Minaret Station

June 2009

Sustainable farming on a High Country Station

Jonathan Wallis manages Minaret Station for his family, which has owned it since 1995, taking it from running 2000 stock units through a major development phase to where it now runs 25,000 stock units, 60% of which are deer. He also chairs the High Country Accord, which represents the 250 farmers with Crown pastoral leases. In a test case Minaret Station last year appealed its rent review to the Land Valuation Tribunal, the outcome of which is expected any day.

Minaret Station is a 19,752ha pastoral lease property on the western shores of Lake Wanaka. It’s made up of six huge valley systems, and has a 20km lake frontage.

After Jonathan left school he went shepherding on other properties and then did a B.Ag at Lincoln University for three years. He worked in Canada for five years in farming operations and at a hunting park, and came back in early 2004 to get married, taking over the stock manager’s position at Minaret Station. Then a year later he took over as manager. Minaret is the farming part of a larger family company.

He’s hosted lots of field days, and Landcorp staff used to come and visit each year also.

Minaret Station  now has 400ha of cultivated flats including areas direct drilled; 1000ha of downs fenced into 50-100 ha blocks used for finishing; 2800ha of hills fenced into 300-800ha blocks and set-stocked for breeding, and 15,550 of high country which includes summer grazing areas.

The family bought the farm in 1995, and in their first year 1996 it wintered only 1240 stock units. At that stage it was a traditional high country property running sheep, beef and deer. Its production at the time was constrained by reversion to scrub and fern on the wintering country at the front of the farm, and the lack of road access.

Jonathan did initial musters for stock counts, and worked on the first six months of fencing, then went off to university.

There were no roads, no fences and no buildings, and they started work from scratch. An extensive development programme since then has revved up production on the property to the stage where it now runs 20,000 stock units with a goal of 30,000.

The initial phase was capital development programme of burning, oversowing and fencing the front country. The second phase started in 2004 as the development programme continued out of cashflow, to convert the regrowth scrub on the front country into clover and ryegrass. These areas have been sprayed by helicopter in April with glyphosate, then burnt in late winter, then disced where possible. Then oversown with helicopter and topdressed by plane.

Last year they did 500ha in this way, and this 600ha are being developed. This the last year of that development, and from here on it will be maintenance work.

Stocking policies: The farm runs 60% deer, 25% sheep and 15% cattle. Jonathan says it’s always been his objective not to develop the minaret out of Minaret.

“It’s very much about farming sustainably, and a lot of that has to do with having a low labour input.”

The station has four staff, and they use a little helicopter to do a huge proportion of the stock work. “We want to be able to be sustainable without high levels of inputs and utilize our back country on a sustainable summer grazing basis.”

Two years ago 95% of the stock units on the farm were deer, but as the development work has continued, they have increased the numbers and carrying capacity through more sheep and cattle. The deer are all reds, the cattle Angus and the sheep Headwaters.

This winter the stock tally is: 1200 hoggets, 500 two-tooths, 2500 mixed age ewes, 1000 ram hoggets, 30 rams. They are breeding Headwaters rams for other farmer members of the group.

The cattle tally this winter is: 350 mixed sex calves, 100 rising two year heifers, 300 mixed age cows, and 6 bulls. Angus bulls have been used across Hereford cows for the past six year. All the stock is finished on the farm, and half the steers go to the feedlot at 14 months with the rest going at 18 months.

The deer tally is: 2800 mixed sex fawns, 1200 rising two year hinds, 3200 mixed age hinds, 150 rising two year stags and 150 mixed age stags. All the hinds are set stocked into seven main hill blocks at one to two hinds/ha. Peak fawning is mid November, weaners are set stocked on the down country and finished. Spikers are sold in Feb/March and in-calf hinds sold in August. Sires are bred on the property through two separate AI programmes. The deer farm itself is 4200ha.

This year they are wintering 20,000 stock units, with a goal of 25,000 for next winter. “We will get to around the 30,000 stock unit mark and do that fairly comfortably and sustainably.”

Fertility: when they first began there were no pastures to speak of, and they’ve put some quite high levels of phosphate fertiliser on the farm. The soils are quite acidic at pH levels of 4.9-5.2, but it’s uneconomic to put lime on. “We couldn’t be further away from a lime works if we tried.” But they are at the point now where the flats, downs and hills are at quite good fertility levels.

Access is a challenge, and does provide limitations. Jonathan spends 300 hours a year sitting on the barge going backwards and forwards across the lake.

The barge was bought in 1995 as surplus from the Clyde dam project, and reassembled at Wanaka. It has a 50mx10m flat deck, so it can carry six fully laden truck and trailer units.

It’s the rural version of a commute. “It gives an added challenge and cost to the operation of the property. But we are not hugely isolated.” He says there are few occasions on which they cannot get out.

Other aspects of the farm: Minaret Outfitters – this is a professional hunting guide business based at Minaret Station. Jonathan is a professional guide, and the company offers hunting and fishing trips.

Jonathan has taken over recently as the chairman of the High Country Accord, an organisation which represents 250 farmers with perpetual Crown leases. He says there’s high public interest and low voter numbers in the high country, and everyone’s eyes are focused on what happens in the high country.

He’s keen to explain the role of high country farmers in protecting the high country environment and building its economy.

On Crown pastoral lease properties rent is reviewed every 11 years, although properties have 33 year perpetual leases.

Rent is meant to be based on a percentage set by legislation of the value of land in its unimproved state. What has happened now is that the value of high country land is far greater than its agricultural productive value. Some proposed rent increases are exorbitant, and greater than the gross farm income of the property.

There are 93 pastoral leases appealing rent reviews on their properties, and Minaret was identified by the High Country Accord as a property which reflected many others in the system and so was put forward as a test case.

The Minaret rent review case was heard in October by the Tribunal, with submissions closing in January this year.

Because the Tribunal’s decision hasn’t been made public yet, it’s difficult to be specific, but Jonathan is happy to make some general comments about the rent setting process on Crown pastoral lease properties.

They argue that the development they have done to the farm does not belong to the Crown, and thus rent cannot be charged on it. He says there is a huge amount riding on the case. “What we’re arguing is that we don’t want to be charged rent on things we already own,” he said in a recent issue of Farmers Weekly.

Rents need to be based on the livestock a leasehold property could carry in its unimproved state: this approach was recommended by the Armstrong Report, he says.

He says the new National Government has a change in approach to the former Labour Government and he is feeling more optimistic about the outcome?

He is worried the viability of many high country properties hangs on the outcome of this case.

And he says nationalizing land is not the only way to protect it, and that the Accord also supports improving access to the high country.