Think 100 years ahead, couple urge
The couple behind one of New Zealand’s most sustainable farms are challenging all Kiwi farmers to think three or four generations into the future when making decisions. Evan and Linda Potter from Central Hawke’s Bay are the Ballance Farm National Ambassadors for Sustainable Farming and Growing, and current Gordon Stephenson Trophy holders, so they know a thing or two about the environment. They bought their 566ha hillcountry sheep, beef and deer farm, Waipapa Station, in 1997, describing it as “a blank canvas” when they arrived at the gate with nothing more than fencing gear and a team of dogs. Over the years, they have expanded the farm to 720ha and carried out extensive planting — but they also retired about a quarter of the farm’s land. Evan says he and Linda quickly realised the large gorge running through their property would never be productive, so decided to put it into the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust, with the encouragement of Hawke’s Bay Regional Council. Some farmers might feel they are giving away parts of their land, but the Potters say they worked together with the trust to figure out rules and exceptions that worked for both parties, like retaining stock and water access where needed. “It is a partnership, with shared outcomes, in perpetuity,” Evan said. It wasn’t a quick process, taking about six years to totally fence off the gorge and put all the arrangements in place, but the Potters say it helped to streamline their operation. “It was the right decision,” Evan said, “because most of it was class 7 or 8 [very steep] — and managementwise, you’ve taken out a mongrel piece of land to muster, as well as enhancing the beauty and biodiversity of the place — so it just made sense. By taking out that 25 per cent, we’ve been able to focus our time, energy and resources on the better land — and not waste a whole lot of time and money on a piece that’s never going to perform.” Now, the Potters are calling on all Kiwi farmers to carefully consider whether they could do something similar by undertaking a simple review of their systems, and assessing what effect their operations will have over the next 100 years or more. “Most farms could probably retire a percentage of their land with no productivity drop,” Evan said. “That said, we also recognise there’s no one rule for all farms — they’re all unique little ecosystems — and it’s also important to acknowledge the many farmers already on this path. “It’s about embracing different land use opportunities, and seeing your land as more than a vehicle for traditional pastoral farming — like putting the right trees in the right place for timber and carbon, horticulture, cropping, tourism, honey — there are so many options to consider. “Some of those initiatives could even be in partnership with investors or small business owners.” As part of their efforts to retire unproductive land, the Potters fenced off Waipapa’s gorge and began extensive pest control - with the native flora in the gorge quickly regenerating. “When we first came here,” Evan says, “the gorge had a lot of kowhai trees that were nothing more than sticks - you could walk for 10 minutes and shoot 20 possums - they were under every flax bush.” That pest control has not only reduced the number of possums, but also the wild cats, ferrets, and rats have dropped right off, and as a result, the Potters have much less chance of diseases like tuberculosis or toxoplasmosis affecting their stock. With so much planting going on every year, Linda has taken to propagating her own natives from seeds foraged on the farm, and now aims to grow at least 2000 each year. She says it makes a big difference and greatly reduces the cost of buying seedlings’ The Potters faced a few financially tough years to begin with at Waipapa because of droughts and price fluctuations. “We’ve always been pretty disciplined in terms of our finances — sometimes that involves not biting off more than you can chew,” Evan said. “It’s just a matter of dealing with what you can, making good plans and decisions, and having a good group of people around you. “While an environmental spend needs to be flexible, and not compromise financial profitability, we see it as a fixed business expense - not discretionary. It could cover any activity, like earthworks, water, fencing — there are no rules.” The couple are thankful to those who have helped them over the years, whether that be with skills, advice or cashflow. ANZ has helped to finance the Potters over the years, and Evan said the most important thing a bank can do for a farmer is to take the time to understand their business. He now he considers his relationship manager “a vital part of the business”. ANZ managing director business Lorraine Mapu applauds the Potters’ approach, and their challenge to other farmers. “With environmental regulations increasing alongside consumer expectations around sustainability, farmers like the Potters are futureproofing their operation by taking steps like this,” she said. “Their foresight, along with a diversified production model, will continue to serve them well not only environmentally, but financially. “Environmental impact is something all farmers around the world are going to have to confront.” And the Potters aim to leave their land in a better state than when they arrived — a mindset which would have pleased the namesake of the trophy they won.