Moleta Family

March 2008
Waitui, in the outer Marlborough Sounds, is extremely remote with the nearest towns of Picton and Havelock over two hours drive away. However, Noel and Debbie Moleta dont feel isolated, seeing themselves as part of an international effort to live well while protecting the planet.

A lifetime on the property has convinced Noel that the most valuable inputs are time, effort and observation rather than fertiliser and chemicals. He and his wife Debbie have a long-term vision of farming their best areas well and fencing the rest, to encourage regeneration.

The costs of farming so far from a main centre are high and returns have been falling, due to the collapse of the store lamb market thats provided a large proportion of their income. To add value to their production and formalise their low impact farming philosophy, this year the Moletas begin the process of having Waitui accredited as organic.

The Moleta family has been farming in the Marlborough Sounds since Noels grandfather, Antonino Moleta, left the Italian island of Stromboli for dUrville Island, in 1897. In 1976 his father Vince left dUrville for Waitui, a 1470-hectare steep hill country property covering three coastal headlands.

The property is challenging to farm, being extremely exposed to the elements and frequently experiencing heavy rainfalls, of up to 90mm in a night.

High transport costs, the lands susceptibility to reversion and falling returns has seen many Sounds families capitalise on the high prices being paid for coastal properties for lifestyle blocks, holiday homes and tourism ventures. Others have scaled back farming businesses to focus on forestry, marine farms or tourism.

Noel and Debbie Moleta are an exception. They love the Sounds environment and farming lifestyle, and hope it will provide an income for their family of four children (aged 16-23) long into the future.

Noel and Debbie Moleta enjoy the beauty and isolation of Waitui, two hours drive from the nearest town of Havelock. Hosting Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOFers) from around the world keeps them in touch and gives them an opportunity to discuss environmental ideals with like-minded people.

The family aims to be self-sufficient in food. Noels mother, Beryl, lives on the farm and keeps a large vegetable garden and orchard, with some help from WOOFers.

Debbie has spent 20 years overseeing the four childrens Correspondence schooling including some secondary studies, a responsibility that ends this year as their youngest son heads to Nelson for Year 12.

In 1991, the Moletas disconnected their TV and now rely on low-speed internet and twice-weekly mail and visitors for their news of the world.

A downside to isolation is transport costs. Rising fuel prices combined with a dramatic drop in store lamb prices this year is making farming uneconomic, forcing the family to look at options for increasing their income.

Ironically, the big dollars being paid for scenic Sounds properties has pushed up land values thus rates, putting even more financial pressure on genuine farmers.

This seasons near total collapse of the store-lamb market as finishers turned to dairy support after several years of finishing lambs for low or non-existent returns, cemented the Moletas decision to go organic to take advantage of the quite substantial premium offered for organic prime lamb. This formalises their slow shift towards a low input farming system, based on sensitive management of land and livestock rather than artificial inputs.

If you take inflation into account, this was our worst year on record for lamb prices, says Noel. Prices dropped to $27-$28/head gross on average, compared with $42 last year.

To add value to their stock, the Moletas have applied to have their farm certified organic by AsureQuality. Since 2000, Waitui lambs have all been sold store, a simple approach that suited. From now on theyll be finished on the property, to take advantage of the superior prices being offered by even mainstream meat companies for prime organic lambs.

Noel and Debbie are hoping that the two-year certification process can be back-dated to last year in the hope that next seasons lamb crop can be marketed as fully organic.

Superphospate hasnt been used since 1990. While the fertiliser had worked apparent miracles in the past, this country seemed to run out says Noel with the most productive country not necessarily having the highest phosphate levels. The supers been replaced with reactive phosphate rock (RPR) plus fine lime and fish-based liquid fertiliser, as finances allow.

No nitrogen is applied. I wont be towed along by the nitrogen makes the grass grow faster mantra, says Noel.

Pesticides, herbicides and animal health inputs are kept to a minimum. Sheep were vaccinated for the last time in 2006. Drench use has been gradually reduced until this year, only 30 of the 650 lambs being kept on the place were drenched. These were separated out from the main mob and will all be culled.

The key to animal health is feeding and genetics.

With good quality pasture and correct stocking, bracken is kept under control and there is no need to spray.

Noel acknowledges that hes able to move towards organics because of the low debt which has resulted from three generations of careful farming and prudent spending.

Waitui is stocked with 5100 ewes plus 1400 replacements and 250 cows. Cattle numbers are gradually being increased at the expense of sheep, with Noel aiming to reach a ratio that optimises animal health and maintains pasture quality.

My theory is that animals which arent stressed tend to stay healthy.

The cattle are hardy Angus, well suited to the hills. They are not drenched or treated for lice, which Noel observes dont bother fat cattle. Calves are sold at weaning.

The Romney sheep flock is slowly being shifted towards purebred Wiltshires which offer advantages including longevity (reducing the need for replacements), reputed parasite resilience and natural shedding of wool. Eventually, there should be no need for labour-intensive dagging, crutching and perhaps shearing.

The long-term aim is to have a 100% Wiltshire flock with a large proportion going to a terminal sire. Next year 4000 ewes will go to a Wiltshire ram.

The farm is fenced into relatively small blocks (30-70 hectares) for close management.

The Moletas have a long-term vision of farming their best areas well and fencing the rest to encourage regeneration. This will reduce carrying capacity, they acknowledge, but the farm will be more animal friendly and lower cost to run with less scrub-cutting and weed control.

An excellent relationship with the Department of Conservation their only neighbour has enabled the family to take a win-win approach to protecting native vegetation (which covers over 100ha of Waitui) while looking after farming interests.

Conservation fencing and covenanting with DOC began about 18 years ago and will continue as time and money is available.

Three areas have been covenanted; an historic Maori garden near the homestead, 32 hectares at Cape Lambert protected with a possum-proof fence and 42 hectares at Melville Cove.

Also, a two-wire electric fence powered by solar panels excludes cattle but not sheep from some strips of coast including some precipitous bluffs. This provides the double-benefit of encouraging regeneration native species while preventing cattle from falling off the cliffs.

A recent boost was a Significant Natural Areas (SNA) survey of the property, overseen by the Marlborough District Council. Twelve ecologically significant sites were identified then $19,000 of Government biodiversity funds towards conservation fencing at Cape Lambert successfully applied for.

Theyre now planning to protect another 90 hectares at Waitui Bay; a Grand Canyon-scape of rocks and bluffs which would link the Puzzle Peak Scenic Reserve at the top of the property with fenced coastal areas.

With a busy working farm to look after, the Moletas aim to protect significant sites one-by-one, ensuring each job is done properly before moving onto the next.

Hands-on weed control minimises the need for herbicides.

Noel regularly walks the road to ensure gorse and broom dont get onto the property with any plants grubbed out. Variegated thistles have been wiped out by grubbing, with annual patrols to check for any new infestations.

Conservation weeds (e.g. wild ginger, banana passionfruit and morning glory) are controlled as well as production weeds.

A downside of indigenous vegetation is the pests it can harbour. Tracks are maintained to provide access to possum hunters. One took out 5000 possums in two years.

Noel has built an innovative track cum haha bank below the DoC reserve at Puzzle Peak, with the aim of keeping pigs off Waitui.

Noel and Debbie have diversified into mussel farming, with ten lines in Melville Cove. Their first mussels were harvested off three lines last year, yielding 200 tonnes with prices ranging from $500-$740/tonne (in their half shells). The remaining seven lines were to be harvested in February this year and theyre hoping for a total crop of around 550 tonnes.

Wed be in dire straits without the mussel farm and the extra income itll bring in, says Noel.

The farm is managed by Elaine Bay Aquaculture, owned by Sealords, which processes their mussels in Havelock.

Securing resource consents and permits began in 1999 and cost $80,000 with no guarantee of success. Setting up the farm cost another $300,000. Harvesting takes place every 18 months or so.

Since 2007, the Moletas have hosted WWOOFers Willing Workers on Organic Farms from around the world. Food and board is traded for five hours work a day.

Tasks include tailing, weed control, gardening and general farm-work. Apart from appreciating the extra help on the farm, the Moleta family often enjoy multi-cultural meals cooked by their international guests.

Noel and Debbie see tourism as offering opportunities on the property for one of their children, perhaps. When their shearers quarters burnt down in 2000, the insurance money was used to build a 10-bed lodge at Melville Cove, targeting people diving the wreck of the Russian cruise liner Mikhail Lermontov just offshore. For now, the projects been put on hold.