Harry Parke

August 2006
While Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons commutes between Parliament and the electorate her husband, Harry Parke is busy running their organic farm.

Most of the farm has OrganicFarmNZ certification. This is a small growers certification scheme set up through the Soil and Health Association, aimed at organic properties supplying the local market. Costs have been minimised by using peer review to ensure standards are met.

OrganicFarmNZ was set up as part of A Strategy to Unlock Organic Systems, released by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in 2003, initiated by the Green Party. The report put the total value of New Zealand organic produce in 2001-2002 at $140 million, with an estimated $70 million coming from exports. The domestic market was estimated to have grown from $32 million in 2000 to $71 million the following year.

Around 50,000 hectares was certified for organic production.

Harry and Jeanettes 87 hectare farm runs 65 breeding ewes and five dairy beef cows on which calves are reared. Chestnuts, pecan nuts and olives are grown as well as alternative timber species.

When they bought the farm 15 years ago, soils on the steepest country were extremely unstable following decades of overgrazing and burning and aerial spraying of gorse with 245T. After a few years of light grazing on the steepest block, they made the decision to retire 72 hectares which is now regenerating into native bush, helped along by Harry and Jeanette planting out seedlings.

From the outset, the couple have aimed to be organic, following bio-dynamic farming principles. In the high rainfall, humid climate of the Coromandel a chemical-free regime has proved difficult, with minimal herbicides still used on a part of the farm where gorse is especially aggressive. This area, as well as the livestock, is not yet certified as organic although this remains the long-term goal.

Although Harry and Jeanette have run their farm along bio-dynamic principles for 15 years, organic certification was not, until recently, an option due to the $1500-$2000 cost and paperwork involved.

Like most small growers not exporting any produce, we could not see sufficient benefits for the cost, says Harry.

That changed though with the option of OrganicFarmNZ certification in 2002, a peer review system which aims to reduce the costs of certification for non-exporters. Standards are based on production rules of Bio-Gro, which provides an external audit to ensure goods meet a high standard.

Twelve OrganicFarmNZ regions each have a management body which caters to either individual producers or producer groups known as pods. Seven elected representatives from these areas meet on a national co-ordinating committee which ensures certification is being carried out consistently across the country.

Harry and three like-minded neighbours certify one anothers properties, the inspection visits providing an opportunity for stimulating discussion.

While Harry and Jeanettes pasture is certified organic, stock are not as it has proved extremely difficult to control internal parasites especially barbers pole worm - in sheep without recourse to chemicals in the warm and wet Coromandel climate. While the cattle do not require any chemical input, they cannot be certified as organic while sharing pasture with the unaccredited sheep.

A cattle only regime is not an option, with ragwort a massive problem which would spiral out of control without grazing by sheep, says Harry.

His ultimate goal remains organic certification for stock as well as pasture.

Organic fertilisers are applied including Bio-phos (composted rock phosphate) and regular soil tests help identify any trace elements which need to be added. Soils have gone from supporting few worms to an abundance.

Soils on the farm are Waihi ash, a rock laden black loam up to 30cm deep. This is an old volcanic ridge, which helped by heavy rainfall has been collapsing over the last 10 million years. The 72 hectares of retired country is extremely steep, and used to slip like mad.

Nowadays, the gorse is gradually giving way to native species, starting with kanuka, mahoe and karaka with a few seed tress of puriri, rimu, tanekaha kahikatea and totara left from the old days.

Harry is giving nature a helping hand by collecting and growing out seeds from the block and neighbouring properties, for planting out and giving away plus a few are sold.

Ive planted about 27 different species behind the house, mostly locally sourced but also including some miro seedlings collected from a tree about 3km away.

When Harry and Jeanette first settled the farm, all but 12 hectares of tall kanuka (which had been retired) was covered in pasture, slips and large areas of gorse.

One small area of the farm has not been certified organic. Gorse there has been cut then burned with any re-growth or seedlings sprayed. Eventually up to 10 years from burning, Harry estimates re-growth will be able to be controlled solely by stock and grubbing, then the block can be farmed organically.

Its a labour-intensive approach, he admits, but uses probably 40 to 50 times less chemical than spraying the whole block repeatedly.

Woolly nightshade is a worse problem weed on the property, controlled by grazing in pasture areas but needing active control on the retired land.

The 65 breeding ewes are three quarter bred polled Wiltshire, a meaty breed which tends to shed its wool.

We were looking for a breed which did not get fly-strike, and theyve been terrific from that point of view.

On the downside, while the Romneys and Coopworths previously run had been bred to a point where they were virtually footrot-free, with their softer white hooves the Wiltshires have proved susceptible. Footrot is controlled by regular trimming and troughing in copper sulphate - an allowed organic treatment and culling which should ultimately cure the problem.

The original Wiltshire ram was purchased from a Bio-Gro certified farmer in Southland, who in the colder conditions had not needed to drench for 25 years. However, internal parasites especially barbers pole worm are the barrier to Harry and Jeanettes sheep being certified organic.

Only once in 15 years has Harry managed to get lambs through to autumn without using chemical drench, with the challenge greatest from late January to the end of March. Cider vinegar and seaweed drenches are used on the ewes and lambs as a tonic rather than a cure.

Any lambs which require drenching by the end of January go straight down the road.

Ultimately, Harry is hoping a marker gene will be identified which will allow breeders to select parasite resilient sheep suited to organic farming.

Harry is keen to retain a proportion of non-Wiltshire genes in the flock, but which breed is the hundred dollar question. This year a Polled Dorset has been put over the ewes, selected for its meat quality, hardiness and fertility.

Lambing performance on the property has increased since Wiltshire blood was first introduced, from 100 to 130%.

Lambs are finished and sold through the local saleyard plus killed for the table, with Harry deeming the meat sweeter and leaner than Romney.

Calves are reared on five dairy beef cows, both their own and feeders bought from the saleyards. An 18 month bull is purchased every couple of years and sold when he gets too stroppy.

The cattle are straightforward and profitable to run and dont require chemical inputs, but because they are sharing pasture with the sheep cant be certified as organic. A cattle-only regime is not an option, as sheep are needed to graze down the ragwort.

The plus side of growing nuts is that it is very easy to do organically, says Harry. The only health problem is a bit of stem borer which can be treated with garlic and pyrethrum. However, they are a labour-intensive crop and if you are looking to make a fortune, dont try it.

Harvesting is straightforward you just mow around the tree and pick up the nuts. The use of WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) labourers who swap labour for food and board keeps costs down. (www.wwoof.co.nz)

Chestnuts are producing very well, but returns have dropped from around $4-6 when they were planted 12 years ago to 80-90 cents today.

Most are sold through the Saturday Thames Farmers Market, both cooked and raw. Harry peels and par-boils them on the spot then roasts them in a cast iron pot with olive oil and salt, for a popular hot and tasty treat.

Seedlings were initially planted at 5 metre spacings with less productive trees now being removed to achieve a final 10 metre spacing.

The 270 pecans planted 14 years ago have been a disappointment, with all but about 120 removed. They have produced virtually no nuts, possibly because they are a Texan variety which needs a lot of heat to fertilise. Jeanette is considering grafting on wood from more productive provenances, as a quicker alternative to re-planting.

Thirty odd olive trees add to the mix. Last year Harry and Jeanette had five litres of oil pressed by another grower in the valley on contract, and produced their own pickled olives.

Harry and Jeanette built their house from locally milled macrocarpa, with the kitchen and stairs made from Australian blackwood. A lot of visitors call to see the house with its passive solar heating, composting toilet and independence from the national electricity grid.

Part of the reason for planting five hectares of timber trees including macrocarpa, Australian blackwood and lusitanica Cyprus - was to replace wood used in building the house.

Now 10 to 12-years-old, the trees are expected to take about 10 years longer to reach maturity than pines but their wood wont require chemical treatment and will be more valuable.

Canker has been a problem with the macrocarpa, and preventing spread requires care when pruning. The blackwoods tend to get multiple leaders.

The couples done all of the planting and most of the pruning themselves. Close planting has proved the most successful regime, with an experiment in planting groups of three with two to be removed at thinning disastrous. We could not get to them for gorse.

Gorse is now starting to be suppressed by the timber trees.

Harry admits that their farm provides lifestyle rather than income.

There are so many things going on, its really an experiment to see what works best.

By specialising, possibly in dairy beef cattle, it would be possible to make more money but life would not be as interesting.