, now manages the 80-hectare (200 acre) dairy farm. Their philosophy on farming is similar to the American Southerner’s philosophy on life: slow, deliberate and honest.
“We’ve differentiated [from competitors] by becoming organic,” John Vosper said, noting the challenges of family farming and their recent addition of an onsite pasteurization facility. “We just thought, if we can add value by putting it in a bottle and selling it ourselves, then that would be a good idea. But sometimes you don’t know how deep the water is going to be when you jump in, or how hard you’re going to have to swim to stay afloat.”
Vosper’s challenges are not unique to the farming industry of New Zealand, but his solution might be. His goal is to solidify his place in the New Zealand dairy market and develop his farm as a family asset, meant to pass from generation to generation. His inspiration comes from the native people of New Zealand.
“A lot of Maori have small parcels of land all over the place, but it’s sort of not for sale,” Vosper said. “It’s a family asset that they’re looking [to preserve] for future generations. To be honest, I think a lot of farmers have seen the land as a resource to be exploited. We’ve got a real issue in New Zealand at the moment with farming industries coming to grips with natural resource regulations, especially around the water quality.”
Hailey Grace Steele
Mary Kathryn Carpenter,
Christopher Chase Edmunds
and Lane Stafford
In some areas of the country, such as the Canterbury region surrounding Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island, the intensification of the arable, dry farming, once only used for crops and sheep, has now been irrigated to allow for the expansion of the dairy industry in the area.
The decision to irrigate the land caused a divide in the community between many dairy farmers, who the irrigation system would benefit, and residents of the community, who were concerned about pollution from the industry. But some farms, such as Bryan Clearwater’s, have made it their mission to generate revenue while operating an environmentally sustainable business.
“We are passionate about New Zealand remaining [free of genetic engineering],” Clearwaters’ broadcasts proudly on the homepage of its website. “In our opinion, there are few benefits of going down the GE path, and potentially huge risks to the future of our food safety. We believe New Zealand should continue to build on its clean green image to protect our markets for all of our primary agricultural products, and enhance our 100 percent-pure brand.”
Even with the help of family farms like Clearwaters, the change of landscape brought by the dairy farming industry is visible for all to see. Most obvious, is the $90 million (U.S. $63.3 million) irrigation scheme, the country’s biggest man-made storage facility for irrigation. The seven-pond catchment has shifted more than 4 million cubic meters (141.3 million cubic feet) of fill on the south bank of the Rangitata River and is designed to hold 16.5 million cubic meters (582.7 million cubic feet) of water.
Only a short drive from Clearwaters Organic Dairy, the irrigation system looks surprisingly picturesque framed by dairy cows and sheep grazing on the hills of Mount Peel. Yet it has not brought all of the answers to farmers in the area and many are still wondering what they will do next.
With the ever-changing climate in the sheep farming industry, family farms like Middle Rock have had to create new ways to survive. When Bruce and Lyn Nell first began farming, 70 percent of their income came from selling wool and 30 percent came from selling meat. Now, it’s the opposite. This is just one part of the changing market.
“I think to remain viable, we’ve got to get closer to the customer,” Bruce Nell said, once again driving his white truck slowly over the hills.
The way to do this, he explained, is letting buyers know where their wool products and food come from. Some farms are geotagging individual carcasses and allowing customers to track where their meat was grown.
“I think we are providing the luxury end of the world food market so we’ve got to comply with what the requirements are for the kitchen,” he added.
Some years are more difficult than others for farms due to factors outside the farmer’s control, such as climate and rainfall. Bruce Nell doesn’t let those years deter him from doing what he loves, what he’s always known he’s wanted to do.
“We do have years where the income is adequate for expenses and then other years where maybe it’s a climate that is against it, so we need to just take the loss,” he explained.
To help maintain the farm, the Nell family opened their home to garden tours in 1990 and farm tours shortly after. It was another source of income, another way to grow and keep sheep farming a profitable market, Lyn Nell explained.
She takes groups on tours of the gardens herself. Emerald grass, perfectly trimmed trees and flowers of all colors surround her home. Beyond the garden is a clear view of the mountains, their snowy white peaks touching the sky.
“When I first started off welcoming visitors to Middle Rock, it was in the domestic market and community groups would come here,” Lyn Nell said, leading a tour group through her backyard. “They would look around the garden and they would say, ‘Why can’t I have a piece of this?’ So I started a nursery and I sold plants here for many years.”
She explained when they opened accommodations on their farm, she had to stop selling plants from her nursery because the demand was too much to handle.
“But I’m a compulsive potter,” she added with a laugh, gesturing fondly to a row of them lining the edge of the garden. “I can’t stop myself. So I keep just putting little bits in pots.”
On a typical farm tour, visitors see a sheep dog demonstration and meet three dogs that help herd the farm’s 10,000 sheep. The demonstrator uses a dog whistle to give commands, a different whistle for each dog and for every command.
Visitors might take a bus through the mountains to see the sheep spread throughout the farm, grazing in different areas, basking in the sun or hiding in the shade of a nearby tree.
The stories of struggles and successes for families like the Nells, the Vospers and the Clearwaters run rampant in the New Zealand countryside. It is not their challenges that make them unique, but their response to those challenges. Each one of these families have adapted to their circumstances, evolved with their livelihood and remained true to the country that made them who they are today.
"Every day’s different and very seldom do we do the same job all day,"
- Bruce Nell
"I think to remain viable, we’ve got to get closer to the customer,"
- Bruce Nell