Good opportunity to express shared problems and concerns

Good opportunity to express shared problems and concerns

Being part of a focus group for the Hill Country Futures Partnership programme was a good opportunity to express shared problems and concerns, says farmer Fraser Tombleson.

Insights gained from farmers involved in these focus groups has helped shape the development of a farmer wellbeing assessment tool, known as FarmSalus.

Fraser and wife Jaime farm almost 1000Ha near Mātāwai, about an hour north of Gisborne, and Fraser says they are keenly aware of how some hill country communities are struggling.

“It was really good to be in a group of farmers that are on the same page, with concerns about issues like carbon farming and communities disappearing.

“It was a good way to get feedback from farmers to express our problems and concerns and get our side of the story out there at a high level.”

The $8.1m programme is focused on future proofing the profitability, sustainability and wellbeing of New Zealand’s hill country farmers, their farm systems, the environment and rural communities. It differs from most pastoral-based research, in that it considers the whole-farm system and, critically, the wider communities these systems exist within.

It incorporates traditional science research, farmer knowledge, social research and citizen science and has a strong emphasis on forages and providing decision-making tools to help farmers select the best forage option for different land management units.

Ange McFetridge, Design and Capability lead for Beef+ Lamb New Zealand, which is supporting Hill Country Futures, said members of the focus group played an important part in the development of the programme.

“We wanted to interview a group who were representative of people living in hill country to help us to future proof our work,” said Ange.

“We put out a request to the farming community and got the group together. We had a face-to-face meeting with them and got a whole lot of insights about their frustrations and their aspirations for the future for their farms.

“What has also been very good is that they have continued as a group and they are very free and frank with one another. They all know about working through succession and the environment and stewardship and business health are very important to them.”

Fraser’s parents bought the farm in 1973. The terrain is challenging - rising from 300 metres above sea level to 1000 metres.

Fraser knew from a young age that he wanted to follow his parents into hill country farming. He gained a Diploma of Agriculture and a Diploma of Farming from Lincoln University and worked on several other farms, including the large Papanui Station at Taihape, before leasing most of his family’s farm in 2015.

He and Jaime bought 726 hectares in 2019 and lease a further 250 from his parents - 900 Ha is effective. They run a breeding and finishing operation with 3700 ewes to ram, 1000 hoggets, 150 in calf cows, 200 steers and 150 bulls.

Fraser sees the major challenges to hill country farming as staying viable in the face of increasing costs and a wave of regulations - and hopes the programme will result in more solutions for farmers.

“Land going into forestry is a big concern too, along with the change in consumer trends and rise of ‘synthetic alternatives’.

“Being young and just coming into all this change is difficult but for older farmers having to deal with all of it, it can be really bad for their mental health.

“Many of us are young and have big debt and there are a lot more things we’d like to do in terms of environmental stuff but we also have to stick to a budget. For instance, we have land we would be happy to forgo for planting into natives if we could afford to.

“My mother did a lot of planting, but mainly exotics as natives are pricier and harder to establish. I’m currently focusing on fencing off the rivers and the planted areas. We are keen to do wetlands too, once we can afford it. That will be very important going forward.”

Virtually no spraying is carried out on the farm. Work to “go down the biological path” and reduce use of super phosphate has however proved challenging in the face of cold winters and hard ground.

Fraser says that there are real opportunities for hill country farmers to play an even more vital part in the New Zealand economy - if they are given the support they need to make required changes.

“I see the opportunities as ensuring we are recognised for the most efficient farming in the world, combined with biodiversity and a high quality product targeted to high end markets.

“I’m optimistic that consumers will see the health benefits of high quality red meat over non meat alternatives. I’m also optimistic about the future of wool. It’s an amazing product as an alternative to micro plastics. A lot of work is being done around wool and I think it’s time will come again.  

“I also hope the programme will help address the rural urban divide, by getting the real stories out there - so people start to realise the really good work we are doing.”