Rita Batley from Moawhango in the Rangitikei district had been involved with several research programmes but says being part of the steering committee for the Hill Country Futures Partnership programme was a very different experience.
“I was initially sceptical about what I could contribute to the programme,” says Rita, whose husband Peter is a fourth generation sheep and beef farmer.
“I think I was asked to join because I have always been outspoken about hill country farming and promoting it - it has been my life for 37 years.”
“I have loved being on the committee. I have been involved with other research programmes but this has been different. It has a much broader scope to other programmes I have taken part in. It is multi-stranded and I find each strand interesting and compelling.
“At the start I was worried they would be disparate but now I see how all the projects tie together, it has become cohesive.”
The $8.1m Hill Country Futures Partnership programme is co-funded by Beef+Lamb New Zealand, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, PGG Wrightson Seeds and Seed Force New Zealand.
It 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. Research has been undertaken across 18 study sites.
Rita gained a degree in agricultural science and in her early career during the 1980s was involved as a field rep on the programme to get the first organic insecticide registered in New Zealand. She also taught maths and science at the local college but is currently focusing on establishing a small garlic growing enterprise.
Rita and Peter are fairly unusual in that they have never lived on farm, opting instead for life in the village about 19km from Taihape.
“It used to be the case that most people lived in the village here,” she says. “All the sheep would come through here to the woolsheds, but gradually people have built on farms. Our farm is twice as far to town, on metalled roads. We made the decision to stay here as we are nearer to facilities and it was easier for the children to walk to school when they were small.”
That is just one of many changes the Batleys have seen in hill country life.
“There are a lot of challenges for hill country farmers. A few years ago, my main concern was the threat of alternative proteins to sheep and beef farming. I’m still concerned about that but it has been overshadowed by carbon forestry and government policies.
“That is not to say I don’t agree with the need to change but trying to achieve carbon zero and remain financially viable will be impossible for farmers without a lot more tools in the toolbox. You can’t just keep taxing an industry because it hasn’t changed – farmers want to change but they don’t have the technology to do it.
“Our land is very challenging, we have virtually no flats. We are now Hawke’s Bay dry, we can’t farm the way we used to because the drop in rainfall means we are no longer summer safe, and we can’t crop, so what do you do?
“I was very interested in the Hill Country Futures programme around natives being grown on hills and assessing their forage values for grazing and their drought resistance. I would like to see further research around that.
“The advance of carbon farming and conversion of hill country for permanent forests is very worrying.
“It is frightening to see what is happening in large tracts of traditional hill country. Hill country farmers certainly aren’t in farming for the money. If they were, there would be no farms left, they would all be in carbon forestry.
“It’s a real passion that keeps people going and a long term association with the land. I think that passion is really the biggest resource we have in terms of the long-term future of the industry.”
Four years ago, Rita became involved in a fledgling garlic growing enterprise, inspired by fellow local farmers Jacqui Cottrell and Sarah Wells.
Jacqui, also a member of the Hill Country Futures Partnership programme steering committee, and husband Dan farm sheep and beef on their land on the Napier-Taihape road. They have successfully established a quinoa-growing operation. Former TV reporter Sarah runs a sheep and beef farm with her husband Tom and is a founder of Hinterland Foods.
“They are two young women with great ideas, driving change in the community,” says Rita. “They said, ‘what can we do to diversify?’ I suggested garlic, which I’d grown for years and knew you didn’t need to irrigate, so Sarah bought 5,000 bulbs and we started growing it, initially in a patch on Sarah’s land.
With Jacqui and Sarah increasingly busy with their businesses, Rita took over the garlic operation, which has moved to a riverside area on the Batley’s farm. Friend and permaculturist Vanessa Witt is now driving the venture forward.
“It’s the fourth year now and it’s been a steep learning curve,” says Rita. “It’s still in the establishment phase. We are doing it all organically. The first year I had to fight California Thistle and I’m hand weeding couch now. The growing area is a hugely infertile spot and garlic is a gross feeder but it’s unbelievable what can be achieved. We rely heavily on cover crops and add humates and we use woolly dags on the pathways to suppress weeds and feed the soil.
“Vanessa is a powerhouse. She does all the bookwork and organises the sales and marketing and I do the donkey work. I really enjoy it. I was starting to think we should move away, to get away from the cluster flies and to somewhere that I could grow a lemon tree – we can’t do that here, we get snow in winter. But the garlic has provided a new and interesting challenge.
“It’s currently grown as 14 beds, 1.5m wide and 60 metres long. There’s no money in it at the moment but we grew 25,000 bulbs in our most recent season and it sold out very quickly.”
Garlic is now part of Rita’s hill country story. One of the focuses of the Hill Country Futures Partnership programme is on telling the real stories around hill country farming. 170 interviews have been undertaken, talking to about 300 people, including 169 farmers.
“When I first joined the steering committee, I did think that strand of research was a bit ‘pie in the sky,’ says Rita.
“But I have come to realise, especially in this environment that has come from COVID-19, that there is real value in us telling our good stories. I recognise that as much more significant and worthwhile than I would have realised three years ago.”