Cathy and Jamie Tait-Jamieson have a vertically integrated organic yoghurt business
Jamie and Cathy Tait-Jamieson took over as sharemilkers on a family owned dairy farm back in 1977. To hang onto the farm, they had to strip down their farm business to the bare bones with minimum inputs. This was their initiation into sustainable agriculture. That evolved into an organic/biodynamic system of farming, largely because they couldn’t afford conventional dairy farming inputs.
They also recognised early on that they had to add value to the milk they were producing. Just leaving it in the vat for the tanker would mean they’d have to surrender the farm. From this necessity was born a yoghurt business.
They approached a local yoghurt factory to produce organic yoghurt for them. Unfortunately just weeks into production, the dairy companies amalgamated, and the factory, along with many other small producers in NZ, was closed down. Cathy said panic followed, but they managed to turn an old herringbone shed on the farm into a yoghurt factory in a matter of weeks. There was a lot of yoghurt-making equipment going cheap at the time, naturally. The result was the birth of BioFarm, a pioneering and award winning organic yoghurt business in Manawatu.
They have distinct advantages being where they are. They’re close to Palmerston North and its amenities and they have both air and rail links within an easy drive of the farm.
The farm is 500+ acres (240 ha) in size. The numbers of milking cows vary, but the aim is to reach the daily quota needed for the yoghurt and milk production. They currently use one of the first rotary cow sheds built. It’s around 40 years old and they plan to do in-field robotic milking in the future.
There’s a small mob of sheep and around 300 goats. Jamie says the sheep and goats are there for diversity of grazing management.
Their farm system is based on three factors. The economics, looking after the ecology of the farm, and meeting their own and others’ social needs. For Jamie, an organic farm is about maintaining happy and healthy animals and creating a diverse and stable landscape. It relies on renewable resources and precise management.
He sees many modern farmers as glorified mechanics. Their farms, like their machinery, are worked to a system or pattern that is highly structured and doesn’t give the flexibility to adjust to the needs of the season and the needs of the stock.
He admits that adopting an organic approach to farming means he’s working a lot harder to keep a closer eye on what is happening and not relying on systems to keep things running OK.
Jamie has been the Operations Manager of the factory and makes the yoghurt every day from the fresh cow’s milk. He is also the farm ecologist, managing soil and pasture management in alignment with what is happening with the seasons.
Cathy is involved with the day to day management of the dairy herd and feeding of calves. She also receives orders from the market and ensures delivery of fresh products to distributors and stores throughout New Zealand.
Compliance requirements are also managed by Cathy. She is a former Maori Businesswoman of the Year award winner.
The couple’s children – James, Mara, Alice and Eru, have continuing involvement with the various aspects of the business. although Eru is currently away studying.
BioFarm was first certified in 1986 by BioGro New Zealand. They were one of the first farms certified organic in New Zealand and they continued to be BioGro certified for around 15 years.
When AsureQuality (then AgriQuality) offered independent organic verification, they trialed them for 2 years, running a dual certification. They have continued to use AsureQuality as their IVA (Independent Verification Agency) as they also provide the MPI required auditing of the farm dairy and the processing factory.
They also have the Hua Parakore label. This is a label that recognises that Jamie and Cathy’s growing system stays true to the principles of what constitutes a “pure product” The label was launched in 2011.
Hua Parakore is an indigenous verification and validation system that is initiated and driven by Te Waka Kai Ora (National Māori Organics Authority of Aotearoa). Hua Parakore production has a zero tolerance of genetic modification (GM) and is a means of defining a product using traditional practices and creates a pathway for growers to tell their story.
While most of the yoghurt is sold in one litre plastic bottles, the Tait-Jamiesons are also selling milk under the Ecofarm label. They sell it in 650 ml plastic pouches. The reasoning is that old fashioned milk used to come in pint bottles and this was a good size for keeping milk fresh after it was opened. 650ml is roughly the same as a pint. The milk is pasteurised but not homogenised. This means it must be kept refrigerated and used as quickly as possible after opening.
The pouches are supplied by Ecolean. This is an international company producing a biodegradable foodgrade packaging product. Jamie says the Ecolean pouch is the most environmentally friendly package they can obtain in commercial quantities. He says that it might look like a lot of plastic, but it actually has one third less plastic than a plastic bottle of equivalent size.
Animal Health is not a problem at BioFarm. There’s very little bloat and some mastitis but this is treated with organic remedies.
Jamie says his job is surveillance. He says that farming at this stage is about “spontaneous improvisation” – working out what is likely to happen next and being prepared for it.
Although his background is as a musician, he did Psychology and Religious studies at University, plus a little chemistry, botany and mathematics.
Cathy says her actual role is management of personnel, but she gets hands-on a lot as well.
Milk volume per cow is 35% higher than for conventional seasonal supply farms.
Due to being dry/non-irrigated, the production per hectare is 19% lower than the regional average for conventional seasonal farms. Against that, animal health costs are extremely low, but feed conservation costs are high.
One analysis says that the premium being paid for Jamie and Cathy’s produce increases the farm’s overall added-value profitability on all year supply by 35 %.
BioFarm were the inaugural winners of the dairy farm section of the 2014 GAIA – Green Agriculture Innovation Awards.