A passion for the environment, and their own land, influences short and long-term choices on the “Ahiaruhe Farm” property of Michael and Karen Williams, at Carterton in the Wairarapa region of New Zealand’s North Island.
The couple run a 450-hectare mixed arable livestock farm on the Ruamahanga River, growing milling wheat and malting barley, seed crops of peas, ryegrass, red clover and yellow flower brassicas and run 7000 lambs and 200 beef cattle.
“We’re looking at how can we continue to produce good food, with a diminishing environmental impact,” Karen said. “For me, sustainability is about balance, and that's social, economic, and environmental. You need to get all three of those working together and that's certainly our driver.”
Michael said they have implemented a wide range of innovations to achieve their sustainability goals, including an early switch to no-till.
“There's a whole lot of reasons we do the no-tillage, wind erosion and run-off are reduced, but looking after the soil is the main one. We’re not losing organic matter and carbon to the atmosphere through ploughing. We’re returning a lot of residue and building our organic matter, and that increases the soil water holding capacity."
“Mick's father kicked it off on the home farm nearly 25 years ago, and that was out of frustration with how the soil was responding to continuous cultivation,” Karen said. “He thought there must be a better way. We initially started with a cross-slot direct drill and have now moved on to a Novag. It's a one-pass establishment so we're not driving around and around in circles with cultivation practices.”
Michael said it had taken some time to fine-tune the management with both cropping and livestock options however no-till practices enabled them to crop a larger area of the farm, burn fewer fossil fuels, and generate more income.
"Every year is different, which provides its own challenges. You have to spend a lot more time out looking at your crops and being ready to roll with something slightly different if you need to."
Paddock soil tests help determine the right amount of fertiliser required for each crop and agrichemical use is also measured and monitored to ensure only what is required is applied.
A large-scale, native vegetation program has also been run on the property for many years.
“We've been very committed to revegetating our farm and we've been doing that for well over 20 years,” Karen said. “It brings a lot of joy. We live in a really special place. We love to see the biodiversity thriving, bringing back the native birds, and also those beneficial insects that live in that space and reduce our reliance on chemical use."
“Aphids are one of the big pests,” Michael said. “Beneficial insects like the ladybirds, lacewings and hoverflies will eat the aphids. They live in the fenced-off waterways.”
Karen said in the early days they cleared out willows and other vegetation that was choking the waterways.
“We fenced off those waterways and we've been planting since that time. We just did it because we're passionate about it and we wanted to have some separation distance between our waterways and where we are producing food.”
In more recent years, the fenced-off areas have included remnant bush areas not associated with the waterway.
“We've had some help from the Queen Elizabeth the Second National Trust, which enables us to protect certain areas in perpetuity,” Karen said.
Carbon sequestration is very topical globally and in New Zealand, with industry, government and Māori partners trying to devise an on-farm emissions reduction program while also recognising the sequestration farmers currently achieve on their farms.
“We feel good about enabling as much sequestration in our soils as we can through management techniques,” Karen said. “We've been planting for the last 20 years and retiring areas.”
She said the push towards sustainability had given them a lot of positives.
“Do you want to spend all weekend driving around that same paddock or do you want to spend a bit more quality time with the family? Environment, economic social – you’ve just got to look for those combined wins. This environmental journey is about looking after options for our future generations.”
Both Michael and Karen are heavily involved in the local community and with various industry groups.
Michael has championed the Ruamahanga River which surrounds the property and Karen was on the National Board of Federated Farmers.
“I think there's always ways we can do things better,” Karen said. “That's where our discussion groups, our levy bodies, different rural media, and podcasts can work, finding out smarter ways.
“People talk about a rural-urban divide, but I just think we don't understand each other. People do appreciate their food; they just don't realize how much passion and toil goes into the production of that and the variables that you're dealing with,” she said.
“I think the onus is on us and the wider ‘Team Ag’, to promote and talk positively about what we do and to share our passion for food production. Own that space, be proud of what we do."
The Williams are part of the Corteva Agriscience Climate Positive program which highlights and celebrates farmers doing the right thing by the environment.
"I think it is a good thing,” Michael said. “Farmers learn best from other farmers, and it is an opportunity to meet other like-minded people, and bounce ideas around.”
Karen said the program was a way Corteva showed they were standing alongside the farming community in some challenging times.
“Farmers feel like they're leaning into the headwinds a lot on their own. It feels pretty lonely at times, so it is great to think that those key industry supporters, like Corteva, are also there alongside us trying to work out the solutions too."
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