Simpsons at Balmoral Station
Balmoral Station is home to high country farmers, Andrew and Karen Simpson
High country farmers Andrew and Karen Simpson tackle the challenges of farming in the Mackenzie Basin with innovation, entrepreneurial flair and a strong emphasis on sustainability.
Balmoral Station lies in the McKenzie Basin near Lake Tekapo. The property is around 10,000ha, about half of which was under pastoral lease.
It has been a grazing station since 1858. In 1976, the lease on the 6,500-hectare property was bought by Andrew Simpson and his brother Rex. It is now owned and farmed by Andrew, his wife Karen and their family, who continue to graze merino sheep.
The couple is savvy about their resources, seeing business opportunities all around them. The Simpsons say this one of the few survival strategies available to a modern high-country operation.
They felt that they had three choices: get bigger, get out or get niche. They decided to get niche.
These days among their income streams are merino wool, including a sheep to garment wool retail business – Mihi Merino. There are ram sales, as well as fawn and velvet sales. Also on the list is land development, and the renting of accommodation in the original 1911 Mt John Homestead, which they have restored.
They are also experimenting with alpaca-blend wool, a helipad, and both carbon-sink and production forestry.
In the course of re-evaluating their business of the last 6 or 7 years the Simpson have come up with some key values. In effect this has become a mission statement.
1) Protect the environment. Every effort is made to ensure the land has full vegetation cover. A lot of the high country is extremely fragile. Rabbits and hieracium took over much of the high country and left soils exposed to the elements such as strong winds. With much of this high country on the mend, the Simpsons try to treat the land with a great deal of respect and manage it accordingly so that it continues to improve.
2) The farm must run as a profitable business. Conservation activities on Balmoral are funded by the farm so the two work together extremely well. After all, managing land costs a great deal of money.
3) Add biodiversity to the farming operation. This includes everything from plants, animals, humans, and fish – right down to the invertebrates! People sometimes don’t understand that humans need the land and the land needs the humans. We live on this planet with all our surroundings and we should be able to live in harmony so that everything wins.
4) Leave the farm better than they found it.
Andrew and Karen decided to enter the tenure review process back in the early 2000s, not because they wanted to downsize or diversify, but because, Andrew says, “the Crown had indicated that they may look at other mechanisms” for those who did not elect the review process.
They were happy with the pastoral lease, but Andrew says was no guarantee that it would it stay as it was. There was talk of compulsory reviews, new legislation or rent increases.
When the preliminary report came out in 2005, they got a shock. The government announced it wanted to reclaim 2800ha of the leasehold for the conservation estate. It sent the Simpsons a map of the bit it would have.
They suspected tenure review was more to do with the scenery; a “land grab” for recreation rather than conservation purposes.
As a consequence they’ve looked very hard at their resources and done as much as they can to learn about their impact on the land and the resources they have.
In 2005 following the approach to enter Land Tenure Review and hand over some of their lease land, they got ahold of some scientists and survey the whole property. They used QE II. The survey identified about 400ha as having “significant inherent conservation values”.
The QEII survey was the start of a process in which the couple have spent tens of thousands of dollars learning about their patch, so that they could offer an alternative plan to full Crown ownership of that 2800ha.
The Simpsons theory was that historically, grazing moa and weka would have scraped around the tussock, assisting its development, and today the sheep performed that function with their nibbling.
This is an area of 180ha of native red tussock shrubland that the Simpsons have fenced off so that it’s free of stock. It has been divided into plots with all plantlife assessed and recorded. Alongside that is another area which is farmed with merino sheep. A huge amount of data is gathered from these areas including: soil profiles; vegetation measurements and water quality. The Benchmark Area is run by a Trust board set up by Balmoral.
The Trust has three goals
1. To protect and manage representative areas of the Balmoral ecosystems, which provide benchmark areas to compare changes inside and outside the core area.
2. To provide access for scientific research, education and enjoyment.
3. To demonstrate natural, cultural and landscape values can be preserved within community stewardship
Mihi Merino is a joint enterprise with two other high-country farms and an established Nelson clothing company. Balmoral along, Mt Gladstone and Glencairn are the owners of the Mihi Merino clothing company. The wool for every garment that Mihi produces comes from these three stations.
The three farms pride themselves on best farming practices and have an emphasis on high animal welfare.
Andrew Simpson says they can tell the story of the wool from the sheep’s back to the retail store.
With their two other station partners, they own not just the clothing label, but also the retail outlets, initially in Nelson, Fairlie and online at mihimerino.co.nz, . They also have the United Kingdom and North America in their sights.
The Simpsons find Mihi exciting because they are connected with what they produce all the way to the end product. They also remove the “ticket clippers’ in between them and the customer. However retail is foreign territory for them both – they’ve needed outside help to keep this part of the business on track.
There are other challenges. The time frame from when the sheep are shorn to selling a garment is twelve months, so it is a large investment before any income is made. There’s currently no capability to process the greasy wool in New Zealand. The wool is scoured in Taiwan and then spun into yarn in India. Then it is back to New Zealand for knitting into fabric and dyeing.
A major cost in running Balmoral is weed and pest control, usually between $40,000 and $70,000 a year on the leasehold alone.
The main jobs are keeping rabbit numbers down, and killing wilding pines and hieracium. The Simpsons have had limited success with increasing the nutrients in the soil through fertilisation, to give other plants a fighting chance to establish themselves.
Fertiliser has been more effective in controlling the pines, as it sweetens the taste of the smaller seedlings so the sheep are persuaded to eat them.
The Simpsons reckon that sort of caretaking is best left to them and the Tekapo community, rather than the Crown.
Twenty thousand douglas fir trees are planted every year to offset any farm carbon emissions. There is an excess of carbon storage on Balmoral so that a portion is traded to carbon emitters from around the globe. This in turn provides a revenue stream that is reinvested back on farm to improve biodiversity. Every year the Simpsons plant 20 hectares of trees, extending their plantation from the current 300 hectares.
Andrew and Karen Simpson have had a fairly open door to those wanting to visit the station. Cavalcades to botanists.
Balmoral Station includes a 1.5-hour walking track up Mt John that is used by an estimated 15,000 people a year. The view from its height tumbles down suede slopes and into the frigid waters of the lake.
The Simpsons say most high-country farmers have a similarly open policy about access, as long as any limitations associated with farm activities are respected.
However, they concede members of the public may not always know whom to phone when wanting access.
Their youngest son, Sam, has returned to take up the reins at Balmoral from Andrew and Karen. Sam is involved in the property’s merino stud and in most aspects of the livestock side of the business as well as taking a keen interest in the fibre and fashion side of things with Mihi Merino.
Their daughter, Amanda, is living in Tekapo after escaping the Christchurch earthquake in February. With significant expertise in the property market, Amanda is helping with the family’s property development business. The Simpson’s purchased Mount John Station a few years ago. The property is just out of and behind the town boundary. With spectacular lake and mountain views, the area was ideally suited to lifestyle blocks. The first and second stages of the Cairns subdivision are well established with the third stage underway.
Plans to open a golf course, utilising the natural contours of the hills, within the estate have been marked out and greens are expected to be laid in September.