The mention of a serial entrepreneur who founded a highly successful vodka brand could call to mind images of your typical city slicker
Henry (6) and Forbes (5) Mackay have deep roots in the lakes, valleys and sheep stations around Wanaka. Their grandmother Sally explains that the family connections go back to 1907, when her great-grandfather bought Glendhu Station and later managed Mt Pisa and West Wanaka stations. Her sister, brother-in-law and their family are still farming in West Wanaka; Henry and Forbes’ uncle Mark farms the property next to their home, Spotts Creek Station. “They’ve got six generations of farmers in Central Otago on three sides of the family,” Sally says. “We have a lot of history in this area,” which is why her relatives are pressing her to write a book.
Like many of the farmers around New Zealand who partner with Silver Fern Farms, connections to the land and the opportunities offered to children by the way of life are core values. These values led Hamish and Anna Mackay, parents to Henry and Forbes, to move to Spotts Creek Station, 8 minutes drive from Wanaka in the high country of the Cardrona Valley. The couple had been farming in Geraldine, South Canterbury, for several years. “Hamish and I decided, when I was pregnant with Forbes, that we wanted to bring our children back into the Central Otago environment,” Anna says. “We wanted to make sure that our children would be grounded as people. We wanted them to be aware of how lucky they are to live within the environment, the mountains, the lakes – all the things that they can do because of the accessibility of where we are.” “Hence the reason for going camping every summer with friends from Dunedin,” Hamish adds. “We don’t go and stay in hotels. They’ve learned to go and camp, and do those chores.” “They love it,” Anna continues. “They find it’s such a natural part of their lives. It’s the little things – they love cockabullying in the creek; they make their own fun. Our kids aren’t inside kids – they think it’s quite a treat to sit here and have the TV on. “From the beginning, they have learned, and it will be a lesson throughout life: this is how our family rolls,” he says. Those strong family values, combined with carefully targeted sustainable practices to improve the land and animal health, are reflected in the way the farm is managed.
Hamish has always been a farmer. He went straight from school into farming – “I had practical experience from the outset,” he says, experience which is brought to bear at Spotts Creek Station. “In farming terms, it’s pretty small for this area. We winter about 1400 deer and about 1400 sheep and 65 cattle.” That means, however, that Hamish can manage the property on his own – with help from his dad, Don. He and Sally have recently moved into a refurbished villa about 10 minutes drive from their sons and grandsons.
Hamish says there are several strands to the business. “Having five income streams is really good because if one’s not doing so well, you can cover your bases with something else. “Deer is number one, with venison and velvet, which is a great by-product. Then there’s beef calves and the sheep – we produce merino wool and finish merino hoggets to sell to Silver Fern Farms in the springtime,” explains Hamish.
Behind The Scenes
Part of what drives the Mackay family is their passion for ensuring that the New Zealand farm industry continues to thrive and grow and be an integral part of our country’s future. The Mackay family work to care for and look after their land, ensuring sustainable development and always carefully considering environmental impact. After all, the land is what supports us all – physically as well as figuratively. This process of nurturing and protecting the land is a long-term focus for Silver Fern farmers and continues to be a work in progress, with the constant support of their partners, Silver Fern Farms.
This has been merino country for 150 years. Plenty of experts will say it’s the finest and softest wool of any sheep, too. Cardrona is a dry area, the river often experiences low flows, and Spotts Creek, tucked behind the ranges, rarely gets wind. “There’s a frost every month of the year,” according to Hamish, so he has to irrigate over five to six months each year. Irrigation is on a low-energy, cost-efficient basis, particularly thanks to the water from the creek in the hills, which is powered by gravity, with no pumps needed. “We have upgraded 90 per cent of our irrigation system to spray irrigation, which is a much more efficient and sustainable use of water,” he says.
Hamish and Don knew there was work to do on the station when it was purchased. “Because it was such a rundown property when we bought it, the priority has been looking after the soil, putting in new grass, and building new fences to manage the stock,” says Hamish. “This is a naturally dry land area, so leaching [nutrients draining out of the soil] is minimal. Farming is not as intensive here as in other areas of New Zealand. The water quality in the Queenstown-Lakes area is exceptional.”
The water quality in the Queenstown-Lakes area is exceptional
Thinking about what goes into the soil and improving its microbiology is important at Spotts Creek Station. Growing quality grass means that when animals graze on the pasture, their health and production value are improved. Silver Fern Farms representatives support farmers in the sustainable management of their farms, actively encouraging them to make comprehensive regular assessments of the land and long-term impacts. But as well as healthy grass and land, the success of the farm is also found in the genetics too, which are important. “Any rams, bulls and stags that are introduced are going to be at the forefront of what you’re going to gain in production, so it’s vital to keep the gene pool as strong as possible,” he explains. Hamish concludes, “At the end of the day, good farming comes down to good soil, good grass and good stockmanship. “This is a relatively small farm and I run it pretty much myself with a bit of Dad’s help. I am a great believer in keeping things uncomplicated.”
Getting Down To It
Hamish is always aware of the bottom line: “As a farmer/business owner it’s important that your farm system is profitable. This allows for greater sustainability through the allocation of funds to extra aspects of your farm such as planting, fencing, weed, pest and water management. The land will suffer in an unprofitable business.” Core to the business for the Mackay family has been their relationship with Silver Fern Farms. “They have been absolutely brilliant and looked after us in every way. The two Silver Fern Farms Livestock reps we deal with, Rusty Andrews for deer and Dean Sinnamon for sheep and cattle, are always approachable and always willing to help. Silver Fern Farms do a great job of representing us,” says Hamish.
The Mackay family has a commitment to a good life, producing quality food and sustainability, but that doesn’t stop at the farm gate. Anna exercises her creative side as an interiors and events stylist. And also in her impressive kitchen garden, grown in raised beds. What’s the secret? She laughs. “I get Hamish to rake out the deer shed and bring me all the dust hair and manure. I put it on the beds. It does a wonderful job of fertilising the soil and retaining and saving moisture – otherwise, I’d be watering all the time.”