Organic Businesses at Arnstead Farm

June 2015

As well as a "lifestyle" farm, Maurice Hellewell runs an organic meat procurement business

Maurice and Neroli Hellewell have farmed organically at Arnstead Farm in South Otago, near Waimate, for 10 years but the property has been in the family for 70 years.

The farm is a lifestyle block where they grow a large vegetable garden, milk a cow, run pigs and raise chickens for their eggs. It is also a business, finishing organic-certified lambs and cattle and growing grains.

Maurice and business partner Neville Parkinson established Organic Futures Aotearoa in 2009, to link breeders and finishers of organically-raised stock and coordinate slaughter by companies with organic brands.

This is the International Year of Soils and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has said healthy soils are the foundation for food, fuel, fibre and even medicine.

Maurice and Neroli Hellewell say by looking after their soil on Arnstead Farm, they are looking after water. They see this approach as especially relevant, as their farm sits in a red zone where Environment Canterbury has deemed water quality unacceptable, although the consented Hunter Downs Irrigation Scheme makes further intensification of farming likely.

While small scale at 64 hectares, their farm demonstrates an approach of balancing soil carbon and nitrates, planting waterways and building a holding pond to avoid losing sediment and nutrients into waterways.

Maurice says he is not opposed to irrigation and has made big production gains by applying water to a stony flat on the farm. But when irrigating hill country, it’s important to do environmental work first rather than starting with development then trying to fix problems.

Organics Aotearoa New Zealand chairman, Brendan Hoare, has said just over 1% of New Zealand’s farmland is farmed organically and world demand exceeds supply, growing fastest in significant Asian markets. Organic primary products are attracting big premiums and the beauty of growing the sector is that it can be done without damaging the natural environment.

Maurice and Neroli are moving towards cropping as their main source of income. They see gaps in the New Zealand market for organic grains and seeds, currently filled with imported products. This 2014-15 season they grew 16 hectares of crop including linseed planted in October/November, for sale to two New Zealand companies for making flaxseed oil. Autumn-planted rye corn and wheat goes to a milling company for making bread. Wheat dressings are fed to hens and pigs.

Hens lay eggs sold at the gate and at the Oamaru Farmers’ Market. Not only is there a ready market for organic eggs but the hens, towed around in re-locatable cages, do a good job of fertilising the pasture. Numbers are kept below 100 to avoid becoming a commercial producer.

The farm runs 100 Wiltshire ewes that shed their wool, 20 Angus cows bred with a Wagyu bull and they buy store lambs and cattle for finishing.

Heavy soils on the property require careful management. If paddocks become compacted, cultivation becomes difficult leading to poor germination of crops. Ways of avoiding this include wintering cattle on a feedpad covered with straw from grain grown on the property.

Maurice has designed an organic version of minimum tillage. Instead of spraying off pastures with glyphosate, he surface works the soil with a rotary hoe. A fish-based soil microbe product is added, breaking turf break down to a point where the next crop can be drilled. This process is good for soil structure, enhancing vital soil microbes rather than destroying them by spraying with herbicide. It is better than ploughing, which destroys soil structure and risks turning over the top soil and creating a pan beneath.

The Hellewells are also experimenting with oats and peas, sown in February as a fodder crop which doubles as a cover crop, which conditions the soil, fixes nitrogen and prevents erosion by wind and rain.

The biggest challenge is a lack of nitrogen in the system to break down carbon in straw left behind after harvesting crops, Maurice says. It’s the reverse on dairy farms where urea fertiliser recycled through cows then released as urine is polluting waterways. His solution is to spread faeces-covered straw from feed pads onto paddocks to complete the nutrient cycle.

To reality-check his theories, Maurice regularly tests soils and herbage. “We can use virtually the same fertilisers as conventional farmers except urea and chemically treated phosphorus, so long as it’s in its natural form,” he says. Micro-nutrients such as potassium, sodium, zinc, copper and selenium are added in small amounts if soil samples or liver biopsies from stock suggest there is a need.

This year the Hellewells reluctantly treated sheep for internal parasites with conventional drench, for the first time in the 10 years they have been organic. Perhaps he didn’t have the cattle to sheep ratio quite right, Maurice wonders, and more irrigation than usual was applied this exceptionally dry season.

The farm is certified by Biogro with land meeting the highest United States Department of Agriculture standard, but livestock were run to US Soil Association rules which allowed one drench per season without certification being lost.

Maurice is part of a group lobbying the Lower Waitaki Water Management Zone Committee on ways nutrient caps are being set on farms to protect freshwater. He believes a fair system would be one where allocation is based on soil type and slope. This would be fairer than proposed “grandfathering” which could see penalties for a farm like his own which had not intensified, compared with a neighbour who had converted to dairying and was releasing more nitrates, phosphorus and probably sediment into the water, he says. “At the end of the day any rules have to result in better water quality.”

The Hellewells have planted trees along a stream flowing through Arnstead Farm, to protect its banks from eroding during floods and capture runoff.

Maurice and Neville Parkinson started Organic Futures Aotearoa in 2009, out of frustration that the lack of markets for organically raised store cattle meant huge numbers were lost to the conventional sector.

The business specialises in placing organic store stock on organic finishing farms to achieve differentiated marketing, premium prices and reliable supply. It also helps source organic-certified supplements and finds markets for organic seeds and grain. The next step will be providing advice to commercial-scale farmers looking at converting from conventional farming to organics.

At first Organic Futures serviced solely the South Island, this season shifting about 6000-7000 lambs and 500 cattle from store to finishing farms, then coordinating their slaughter. Store stock comes from 30,000 stock unit properties to small blocks, from Southland to the Marlborough Sounds, but finishing farms are harder to find.

Cattle have been killed at ANZCO plants and lambs by ANZCO and Silver Fern Farms and the meat sold under organic brands in the Middle East, parts of Asia and Australia, as well as New Zealand. However, the door remains open to any meat company or stock and station agency.

In 2014 the company expanded into the North Island, sourcing cull and quality cattle for processing into manufacturing and prime beef to meet the insatiable demand in the United States.

This has been a good year for the company, with prices holding for organic supply on a falling schedule. Store lambs have been sold at $2.60-$2.80/kg compared with $2.20 and below for conventional animals and store cattle at $2.50-$2.65/kg, well ahead of conventional. Premiums at slaughter range from 15-30%, depending on the time of year.

This dry summer, the company has played a vital role quickly shifting stock from drought-affected areas into wetter regions like western Southland.

Neville takes a hands-on role in the business. He has his own truck and carts store stock to finishing farms and then to slaughter, also overseeing the logistics of ensuring a steady supply of stock through the season. Maurice’s strengths are in the administration and marketing side, such as building a database.