GrassFed in the city

4 million kiwis telling our story

Dear Alicia,

I’d like to start by saying that you are an icon of my generation. I could almost quote your performance in Clueless word for word.

However, I’d just like to point out that your recent endorsement of PETA in the ‘rather go naked than wear wool’ campaign is, in fact, reminiscent of the IQ level of Cher Horowitz.

Before you form your fingers into the classic W shape and mouth ‘Whatever’ please consider the following facts:

  • Synthetic materials and the production of them are causing major problems both socially and environmentally. Many ‘vegan-leathers’ don’t take the environment into account. Synthetic leather is usually made from PVC or polyurethane plastic (PU), both of which have been linked to carcinogenic substances. This puts the wearers and the makers of these fabrics at risk. Beyond the production line, even washing these fabrics can cause harm. When we wash synthetic materials they release plastic microfibres into the ocean, damaging marine habitats.
  • I’m not sure where PETA got the idea that shearers can punch sheep in the face but if you ever did punch a sheep in the face you wouldn’t be able to work for some time as your hand would be in a cast. A sheep’s skull is built like an armoured car – have you ever seen nature documentaries where rams are butting heads together?  So, I’m sure you will understand that our fragile human hand is no match.
  • Sheep need their wool removed for their wellbeing. Flies can lay eggs in their wool which turn into maggots and then a sheep can look like this. I think you would agree that this is cruel!
  • Admittedly sheep can get cut during shearing –it’s a bit like when you cut your legs shaving. No sheep I have ever seen has died from it.
  • Shearers are amazing! Do you know it takes them less than 2 minutes to shear a sheep?  (The world record is world record is 37.9 seconds).  I think you would agree I wouldn’t mind getting rid of body hair in that amount of time versus the hour long waxing sessions!
  • Just to end on a high note – you look fabulous and I’d probably go naked too if I were you but please just inform yourself a bit more before donating yourself to a cause – and not just sporadically.

    Regards,
    A female farmer and wool wearer.

It is always great catching up with friends and having friends stay on the farm.  My daughter Keelin loves showing visitors the dogs (her dogs), the sheep and cattle and her prized guinea pigs!  This autumn my husband and I hosted a long time friend from Canada and his Chinese partner.  We were also treated to a special visit from a hedgehog wrapped in a bow!  It must have got tangled up in some of the discarded Christmas wrappings but our Chinese visitor thought it might have been a present!  We told her that unfortunately it wasn’t and rescued the poor thing by cutting it off.

Coco (as we were told to call her because our kiwi tongues could in no way attempt to pronounce her real name) was delightful and open to trying new things and learning about other countries.  She also shared the good and the bad things about her home.  While she is very proud of her culture and history she remarked about food – she always checked if we had washed vegetables and fruit as in China it is dangerous to eat anything without washing it.  She also explained that they were used to not believing what they see is exactly what they are getting.  And that is not just with pre-packaged goods.  Even fruit that can look amazing does not have the nutrients or flavour of fruit that we may have as it is grown under lights and with heavy use of chemicals.

The global media has been in a spin and my other profession – communications has taken some hits as the Trump administration, by way of U.S. Counsellor, Kellyanne Conway’s Freudian slip, by use of the term alternative facts.

Unfortunately, alternative facts are rife in our food chain.

Vegetarian food producers are able to use dairy and meat terminology when selling products and the terms organic and sustainable are used without much policing around what they mean.  And don’t get me started on what the no sugar added phrasing can actually mean in reality.

Then there are counterfeit foods that claim to be something that they aren’t. More Manuka honey is actually sold in the UK and China than we actually export.

There is a discussion about brand protection and traceability that is being had and should be.  My concern as a farmer’s wife and a learner farmer myself is that this world of fakes and falsehoods is causing people to be afraid and treat all food producers with suspicion.  Documentaries such as Cowspiracy have directed this fear toward meat producers which has meant that sustainable grass fed farmers have been put in the same category as massive feed lot industrial meat producers.  Unfortunately, this mindset has spread to urban dwellers in New Zealand and has started an unhelpful and unhealthy attitude towards farming in New Zealand.

Nothing is perfect and can always be improved.  For things to improve however we all need to come to the table and have an open minded discussion – I hope that this blog is one forum for intelligent, informed and respectful conversation.

When I was five I met my Grandmother for the first time.

She was a strong, straight up and no nonsense woman and  I didn’t think she was like other grandmothers from what I had heard.

One day,  my parents were out and I was slightly nervous that I was in the house with her alone.  She called me into the kitchen and I reluctantly put the Barbies aside to go to her.  She was making apple pie.  She pulled up a chair and started to show me how to carefully roll out pastry.  She then showed me the circle we had made and pointed out where I lived (on this imaginary planet) and where she lived and how it was light on one side of the globe when it was dark on hers and how the seasons were different as the side of the circle moved farther away from the sun.

When I think of this moment years later, I think of the lesson I learnt that day about and through food—  it is more than just what we eat—  it is an opportunity to connect, learn and create.

It is this passion for creating that I see farmers put into growing their food every day.  As it is election season and it seems the rural and urban divide has been widened by our political parties I hope that we can connect and understand each other’s perspectives as it is our ability to produce food for our global family that is at risk.

 

What’s the best thing about this warm rain?  Pasture growth!

What’s the next best thing?  Water in our household water tank, so a slightly longer shower!

And what’s the next best thing?  Mushrooms!!!

After several months with almost no rain here in Auckland, the last couple of days have brought big smiles to our faces.  We’ve had close to 100ml of rain, enough to get the grass growing again.  Hopefully we can follow up with a few more rainfall events over the next couple of weeks.

Dan came in from the farm this morning to grab the kids and go mushroom hunting.  If you’ve never tasted wild mushrooms before, they are a taste that can’t be compared anything really, and they are nothing like white button mushrooms from the supermarket.  They are savoury and rich, and so…. earthy.  And blimmin nourishing!  What an amazing nutritional contribution they must have made to our ancestors diet in the autumn.

Anyway, the kids came running down the hill half an hour later with a beer box full of mushrooms  (I would have loved to say a basket, but let’s just tell it how it is).  And after peeling the mushrooms and frying them up with some butter, bacon and a bit of cream – it was the perfect way to have a lunch celebrating the end of a drought

I love meals like what we had at lunch, when the hero of the meal has come from our farm.  (It may have helped that Dan cooked instead of me).  There’s something very special about eating something you’ve foraged for, and I basked today in the way our kids appreciated that what they were eating was special, and something that can only happen a couple of times a year.

Late last year we moved our vegetable garden to create some more space for the kids, and allowed the old one to grass over and become part of our lawn.  Have a look at these photos:

unfertilised-lawn-2017

Our  lawn

Old vege garden lawn 2017.JPG

The old vegetable garden, left to become part of our lawn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have never applied fertiliser to our lawn (who’d want to make it grow faster?!).  So it is quite weedy, and bare looking at certain times of the year.

Every year I put a mixture of sheep manure, compost, and handfuls of nitrogen, phosphate, pottassium, and lime on our vege garden.  And look at the difference those nutrients make!  Beautiful, thick, yummy clover, naturally increasing the nitrogen in the soil.

In the future, it would be great to get our new garden tested to see where our selenium levels etc are at.  We do soil tests regularly on our farm to work out how much sulphur, selenium and other nutrients we need to add to the base mix of phosphate and potassium to ensure our pasture and our animals are getting the optimum amount of minerals they need.

Some NZ soils (not all) are naturally low in selenium, which is essential for human and animal health.  We add selenium to our fertiliser to ensure the health of our cattle and sheep.  I would be interested to find out if vegetable growers add minerals that are essential for human health to their soils, or just those essential for plant health?

Where can I shift them to next?!

Man it’s dry out there.  One of the interesting, challenging, and scary things about farming is that there is just so much stuff we have no control over.  One of the biggest variables we deal with here in the North is the amount of rain in any given month.  We can take care of the health and fertility of our soil, we can manage how we graze our ‘plants’ with holistic rotation planning, but as anyone with a vege garden (or even a pot plant) will know, if that plant don’t get water, that plant don’t grow!

Farming at its most simplest is growing pasture and then converting it into protein.  We are really grass farmers – one of our main jobs is to grow as much high quality grass as we can.  Plenty of good pasture is always going to be a top priority for the well-being of a healthy cattle beast or sheep – Vitamin ‘G’ for grass.

I’m not going to get into the pro’s and con’s of irrigation in other parts of the country.  However if you take a walk in our crop paddock, the only part that’s green is where we had a broken water pipe a few weeks ago.  And it can’t help but make me think about how nice it would be to put sprinklers around our farm and have all our paddocks looking like that right now…. (picture)

Because, despite looking fairly green from the road, when you get up amongst it on the farm, underneath the stalk is bare and brown.

Drought Jan 2017.JPG

A little rain would make a big difference!

Now, if we knew that every January the 18th it would look like this, we could plan for it, and match our stocking rate to pasture availability.  But every January the 18th looks different.  Unfortunately, understocking our property isn’t the answer either.  Pasture loses palatability and nutritional benefits if it gets too long, and its not economical to have too much pasture not being eaten (Well it might be economical if you have no mortgage and a handy off-farm income!).  So one of a farmer’s jobs is balancing the delicate line of having enough pasture vs enough animals all throughout the year.

Measuring the amount of dry matter in a paddock (calories) with a sward stick, and matching it against the daily energy requirements of individual animals is invaluable in calculating feed demand versus availability, however, I don’t even know how to begin to calculate it looking at our paddocks at the moment.

(picture).

So, prioritising which stock are going to get the best bits of grass left is certainly a bit of a challenge this summer.  We had a ram buyer come down from Taipa on the weekend – they are so dry up there that he had to make the decision to buy in feed for his cattle.  Interestingly he chose palm kernel to keep his weaners going until it rains.  I reserve the right to change my mind, however palm kernal is the waste product left after palm kernal is extracted.  Palm oil goes into pretty much everything NZders buy – shampoo, conditioner, chocolate, breakfast cereals and mascara.  Awesome you if you actively make sure that none of the cosmetics, detergents or food you use contains palm oil (note that it is quite legal to just call it vegetable oil too on ingredients lists).

If palm kernal wasn’t fed to animals, it would be burnt, and that would cause an environmental impact of its own, so whilst I don’t like the idea of importing feed  from another part of the world, I think there are other environmental impacts that are of a higher priority.  However, I think that a 100% grass fed animal is healthier and better for the planet, so wouldn’t like to see grain/kernal fed to animals for anything but in a drought situation..

Our farm should get through without having to make those choices, however we will be keeping a close eye on how much pasture we have vs how much our animals need, and selling some one year old bulls is certainly an option on the table.

The other job we are doing at this time of the year is keeping up with the water supply.  We have troughed water going to almost all of our paddocks on the farm for stock water, with the water coming from our creek and from a bore.  Piped water in the summer heat means plenty of opportunities for pipes to split, pull apart etc.  Bulls are good at knocking the ball-cocks off the troughs, which causes the water to keep on running, even after that trough is full.  So “keeping an eye on the water”, “finding a leak”, and “fixing a leak” are common answers to what we are up to at this time of year.  And finding a leak can take all day – you know you’ve got no water, because the trough near the house is empty and there’s no water coming out of the pipe – but where the heck do you start to look on the farm?!

Still on water, I started to do an interesting calculation the other day.  We receive approximately 1300ml rainfall each year.  So this works out to be 130,000 litres of water per hectare.  Over our 600ha of pasture (so not including the forests or other land we don’t graze), that equals 78 million litres of rain that our farm receives and then transfers into groundwater, ponds, streams and rivers every year!  That’s a truckload of water (Roughly per ha, our sheep and cattle would drink maybe 30,000 of the 130,000 litres, the rest goes into the ground, into streams, or evaporates back up into the sky).  Now, if the rainfall came in nice even amounts, say 100ml a month, that would be great, and we’d have a nice even amount of pasture growing all year round (give or take the effects of temperature and sunshine on growth).  However, that’s not how our weather goes – instead we get about 1000ml over 4 months, and very little the rest of the time.  Can’t help but feel if we were able to store a little bit of that winter rain and then use it as ‘rainfall’ throughout the year, farming could become that little bit more predictable, and our stress levels would come down.  I certainly see that as a convincing argument for water storage, as long as it can ensure that the water requirements of our aquatic ecosystems are not compromised.

Cheers to a kiwi summer, and lets hope for some rain today!

The latest Fonterra TV series featuring Richie McCaw is feel-good stuff for farmers – we understand the sentiments, the hard work and the love that goes into producing food for others to drink and eat.  However, for people who are see declining water volume or water quality when they look around New Zealand, or are confronted with ugly dead-calf-in-a-glass-of-milk SAFE billboards as they sit on the motorway in Auckland’s morning traffic – they don’t buy that feel-good factor.  They see a romantic attempt at persuasion.

These consumers don’t need stories – they need facts and they need science, and they need to have their concerns addressed directly – whether good, bad, or ugly.  They need to know how the NZ dairy, sheep and beef sectors define sustainability, and how close we are to actually being sustainable.

Consumers need to know the environmental, social, and economic impact of the food that they eat, and the products that they buy.  But I don’t think we are giving them easy access to information:  Google “How much water does it take to produce 1 litre of milk in NZ” and there are only two results – one a science blog (which took me on an informative 2 hour diversion through a whole heap of articles, thanks sciblogs.co.nz), the other was vegans.co.nz.  Worse, ask the same question regarding per kg of  beef and there was not a single result.  Not a single result!  The feel-good stories are a waste of time if you can’t back them up with easily accessed information.

We don’t need New Zealanders to buy our product, we can sell it anywhere.  So it could be easy to not have a significant domestic marketing budget.  However the long-term result is a population that doesn’t understand dairy, sheep or beef farming in NZ, the attributes that differentiate it from other producers, how and why different processes happen on and off farm, and the overall importance to our country – providing the perfect opportunity for activist groups who have the ultimate aim that there is no animals farmed for milk, meat or wool in New Zealand.

And that’s the reason why its so important to invest in our domestic market.  Because the more a New Zealander understands about how we produce our products, the better their peer-to-peer influence can sell our product to the world.

Internationally, local influencers are of vital importance to selling our product – Michelle Tam (Nom Nom Paleo) espousing about the qualities of NZ grass-fed meat is worth 100 times the cost of a BLNZ sponsored post on Facebook.  However, a Kiwi that understands and can confidently talk about our primary products with knowledge and passion is worth their weight in grass-fed antibiotic and HGP free beef.

 

But we’re not going to get that endorsement if we don’t confront the realities of production head on.  My rural-based brother and sister-in-law have a real dislike for irrigation pivots in the South Island, and the effect they think that irrigation has had on river flow volumes and quality, however I don’t have the information to have a really meaningful discussion with them about it.  When I reassure a friend that she can buy NZ red meat from her supermarket with confidence, she points out that the label isn’t clearly telling her that the meat she is buying is antibiotic and HGP free and grass-fed.  And she wants to know that if HGP use is supposedly so low, why do we have it in NZ at all?  And I want to know too.

Lets get some good information and science out there and easily access by farmers and non-farmers alike.  The biggest group of influential marketers we have are New Zealanders, lets make it easy for them.