A Sustainable and Transparent Farming Philosophy.

A sustainable and transparent farming philosophy.

The mention of a serial entrepreneur who founded a highly successful vodka brand could call to mind images of your typical city slicker

The mention of a serial entrepreneur who founded a highly successful vodka brand could call to mind images of your typical city slicker. It might surprise you then to learn that Geoff Ross has always had agricultural aspirations. “Up until about two days before finishing university I was hell-bent on going farming and then got seduced I guess by bright lights, big city,” he says. After a successful stint in advertising, Geoff and his wife Justine took a leap of faith that proved to be rather fruitful in founding the premium vodka brand, 42 Below. “We spent 30 years doing something else completely, so it took us that long to circle back to farming,” says Justine. During that time, Geoff has also chaired Trilogy International, a company owning several beauty and home fragrance brands including Ecoya and is currently executive chair of beer and hospitality business Moa Group. “But I guess all through that time the intention was still at some stage to go farm,” says Geoff. “About three years ago, the yearning to get back to farming got to a point where the family needed to act on it.”

In their search for the perfect property, Geoff and Justine inspected farms in the Queenstown-Lakes District. The picturesque Lake Hāwea Station, 6,505 hectares of high-country land with spectacular views of idyllic scenery situated just outside of Wanaka, presented itself as an option. Although the couple was initially hesitant, Geoff says the natural beauty of the landscape was hard to pass up. “It was when we ventured out into the backcountry, to that true alpine country; that’s when we fell in love with the property and took it on, and we’ve been farming it since.”

Lake Hāwea Station runs a flock of purebred Merino sheep and a herd of purebred Angus cattle. Currently, there are around 7,500 sheep on the property with a view of increasing that number to 10,000 in the next few years. “We think the world is going to continue its move, in fact ideally accelerate its move, towards natural fibres rather than synthetic fibres,” says Geoff. In addition to supplying Silver Fern Farms with high-value lamb, the station has about 200 head of cattle, providing top-quality pure Angus beef. Sustainability and transparency are at the core of the Lake Hāwea Station farming philosophy. “Silver Fern Farms recognises that its customers want to connect to the farm source. It’s the big macro trend worldwide that people want to know where their food and fibre come from, and they want to know that it’s from a very environmentally sound place,” says Geoff. “Silver Fern Farms wants to work with farmers that get that, promote that, exhibit that, and ultimately they are prepared to reward farmers for best practice and match farmers with customers who want that. They’re being pretty transparent about making sure those environmental goals are valued.”



Silver Fern Farms is the first red meat processor in New Zealand to have a certified carbon footprint and is committed to measuring, reporting and reducing emissions. Knowing that consumers the world over are increasingly concerned about carbon footprint, Lake Hāwea Station has created a carbon budget and set the ambitious target of becoming 10-times carbon positive. “If we could be the first farm in the world to achieve that, it would be a huge undertaking,” says Geoff. He explains they have undertaken a very thorough process to calculate their carbon position, taking everything into consideration – from livestock emissions, to farm vehicles, travel to and from the farm, and the farm’s vegetation. “We’ve got to a point where we are confirmed carbon positive,” says Geoff. “We sequester more carbon than we emit.”

Geoff acknowledges that going 10-times carbon positive is a “pretty big goal” – so how will Lake Hāwea Station reach it? “We are planting 10,000 trees a year for 10 years and we’re also looking at the emissions profile of the stock.” He points to seaweed studies that are promising in this area. For example, research in Australia has shown that when red seaweed, asparaguses is used as a supplementary feed for livestock, it has the potential to reduce their methane emissions by up to 80 per cent. “So we’re going to address that 10-times carbon positive challenge twofold, through sequestering more with more plantings, but emitting less as well through working with those who are reducing methane emissions from the stock,” explains Geoff.



Lake Hāwea Station has also introduced renewable energy sources and has set goals to protect and enhance its waterways, conserve and restore biodiversity, and introduce regenerative farming practices. But the team sees the greatest potential for giving back to the community and the planet through the carbon-positive goal. “We think that’s important because that’s what customers want. In the classic marketing circles we used to hang out in, you worked to what your consumer demands are and that’s becoming a big one,” says Geoff. But the station’s sustainability ambitions have always been about more than marketing buzzwords. “I think first and foremost it was important to us personally,” he says. “We as a family have always been very environmentally minded,” Justine notes the family have simply brought their long-held values to farming. “This is not a new thing for us,” she says. “We’ve both been campaigning for the environment for 20-plus years.”

It’s true that the Ross family walks the walk when it comes to commitment to the environment. Geoff is a trustee of Pure Advantage, a not-for-profit organisation led by business leaders that investigates and promotes opportunities for adopting environmentally-friendly business practices; Justine is a long-time member of Greenpeace; and their sons Finn and Gabriel are keen outdoorsmen, with 21-year-old Finn currently finishing an honours degree in ecology. Finn is heavily involved with the environmental initiatives on the farm, which he says focus on three key areas: carbon, biodiversity and water. “Recently there’s been a pretty big conversation around water quality and freshwater reform in New Zealand, and as important as that is, it’s potentially been to the detriment of the importance of biodiversity and carbon capture on a lot of New Zealand agricultural land,” he says. “With a big area of land comes quite a bit of responsibility and probably our biggest opportunity to give back is through large-scale carbon sequestration.”

It’s no wonder that it was important for Lake Hāwea Station to partner with a meat processor that aligned with its values. “We’re pretty keen on going for a ‘quality, not quantity approach' because we think consumers the world over are also moving that way,” explains Geoff. “Obviously New Zealand has a lot of strength in grass-fed meats, and has a very pure, natural, open environment; we wanted to work with a partner that understood that that should attach a premium to it worldwide.” In their search for the right partner, the Lake Hāwea Station team found that Silver Fern Farms best understood their vision. Geoff reached out to Silver Fern Farms one morning when he was in Dunedin. Just four hours later he was meeting with senior management. “There was a real meeting of the minds,” says Geoff. “We had the same objective; they want growers that are building a very strong environmental story.”

Once that story is created, the Ross family knows the importance of it being heard and understood by consumers. Everything Lake Hāwea Station does and stands for is represented on its beautifully designed website and Instagram page. “As consumers want to connect with the source, they’re going to need to see it and know more about it,” says Geoff. “I think all farms will, in time, become their own brands.” Geoff believes transparency through an online presence also helps in their partnership with Silver Fern Farms and how the company tells its story to their customers. “As Silver Fern Farms wants to be talking to a certain consumer set, they need to be able to tell their consumers where their meat comes from and they can point people to Lake Hāwea Station. Ideally, that will become meat they prefer.”



By gaining an understanding of the station and in turn, the meat that it produces, consumers will discover there’s a major focus on animal welfare. Farm manager Jack Mansfield notes that the animals at Lake Hāwea Station are “as free range as they can get”, and the station’s infrastructure helps with giving them the best lifestyle. “We’re trying to make everything as stress-free [as possible] every time we handle the animals, for them and for us as well,” he says. Mansfield says the low-stress, free-range lifestyle paired with a focus on high intramuscular fat bloodlines in the Angus cattle allows for flavourful meat. “When you add all those factors together, it’s going to be a pretty good product and people are going to feel good about consuming that product,” he says.

Justine is particularly passionate about animal welfare. “If you’re going to run a regenerative agricultural programme or an environmentally sound programme, then for me my great passion is in animal health,” she says. “We make sure that we go above and beyond when it comes to all animal welfare issues. The more we learn, the hungrier we are to do better, to exceed expectations and to innovate as well.” She says the free-range lifestyle the farm’s livestock enjoy at Lake Hāwea Station is something Silver Fern Farms appreciates as well. “Our animals live a near-natural life and that’s been a real delight for me,” she says. “When you trek into the backcountry and you see these animals so far from any human interaction, operating in small groups and living a beautiful life, that’s a really pleasing aspect of what we can offer here.”