The mention of a serial entrepreneur who founded a highly successful vodka brand could call to mind images of your typical city slicker
Silver Fern Farmers Mike and Liz McCreary are part of a new generation of farmers and their guardianship of the land extends to creating one of the best finishing farms for grass-fed lamb in the world.
South Wairarapa farmer Mike McCreary stares with hope across the tributaries of Lake Wairarapa. Imagine, he says, five years from now – the native tree-lined Ruamahanga River on the border of his sheep and beef property, Kumenga Farm, could be a swimming spot for his, and other local, children. The river used to flow from Lake Wairarapa, the soul of this region, but it was disrupted until Mike and his wife Liz arrived at Kumenga in 2008.
It is a lush property, nestled on plains between the Rimutaka and Haurangi ranges, about an hour and a half north of Wellington, and filled with vibrant green fields, winding lanes, and healthy stock. The air is crisper here, cleaner. The skies seem vast, the paddocks wide. But it has taken some healing and work with local iwi and the Department of Conservation, to get it that way. Silver Fern Farms, too, has helped in its support of Mike and Liz and its commitment to sustainable farming through protecting natural features, biodiversity, managing waterways and caring for animals.
“When we arrived, stock were able to wander into the water and drink,” Mike says. “It’s not the right thing to see 20 cattle beast out there up to their bellies in water. That’s what it was before. We have fenced all of the water off and have installed troughs for the animals to drink from.”
We want everything around us to thrive as best it can
Liz and Mike have worked with volunteers and contractors to plant more than 8.3 kilometres of native plants on the farm to protect waterways. They have also fenced kilometres of waterfront. It is, Mike says, “a unique opportunity here to make a difference”. “We want everything around us to thrive as best it can,” adds Liz.
Mike and Liz are part of a new generation of farmers who are working with Silver Fern Farms to create sustainable farming practices. Their children, Billy, eight, Eden, six, and Liz's daughter Caitlyn, 19, have been privy to what can only be called conscious farming. Mike is from a farming background, while Liz is more of a “townie”. She grew up in in Pahiatua and Napier and moved to Masterton “by chance” to help her sister run her beauty business. It was in Masterton that she met Mike, a born and bred local, 13-years-ago. Mike grew up just down the road from Kumenga as the eldest of three boys to parents Rob and Heather. His father started with about 105 cows and ended up with a 1200 cow dairy farm. Speak to anyone and they will tell you Mike was obsessed with farming from an early age.
Schooling came – he went to Kahutara School and boarded at Wairarapa College – and went. He could have gone straight into farm work but was determined to earn his place. “All my peers expected me to just be given the farm. I never wanted to be fed with a silver spoon. I said I was going to do anything to earn it.” In Mike’s case that meant leaving home for eight years to ply his trade on the West Coast of the South Island. He got involved in everything from picking moss, sawmilling and helilogging, to driving road trains in rural Australia. Eventually, at 25, he decided it was time to return to the farm. Once there, and having met Liz, the opportunity came, in 2008 – with a 50 per cent partnership with Mike's parents, Rob and Heather – to purchase Kumenga Farm. It was, to use a house renovation term, a “doer upper”, a renovator’s dream. The couple spent years pulling out fences and drains and putting in their own systems. The result is an almost fully integrated business where lambs come through the gate and are monitored closely to ensure their welfare and quality.
Love of the Land
The 540-hectare Kumenga opens up to you as you arrive. On the left is a farm house with lawns and a garden perfectly manicured by Liz. Chances are you’ll also be greeted by bounding pet dogs Dan and Lily. Stretching out beyond are the pastures. Kumenga is a Silver Fern Farms finishing property, which means about 29,000 sheep and more than 1500 cattle graze these lands over the course of a year. Mike has lofty goals to create the most efficient grass-fed lamb finishing system in the world. He and Liz were named one of Silver Fern Farms’ Plate to Pasture regional finalists, meaning they are one of the top five farmers in the country.
The award was established to recognise farmers who consistently supply quality stock and fits in with the company’s sustainability practices. Stock welfare is paramount. Stock are kept in small mobs and stay together from the day they arrive to the day they leave. Technology is also a big part of the operation including technograzing where Mike uses smaller paddocks, split by temporary electric fences, and GPS fencing to strictly manage the use of paddocks, and what stock are eating. By keeping stock in smaller paddocks for shorter amounts of time, Mike and farm manager Paul Nicholson know exactly what the animals are eating and can increase production.
Liz handles the farm accounts and Farm IQ entries. Farm IQ, another innovation, was introduced by Silver Fern Farms in 2010 to help farmers record and trace information about their stock, enabling them to make more informed decisions about how they farm, and match what they produce to what consumers want to eat. Silver Fern Farms works closely with farmers, collecting and sharing information, key insights and feedback from consumers before trialling new techniques on the farm. There are other ways Kumenga is breaking the norm when it comes to farming. “We don’t have a lot of organic matter in our soils, it is quite sandy, so we started composting our own crop stalks into fertiliser. “We use a lot of natural things in our soil.” It is a different way of doing things from past generations. “They like opening a gate to shift some stock,” Mike says of old practices, “whereas we are happy to pin some wires and shift some stock. All of our bikes go over the top of fences. You are not off and on opening gates. “It makes everything really, really relaxed. It means the consumer gets something that is farmed in an unstressed operation.”
Liz says they see their job as one where they are delivering to consumers a promise of stock raised in a natural and ethical way to deliver safe food of the highest quality. And it all comes back to that promise to the land they service, one they are proud of. Mike envisions a future where others could enjoy the fruits of their environmental work, including the possibility of opening laneways to cyclists. "With the plantings in full swing, native birds in the trees and sheep in small mobs, shifted regularly – it would be a real buzz [to show it off]. We could have a cold drink with them and a piece of cake on the porch... We have such a unique opportunity here."