The mention of a serial entrepreneur who founded a highly successful vodka brand could call to mind images of your typical city slicker
You can’t get more Kiwi than Whangara Farms. Three iwi farms came together to protect, improve and sustainably develop the land for future generations. Standing on the last green, rolling headland before the Pacific Ocean, we look down to the coast, at the cream walls and red roofs of a village, clustered around its marae. Like the farm on which we’re standing, the village is named Whangara. There’s an island just off its bay: the iwi believes it is the body of a whale.
This is the home of Paikea, who in Māori myth, rode a whale from Hawaiki to Aotearoa. His story was later told in The Whale Rider book and movie, which was also filmed here. The Whangara Farms Partnership, on the East Coast just north of Gisborne, was formed in 2006 when two neighbouring farms, Pakarae A and Whangara B5, joined to create one property. Tapuwae Whitiwhiti later entered the partnership. It is the largest Māori-owned supplier to Silver Fern Farms and is regarded as a leader in applying modern technology and research to everyday farming and as a driving force in iwi-based business.
Whangara is a super-sized business, running 75,000 sheep and cattle stock units. The three partners are Māori land incorporations, which means the land can never be sold as it is held in trust for present and future generations. Profits must be returned to the 2500 shareholders of the trust as dividends to be spent or invested for the good of each community. Each incorporation elects a director to the board. The board appoints two independent directors and the general manager, who is responsible for farming operations. He has a team responsible for each of the farms, or ‘blocks’.
Above all, the story of Whangara is a story of people: the people of this land, and the people who guide the business and nurture the land on behalf of its shareholders. These people include board chair Ingrid Collins; Robbie Love, whose forefathers lived on this land, whose father and uncles worked on it, and which he now helps to manage; and general manager Richard Scholefield. “It’s been a great challenge, and I’ve really enjoyed it – working for a progressive board and having the freedom to make some changes and really develop the business,” Scholefield says. Scholefield’s agricultural career has taken him from New Zealand to the US and the UK. In 2006 he and his wife Karen were managing a farm for another Māori trust in Taupo when he was shoulder-tapped for the Whangara Farms role. They were impressed with the organisation and the property was a great place to bring up their three children – Hannah, a first-year commerce student at Victoria University; Leah, 14, at Gisborne Girls’ High School; and Jacob, 11, at Gisborne Intermediate School. “I’ve managed a few farms and I think the key to being a good manager is: you have to treat it like it’s your own, and they have given me the freedom to treat it like it’s my own – and I do.”
Training for the future
Scholefield believes in training and developing his team members from entry level through to management level, a sentiment echoed by Silver Fern Farms. He sees this as key to the future of both Whangara and farming nationally. “We need to get young people interested in farming, and into the business of farming,” he says. “There are so many opportunities within farming now.”
Those opportunities, and the close association between Whangara and its shareholders, could ease a dilemma facing many New Zealand farmers: succession planning. “We are looking at trying to align ourselves with a cadet farming scheme, which is being run locally. We’ll try to get kids as they come out of school, to do two years as a cadet, to learn all the basics and a lot of theory. If they pass, we’ll guarantee them a job within this business.”
Decisions that we make today are going to affect future generations, and I think we have to be really mindful of it.
Those core values of nurturing the land and business now, and developing it for future generations, are key to the way that Scholefield and his team go about their work. “Sustainability is the key. Being in a Māori incorporation, the land can’t be sold, so we’re here for future generations. Decisions that we make today are going to affect future generations, and I think we have to be really mindful of it.
“Being environmentally sustainable goes hand in hand with our policies and procedures, our decisions and our systems – everything that we do on the farm.” Scholefield cites a project undertaken with Silver Fern Farms. “We went through our properties and did a land environmental plan to the highest standard that we could,” he explains. “It has fully changed the land-use capability of our farm, all the different soil types, and then given a priority list of the ways to manage it in the most environmentally sound and sustainable way."
“We plant a lot of poplar poles and willow poles to help hold up the land. We’re looking at planting native trees on the riverbanks because they protect them a lot better. Unfortunately, when you plant natives on the hills, they take a long time to get going. So, initially, we’re looking at trying to stabilise those erosion-prone areas, and poplar and willow poles are the easiest and quickest way to do that.” There’s community involvement, too. “We have a local school that’s almost on the property and we’re looking at doing some tree-planting projects with the kids. I think it’s a matter of trying to get everyone involved and everyone excited about trying to do something positive for the environment.”
Tech and Partnerships
Whangara – which won the Ahuwhenua Māori Farm of the Year award in 2009 – is recognised as a pioneer in applying modern research and technology to farming practices. It supplies Silver Fern Farms with 100 per cent antibiotic-free, non-GMO and grass-fed lamb, which is important in the modern marketplace, where consumers want the quality of their food to be guaranteed.“We try to produce lambs sustainably and make sure they have a good life,” Scholefield says. “The key to producing good lambs is to make sure that they’re nice and settled, they don’t want for anything, they have a good life. Our lambs are relaxed, they’re growing, and they’re on good feed, high-quality plantain and clover pastures. We try to produce a really good product.”
Whangara was one of the ‘focus farms’ for FarmIQ, an online farm management tool developed by Silver Fern Farms under a government-backed primary growth partnership. “We have our own research and development budget. I don’t think there are many farming businesses that have a research and development budget. We are looking to invest in different technology and create partnerships.
“We’re big on having partnerships, and that’s where we see ourselves with Silver Fern Farms. They’re partnering with us to look at ways of creating value within our business and in terms of the product, we produce for our consumers. We’ve been involved with Silver Fern Farms for the last seven years and we’ve found that their values fit well with us.” The partnership starts at the farm gate, with Silver Fern Farms’ livestock representative Paul Kirkpatrick. “Paul’s a key member of the Whangara team,” says Scholefield.
Silver Fern Farms is “100% Made of New Zealand”, and its logo, the silver fern, conveys its belief in the importance of our national culture and the unique position this brings on the global stage. According to legend, the silver fern once lived in the sea. It was asked to come and live in the forest to guide the Māori people. Hunters and warriors used the fern’s silver underside to find their way home – fronds were bent over to catch the moonlight and shine a path through the forest.
Scholefield says that the spirit of working together is reflected in Whangara’s relationship with Silver Fern Farms. “They have introduced us to companies like McDonald’s, who were wanting to do a sustainable beef project. Silver Fern Farms suggested they approach us, and now there’s an ongoing relationship. ”
He is passionate about the need for more collaboration within the agriculture industry. “We need to break down these boundaries between the companies we supply, or between farmers, between researchers, between everybody.” And it’s a subject on which Scholefield thinks globally and acts locally. While Whangara’s expertise is in sheep and beef farming, it partners with beekeepers and crop growers to benefit the growers and the land. New Zealand is known for being a quality food exporter on the world stage, and Whangara Farms and Silver Fern Farms are ensuring we continue to maintain this reputation.