Avonstour Heritage Breeds

May 2013

A certified organic farm specialsing in rare and heritage breeds

Avonstour is a certified organic farm specialising in heritage breeds. It supplies organic meat, stud stock and a range of education services to the local community.

John and partner Ruth purchased their 68 ha farm in 1998. The property is so named because John was born in the south of England – between the Avon and Stour Rivers.

The idea was always to farm rare breeds. To achieve this they have concentrated on registered purebred stock and are members of many breed societies and clubs. They have sent stock all over New Zealand and also supply specialist meat outlets.

They have been involved with the Rare Breeds Conservation Society of New Zealand since its inception. They have been very active at A&P shows where they have run livestock stands and shown donkeys, sheep, pigs, horses, goats and poultry, with many Champions, Best of Breeds, New Zealand Royal and North Island Champions.

They’re not hobby farmers however. They believe in a heavy selection process and will not breed from something just because it’s rare; it must shape up and be productive. By keeping a stringent culling line, they have been able to supply both large commercial farms as well as people who just want a pet.

John says they are primarily a working farm. The business makes money from stud breeding, selling rams, poultry and goods. They have their own meat and eggs, the rest goes to the market, restaurants and private individuals.

John says the whole system of farming is the opposite of a mono-culture like the modern dairy system. Running several different classes of stock means he doesn’t have the same issues as a farm business where there is only one class of stock.

“What we do is run our stock through the paddock. The goats go first, then cows, then sheep and the donkeys and the paddock is completely grazed out. Then we follow with the chicken trailer. They scramble around and eat the parasites. It is labour intensive but we don’t need to drench the cows.”

Avonstour has more than 200 chickens. John and Ruth specialise in old-fashioned breeds, including Barnevelder, Orpington, Leghorn and Chinese silkies, which live longer than more modern breeds. John’s chickens are part of the eco-system of the orderly organic farm. The bantams especially, help with parasite control. They peck around the paddocks after the stock has been there and eat the parasite larvae. “They get rid of scraps and are good for children,” John says. “They show them the reality of life because children today don’t know where eggs and milk come from.”

Another use for chickens is as a chook tractor, which is part of permaculture practice. The chickens are put in a moveable chicken dome or cage that fits over a garden bed, complete with a roost and the ability to cover it up or let in light depending on the weather or time of year.

When a garden has finished producing or they want to dig a new bed, they simply put the chook tractor in place and let the chickens do the hard work. Not only do they clean up the garden or paddock, they will also add their own manure to it.

John says they spend large chunks of the day picking up eggs. He contrasts this to the commercial poultry farms where everything is done with conveyor belts. “We should be getting $20 a dozen for our eggs.”

Avonstour hand picks each animal for processing so they are sold at prime condition. John says he gets asked for more meat but if it’s not ready, he won’t process it. Most of the meat is sold at the Farmers Market. He says he used to process his meat through the meat works but was never rewarded for the quality of his stock. He says he was often downgraded because of coloured skin or more fat or the horns on the sheep. As a consequence, people aren’t encouraged to farm those breeds. He says when he sells direct at the Farmers’ Market he gets great feedback on the taste of the meat.

John also says there are now a number of rare breeds that are valuable to the industry with traits that used to be regarded as annoying and non-commercial. For example the Wiltshire Horn sheds its own wool, which takes away the burden of dagging and crutching. He says the first sheep they got were Dorset Horns and Wiltshire Horns. The Dorset Horn lambs twice a year making them good for the meat market. John points out that a lot of the older breeds are hardier; they may not grow as fast as the modern breeds, but they are often more suited to organic systems that can’t rely on chemicals, fertilisers and drenches that conventional farms seem to need.

Some of the other breeds on the property include Belted Galloway cattle, Arapawa sheep, Nubian goats; Wessex, Large Black, Euro and Tamworth pigs, English and Tricolour ponies, Blue Muscovy ducks, Peafowl. Guinea fowl, Archangel pigeons, Beardie Collie dogs and fish and caged birds. The rarest breed they have is probably in their poultry. It’s called an Houdon, an old fashioned French breed with a spotted top. John says it is a farmyard breed which provided eggs and carcass – the ultimate dual purpose chook.

The couple try to be as self-sufficient as possible. The only contractors they use are for haylage, digging drains and shearing. They make their own bread, grow their own vegetables and eggs and of course meat. The couple also use WWOOFers (willing workers on organic farms) during October to May. These help with farm chores in return for board and food.

The couple run a range of courses on their property including stock handling, fencing, general organic and permaculture. Some of these they hold themselves, others in conjunction with other organisations.

John apparently gets annoyed when people associate him with hippies, sandal wearers and tree huggers. From the outside, it may look like an idyllic lifestyle but he says it is a hell of a lot of work.