The Pyramid - Environment and Succession

June 2020

The Dawkins farm leading with way with land use and succession

The Pyramid Farm in Waihopai Valley was the supreme winner in the biennial Cawthron Marlborough Environment Awards in 2019, only the second farm to win the multi-industry awards in more than 20 years. 


The Pyramid is a three-generation Dawkins family farm, begun by Jack and Jean in 1954, taken over by Chris in 1978, and now farmed by Chris’ son Richard and Chris under a succession plan. Richard’s brother Paddy and his wife Laura run Pyramid Apiaries, a business that puts hives on the home farms and around the district. Chris led the committee organising the New Zealand Farm Forestry Association conference held in Marlborough in 2014; was South Island Farm Forester of the year in 2008 and is a founding trustee of the Sheep and Beef Farmer of the Year awards. 


Julia is involved in Rural Women NZ and volunteers for support groups. As a Beef + Lamb NZ Monitor Farm, The Pyramid hosted many farming field days to spread the word about good farming practices. Science has played a valuable part of their farming approach. Many trials have been conducted over the years with trees, pasture and clover types. The Dawkins seek technical advice and challenge themselves to find ways to put it into practice on farm.


The judges in the 2019 Cawthron Marlborough Environment Awards said, “This is an excellent example of a production system matured around land capability, identifying where different enterprises perform best and making the most of opportunities without compromising environmental values.”


Diversified returns from sheep, cattle, forestry, firewood, honey and grapes have facilitated the farming succession plan from Chris and Julia, to Richard and Jess and their growing family.


The Pyramid business currently comprises 602ha within the boundaries of the Avon, Tummil and Waihopai rivers. In 2019, The Pyramid won the farming section as well as the supreme award in the Cawthron Marlborough Environment Awards. There are seven industries/categories in the awards and in 2019 there were 24 entrants in total. Over 22 years of the awards there have been 270 entrants, 84 winners and 62 field days. The 2019 Supreme Award field day was held on The Pyramid on June 6 2019.


The farming philosophy on The Pyramid has always been to farm to the conditions and make the best use of what they have. Chris Dawkins says he grows what wants to be there naturally. Having said that, he wants to be receptive to new ideas. He has been trialing different pasture species, with an emphasis on legumes like lucerne, to determine which species is best suited to the Pyramid and similar Marlborough farming systems. Richard has an evaluation of legumes and grasses for development on uncultivatable hill country underway currently. Chris says the results of many years of trials had established the value of lucerne for his environment, along with sub-clover, arrow-leaf clover, balansa and Persian clovers. These were established by spraying out followed by direct drilling or broadcasting seed. On the downs and river flats some cultivation and cropping was undertaken before sowing of permanent pasture to restore soil structure.


Farm forestry has long been a part of the family farm plan and now 15% of the farm is under different species of commercial trees – pine, redwoods, eucalypts, blackwoods and cypress. Shade plantings include poplars, oaks and acacias. Natives have been planted around dams and allowed to regenerate in the QEII covenant area of 8ha beside the Avon River. Other plantings include cork oak and honey locust. 


While not all plantings have been successful, forestry in all its forms provides multiple benefits for the farm including erosion control on slopes and around waterways, additional feed in dry periods, dual income streams as well as landscape and aesthetic benefits. The disappointments in trees species have been cypresses with canker, lack of wood markets for eucalypts, and being too dry for acacias, says Chris.


Chris Dawkins says the trees were not viewed as an asset when the farm was initially developed but extensive planting has occurred as their benefits were realised. Improvements in shade, shelter, stock management, soil fertility and pasture production have compensated for the reduced pasture area. An FRI evaluation showed that despite turning over 15% of the grazing area to trees, the property’s carrying capacity had actually increased.


After planting during the 1970s to the 1990s, the first harvest of pines was in 2008 and harvesting has been regular since, followed by replanting for those designated areas.


Bees from Pyramid Apiaries feed on lucerne and clover flowers and the many amenity trees found on farm. They have an essential role in pasture reseeding as well as providing income. Manuka has been left to grow and flower where possible on fenced riverbanks and in gullies.


Richard has a firewood business, selling pine, gum and manuka to the Blenheim market. Waste wood consists of wind-thrown trees or post-harvest slash, collected, cut and split. Because of the varieties and regular plantings over decades there will be a good supply of waste wood for future winters.


Chris and Julia’s four sons have inherited the strong family values and are carrying on the tradition of sound environmental and farming management. All four want to retain The Pyramid in family ownership. The oldest is in retail in Waikato, the second an equity farmer in dairying in Southland, while Patrick and Richard live in Marlborough. Richard and his wife Jess have expressed a preference to stay on the family farms and run the livestock operations and it is hoped that forestry and viticulture (which could cover 150ha eventually), would provide for the significant income and capital for generations to come.


Showdown Productions Ltd – Rural Delivery Series 15 2020