Sound accessible information is critical to the changes hill country farmers need to make

Sound accessible information is critical to the changes hill country farmers need to make

Gisborne farmer George Mcildowie sees the availability of sound accessible information such as that being produced through the Hill Country Futures Partnership programme as critical to the changes hill country farmers need to make to ensure the sector is sustainable into the future.

“I think the main opportunity is through increased revenue from under-productive farm land under current farming practices,” he says.


“The Hill Country Futures Partnership programme is producing a bank of good data to help back up good practice. It’s collecting data on a variety of farms over a wide area for the better of our industry.”


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.


George is the fifth generation of his family to farm the 2250 Ha Totangi Farms - 2000 Ha effective - at Ngātapa. The breeding and finishing business lambs around 8000 ewes and calves 500 cows. They winter around 20,000 units with a cattle to sheep ration of 50:50.


Having studied applied sciences at Auckland University of Technology, worked on super yachts in the US and farmed and worked in agricultural construction in the UK, George returned to the family farm at the end of 2015 to begin his professional farming career.


He says a key outcome he’d like to see from the Hill Country Futures Partnership programme is hill country land remaining in meat and fibre production.


Totangi Farms has undergone a number of changes to ensure efficient use of the farm’s topography, allowing for reduced staff input. There is a focus on pasture renewal of flat land with the use of summer brassica crops.


Significant subdivision is planned in conjunction with a reticulated water system throughout an area of flat land. The water source is via two large springs, tapped two years ago. A refined breeding programme has also seen Totangi lift its lambing percentage from 115 per cent to 140 per cent.


George sees policy change as the major challenge facing hill country farmers and welcomes the Hill Country Futures Partnership’s focus on interviewing hundreds of people involved in the sector, to gain their views and to also share the real stories of hill country farming.


“Hill country farming plays a massive role in the success of rural communities. Provincial success can be attributed to hill country farming and it’s important for those communities that they remain sustainable and productive. It’s these connections along with other custodial stories that must be shared so they can be understood.”


George and partner Emma were pleased to be part of the original focus group that contributed to the development of the programme. While the focus group was initially brought together to help shape the development of a farmer wellbeing assessment tool, known as FarmSalus, members have continued to catch up and share ideas and mutual support.


“We see the programme as important because it will provide critical insight into the changes and willingness of new generational farmers to adapt to current environments,” says George.


“Being involved was a relaxed but formal process and was made easy by the fact all the farmers involved were of the same generation. In continuing as members of the group, we’ve also found the shared passion for our industry and any knowledge gained is of benefit to our business.”


Ange McFetridge, Design and Capability lead for B+LNZ, said members of the focus group played an important role.


“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.”


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


“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.


“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.”