The mention of a serial entrepreneur who founded a highly successful vodka brand could call to mind images of your typical city slicker
Smart technology rules at Annadale. From a smartphone, anywhere in the world, Silver Fern Farms’ Plate to Pasture Award winners Chris and Anne-Marie Allen can monitor rainfall, check the soil moisture and, yes, even watch the grass grow on their 360-hectare sheep and beef property near Methven. But the farm’s most important feature isn’t a piece of kit: it’s the farmers’ commitment to consistently supply quality, pasture-raised food to the consumer. Chris and Anne-Marie both grew up on farms – he in the Waikato, she originally in Central Otago then Geraldine, which is 40 minutes from Annadale (her father Frank still farms there, aged 82). But both had settled into successful city-based careers before they bought the farm on Frank’s advice. Chris was an Air New Zealand aviation engineer, and Anne-Marie a computer accountant. Those may seem a long way from agriculture but a large part of the couple’s success is due to harnessing and reinventing, those very skills to suit the business of farming.
Settled in the 1880s, Ashburton Forks has never been an easy area to farm. Here on the Canterbury Plains near the foothills of the Southern Alps, the average rainfall is only 800mm a year and the 100-day winter brings snow, rain and frosts. Plains mean floods. The soil is stony, silt loam. One blessing: they don’t get the fierce northwestern winds that blow across neighbouring properties. There’s only one way to bring it up to the level where Annadale can sustain 1800 breeding ewes, 400 hoggets, up to 5500 lambs a year and 700 cattle: irrigation. The Allens received an early lesson in that subject: on settlement day, the river flooded. When the Allens took over the property on April 1, 1994 – the morning after son Jonathan was born – it was a long way from the spruce, well-fenced and maintained, and, above all, green, lush-grassed farm of today.
They ran a few ewes, grazed some cattle for Frank and went to more field days than most other farmers to learn about agriculture. They knew that to make a success of the place, they’d have to replace the border-dykes. Not only were they inefficient, the dykes were designed to let water flow down the valley. This meant precious nutrients disappeared into the ground; fertiliser and effluent washed off paddocks into the waterway. Now, huge sprinklers move themselves up and down the fields; there are miles of pipes underground; moisture probes at strategic sites around the farm tell them where and when to water. There’s a 6.5-hectare lake storing 17 days’ water. “Once you can irrigate, you can finish stock more reliably and plan,” Chris says. “We can also grow crops – we grow our own barley and we’ve had peas, radishes and seed potatoes. It also means we have to buy very little feed – we’re pretty much self-sufficient.”
Invest for Success
The Allens have invested heavily in the latest digital technology to monitor rainfall, soil moisture and run the system. Telecommunications are one of the modern farmer’s most important tools. “We need to be connected to get the best out of all the technology we’ve invested in,” says Chris. Collecting data means they can manage resources such as water because they know when and where to move those sprinklers, it’s far more precise. The farm takes less water from the river than under the old system. Anne-Marie has found their former professions have helped the farming life. “When the kids were young, Chris did most of the farming,” Anne-Marie says, while back at the house she put her strengths into creating spreadsheets and collating data to good use.
As well as the investment in technology and equipment, they can look around the farm and see the shelter trees that have stood for 50 years, an indicator of their passion for running an environmentally responsible enterprise. “It’s just common sense,” says Chris. “Animals need shade and shelter and good fresh water. To us, being a sustainable farm means that what comes in the gate is very little – pretty much only the fertiliser. We feed our animals on what we grow here, and we convert that into good protein,” he continues. Chris has gained a new perspective on Taylors Stream, the river that nourishes their farm – and its biodiversity – from iwi colleagues on local and district councils, and the farmer-based water users’ group. But it underpinned the respect that the family already had for the waterway. It’s enriched their lives. “We love the river,” Anne-Marie says.
We have a responsibility to care for it and enhance the land for future generations
“Our farm bounds the river. From the time our children were three and five, four families would go up to the river and camp for our summer holidays. We’d all swim and kayak in the river. We love being out there, we’re happy to drink the water,” she adds. Both believe New Zealand farmers’ strong ties to their land and care for their environment are reflected in the food grown here. “Most are family farmers and they are passionate about the land,” says Anne-Marie. Adds Chris, “Everything we grow comes off the land. We have a responsibility to care for it and enhance the land for future generations.” That extends beyond water, land and livestock. “The cost to install electricity to run the irrigation system is prohibitive,” says Chris, “so we use diesel pumps, generators and solar panels.” Fuel is a major operating cost and pumps and generators have been chosen for their fuel efficiency. The former engineer replaced radiators with heat exchangers, saving two litres of diesel (and the fuel bills) every hour of the season. The irrigation system uses gravity, with water flowing down the 25m fall from top to bottom paddock, rather than being pumped uphill. “We are excited by technology using solar energy to run pivot irrigators and are watching developments closely,” he adds.
For the Allens, there was never a question of which company they’d trust their sheep and beef to. Anne-Marie’s father and grandfather had been shareholders since Silver Fern Farms was founded. “Mum and I used to go to all the shareholder meetings,” recalls Anne-Marie. It’s a two-way street, she says. “I want my business to be successful. I take the same approach to Silver Fern Farms: I want them to be successful so I can be successful. “I’m really proud of the brand. It’s fantastic. It’s taken a long time to build it up but it’s been worth it.” She believes the company has a good understanding of the consumer’s needs. “Coming from living in town, and having also been a caterer, I understand what it’s like to go to the supermarket and think, ‘What am I going to cook tonight?’” says Anne-Marie. Chris continues, “There’s nothing worse than going to the supermarket and finding the product is not in season or there’s no stock. We have to know what the customer wants and when.” That’s why he appreciates Silver Fern Farms working with the farmer to produce quality animals at the right time, and ensure consumers have a year-round supply. As well as the company’s Plate to Pasture strategy, the Allens have been on overseas visits to better understand consumer and market needs. Chris’ advocacy for environmental awareness and best practices has seen him take on several roles outside the farm. With Federated Farmers, he’s served on the meat and fibre section and as Mid-Canterbury provincial president. He’s now the organisation’s environmental, Resource Management Act and water spokesman – a national role that requires him to spend a couple of days each week in Wellington.
Both their children have gone to Lincoln University and their parents see their futures in agriculture. Natalie is working on a nearby deer farm while completing her Bachelor of Commerce (Agriculture) studies while Jonathan has taken his IT development skills to London, where he is developing apps to create effective, useful information tools for farmers. That interface between data-gathering, using technology and good animal and land husbandry is the future of farming, the Allens
say. Given their background on and passion for the land, their children will likely be at the forefront of the next generation in agriculture. Don’t call it a lifestyle, though. Chris says, “One of the things about being a farmer, and doing it sustainably, you need an understanding of the environment, of the fertiliser, what the soils are doing … “ He continues, “You have to know the technology, the Resource Management Act, animal health, animal welfare – you have to be a bit of a bush lawyer at times, know the health and safety regulations, all the employment regulations … “It’s a massive undertaking to make the farm tick. That’s why I say it’s not a lifestyle, it’s a career.”
Take stock and ask Nicky
Behind every great farm is a great stockman. Or woman. At Annadale, that’s Nicky Norrie, who’s involved in every aspect of the work and is passionate about the Allens’ goals. The partnership started 13 years ago when she moved to the district. Nicky put an ad in the school newsletter seeking farm work. Chris caught up with her at a school gala and said Anne-Marie needed a hand in the garden: “Would you consider that?” “If it leads to farm work,” Nicky replied. It did. So, four mornings a week, more if the stock requires it, Nicky arrives at the farm, gets on her quad bike and ensures every animal is fed, watered and looked after until the day is done. Like Anne-Marie, Nicky’s contribution has increased as Chris has become more involved with Federated Farmers and other organisations. Effectively, women manage and work the farm now. Nicky is respected not just for her encyclopedic knowledge of stock management and care but, as Anne-Marie says, “She’s a very, very dedicated and hard worker.”