Holistic focus on supporting hill country farmers

Holistic focus on supporting hill country farmers

“It is great to see a holistic focus on supporting hill country farmers with initiatives like the Hill Country Futures Partnership Programme,” says Gisborne farmer Matt Humphreys.

Matt and Wife Megan farm 420 hectares – 390 effective - at Ngatapa and were part of a farmer focus group which provided insights that helped shape the development of a farmer wellbeing assessment tool, known as FarmSalus.

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 B+LNZ , said members of the focus group played an important part in the development of FarmSalus.

“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, stewardship and business health are all very important for them.”

Ange and the team (led by Katherine Dixon – Nature Positive) later held a second meeting with the focus group. 

“We wanted to show them what we had done with their insights and to test some of the conceptual work and deliverables to gain their feedback on the utility of that. It was important to us to validate that we were on the right track and ensure hill country farmers had an active voice in what we were doing.”

The Humphreys family’s roots run deep in the region. Matt is the fifth generation to farm Herefords and the fourth generation at their Wilencote stud - his ancestors started out at Strahallan Station in Gisborne. Wilencote is New Zealand’s oldest Polled Hereford stud – and the family introduced the hornless Hereford breed to New Zealand in the 1920s.

Megan has an environmental consultancy background and Matt has wide-ranging experience in hill country farming. He spent 13 years shepherding on a number of sheep and beef stations in Gisborne and Taihape before moving back to Wilencote in 2021. The couple are proud of the farm’s history and passionate about the future of the sector.

Wilencote has 300 registered Hereford breeding cows, including heifers. Some trading lambs have recently been introduced into the system but the stud is the key focus for the farm. The Humphreys sell around 30 bulls each year, many to local farmers. Their programme is focussed on breeding bulls that have good structure, temperament, mobility and a certain ‘athleticism’, ensuring progeny have quality carcass traits.

“Our breeding philosophy is about small, steady and incremental improvement – optimising and balancing traits within the herd,” says Matt.

“We have been working away at implementing a new stud recording system, are rolling out DNA testing across the herd and have some ambitious environmental goals, including natural bush regeneration and wetland enhancement projects.”

Alongside scientific research, the Hill Country Futures Partnership Programme includes a focus on telling the real stories about hill country farming – and the couple see that as a key factor.

“It is so important to distinguish between hill country farming versus dairy and how hill country red meat is produced in New Zealand compared to the rest of the world,” says Megan.

“The industry needs to be better understood and future proofed. Objective research detailing how red meat is produced can feed into policy decision making and marketing, ensuring the media are told accurate information around hill country farming – and hopefully our products receive a premium to reflect the way it has been grown.

“It is so much more relatable and tangible when people can see the positive work farmers are doing environmentally as well as the way stock are looked after. One of the outcomes we’d like to see from the programme is hill country farming to be seen in a more positive light – showing how we are producing premium products in a sustainable way.”