Ballance eco-winners achieve total farm balance

Ballance eco-winners achieve total farm balance

A North Otago couple with just five years' farming under their belt take out the top prize for environmentally-friendly farming.

Jane and Blair Smith conserve the rivers where the local children swim. The South Islanders have planted 15,000 trees in the last year, on top of running three unique farming properties including a Perendale stud farm responsible for the genetics of 300,000 lambs nationwide annually. They want to leave the river, which cuts through their land, in “the same state it started with, if not better,” says Jane.

“We’ve got 35 kids at our local school swimming in that river in summer, so you can’t get a more personal reason to look after it.”

It’s that kind of farming - with an eye to preserving the land and its resources - that has seen the relatively new farming couple scoop first prize at the Ballance Farm Environment awards 2012, trumping eight other regional winners.

The couple, who have three children, credit a savvy combination of big-picture holistic thinking and boardroom behaviour for propelling them to the top. They were described by the judges as being “driven individuals” who “continued to challenge themselves to meet their personal and business objectives” while demonstrating “excellent care of the environment in parallel with the wise use of fertiliser based on a good understanding of soil, animal and pasture requirements.”

Farming for just five years now on three family farms in North Otago, running 9,500 stock units is no small feat. The three properties, with a combined area of 1528 hectares, are each diversified with sheep, beef, over-wintering dairy and forestry. Each has vastly different topography, elevation, rainfall and soil types, which require markedly different strategies for stock rotation and pasture management.

On top of adapting to all that, the couple have reinstated freshwater crayfish in closed waterways, remediated the banks of the rivers passing through their properties, and planted copious native trees where birds thrive.

“That’s one thing that we want to make people aware of: that farmers do genuinely care about the environment and the water,” explains Jane. “It’s a constant balancing act between productivity and environmental capability.”

The Farm Environment Awards were established in 1993 to cultivate a mind- set among farmers that profitability and environmental consciousness are not mutually exclusive, inspiring them to be “more proactive in their resource management by providing them with role models for sustainable land management.”

Jane says the judging process made her appreciate the value of what they were doing, as the 10 judges required them to explain every small detail about the farm, taking nothing for granted.

“You get more out [of being asked the questions] than answering the questions. We had questions about what we’re doing long term and what we want to achieve.

“It’s not until you have to justify what you’re doing [to the judges] that you realise – yes, we are doing that! And because we’re in the early stages of a farming career, unless you’ve got someone to come along and critique you, you don’t know how you’re going.”

Looking ahead, the Smiths plan to concen-trate on more native planting, and the genetic side of the sheep stud operation. The focus on sustainable environmental stewardship will remain, Jane says.

“In everything we do, we take a step back and take a holistic, big-picture view of things and then narrow down to the detail. Espe- cially if you’re looking at the management side of things,” she says.

She and Blair work on the overall strategies together, and springboard off their own strengths and passions in the details – Blair covering off the stock management and the agronomy side of things and Jane doing the fertilisers and feed.

“We believe that the best people for the job are best to do that job, so that’s why we take different areas of the business and we concentrate on that. It means that you are responsible to make sure that whatever you are in charge of actually happens – whereas quite often things fall through the cracks.”

Unlike the typically informal style of family- owned farm management, Jane, Blair and Jane’s father hold operational farm meetings once a month to report on those areas that they’re responsible for, bringing in a bit of corporate culture from their previous careers – Jane in agribusiness and Blair in transport.

“Because it’s a family farm, you think things just happen. We’ve found that with three people calling the shots in different areas, it was good to front up to those meetings and talk about what you’ve achieved. Sometimes it’s a real struggle to get things done two days before the meeting but it makes you do them . . . it might sound overkill but it actually works.”

And the family intends to continue to pursue a clean, green ethos for the growing family business.

“We’re constantly improving and making sure we’re ahead of the game on that. And that’s really exciting.”

 This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.