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Challenge to Kiwi farmers to think 100 years ahead

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.


The call comes from Evan and Linda Potter in Central Hawke’s Bay - they 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 566-hectare hill country 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 720 hectares 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 was never going to 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 management-wise, 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%, 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 of land that’s never going to perform.”
- Evan Potter


Now, the Potters are calling on all New Zealand 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, especially when you’re planting thousands of trees.


Every expense adds up, and the Potters admit that even with careful management their first few years at Waipapa - when they faced droughts and price fluctuations - were financially tough.


“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 cash flow.


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 said at one point he felt the bank only served one purpose - giving out loans - but now he considers his Relationship Manager “a vital part of the business”.


ANZ Managing Director Business Lorraine Mapu applauded the Potters’ approach, and their challenge to other farmers.


“With environmental regulations increasing alongside consumer expectations around sustainability, farmers like the Potters are future-proofing 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.


“Ignoring the increasing pressure to move towards carbon-neutrality will only become more expensive – but more importantly – customers are demanding it from producers.


“ANZ recognises that some of these decisions are not easy to make, or implement - but seeing sustainability as an investment opportunity, rather than a regulatory burden, will ultimately see those businesses rewarded.


“New Zealand farmers have always been innovators in the face of change, and if we can adapt quickly to this new, more sustainable business landscape, we’ll have a jump on our competitors in the international market.”


A low-interest ANZ Environment Loan is available to farmers wanting to improve their environment, as well as their economic sustainability, while working towards meeting environment standards.


Funds can be used to engage a qualified environmental advisor to develop a Farm Environment Plan, for investment in infrastructure to mitigate environmental risks, or for water and energy conservation projects.


It can also be used for effluent or water quality management or monitoring, as well as for the fencing or planting of non-grazing land to enhance its value.


More information is available here, and you can also talk to your Relationship Manager.


Looking forward, the Potters are aiming to leave their land at Waipapa in a better state than when they arrived, and as caretakers of the farm, feel they are responsible for its long-term sustainability - a mindset which would have pleased the namesake of the trophy they won.




Gordon Stephenson was a farmer and pioneering environmentalist from Waikato who passed away in 2015 - but not before founding the Gordon Stephenson Trophy, which the Potters won this year.


Stephenson’s vision was to create a source of recognition and pride for those who looked 100 years into the future when considering their farming models.


During an interview in 2012, he said he aimed to “try to get people to think - what will be the long term effect of what I’m doing?



“Just think when you’re doing something, if somebody went on doing this for 100 years - that’s only four generations - what will be the effect?” he said.


“I think in accepting an award, you also accept responsibilities, and amongst those responsibilities is a vision we need to have for the future of farming in New Zealand.


“Farming is going to go on forever as long as people are around - and farming has to continue on a sustainable basis - your task that follows winning this award is to be the ambassador of this idea, wherever you go in your future careers.”


Evan says he’s embraced that aim, and sees his farm as being a bit like a large garden.


“We’d like to think that we’ve lived up to that responsibility, and enjoying it and getting a good living and having a great place for our kids to live,” he said.


“It’s a privilege to be the kaitiaki of Waipapa, and with that comes a bit of responsibility,” he said.


“We’ve got a bigger garden than most, and I suppose we’re proud of how the garden looks and how it’s changing - but we’re only short-term guardians of a long-term project,


“We’re only going to put our stamp on it for the time that we’re here, and then the next group will have their crack.”



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