The Rakaia Gorge can be an unforgiving place to be a cropping farmer, with its howling nor’westerlies and inevitable weather challenges. But the Marr family have spent five generations carving a place for themselves in the dryland country, producing consistent high quality seed, playing their part in making the New Zealand seed industry an international source, respected for its weed free status, quality and variety.
Hamish Marr and his wife Melanie have spent the past 15 years back on the family farm, working with Hamish’s brother Stuart, his wife Jessica, and their parents Graham and Eleanor.
Between them they have taken on the raft of challenges now facing this generation of farmers, including tighter environmental demands, biosecurity challenges and ever changing market demands.
After graduating from Lincoln with a Bachelor of Commerce in Farm Management, Hamish followed his parents’ advice to head out and get experience off the farm.
For him this ended up being four years spent as an Ashburton based field officer for Ravensdown. While there he covered the spectrum of farmers and farm types that make up the patchwork rural quilt of Canterbury’s farming landscape, literally from the high country to the sea.
“Mum and Dad have always encouraged us to do something away from the farm first, and did not want to see me back until I was about 30! I found the time at Ravensdown was invaluable.”
“It came at a time when the only brief was to make regular contact with all his clients and ensure the most economic use of the fertiliser spend, was agronomically appropriate. Being a co-operative we never pushed for a sale and always left the decision to the farmer, armed only with a cell phone, lap top and car.”
“The brief was pretty wide open, and I loved the chance to make connections with so many different farmers. It helped build an ability to get on with people, and to listen to them. Even though I finished in 2005, I still get ex-clients today ringing me, asking advice on things like whether it is a good time to apply nitrogen or not.”
It also opened his eyes to the inter-dependence and integration of Canterbury’s farming systems. With dairying's relatively recent arrival back then, that interdependence strengthened even further, with the cropping sector delivering feed crops, dairy linking into calf rearing and beef finishing, and mixed operations building up grazing options.
The significant variety of crops the Marrs grow for seed has simplified over recent years. Where once we were growing different types of vegetable seed, those opportunities have diminished somewhat of late due to the development of very reliable irrigation systems further down the plains. But since Hamish came home, the farm operation has established a more formal stock policy that integrates well with the complex cropping programme.
“Melanie and I reared calves for a number of years and carried them right through to finishing. Then one day our neighbour asked us if we would be keen to graze his heifers, and we have been doing that for 10 years now.”
The 300 rising two year olds and 200 rising one year olds provide a good cash-flow against cropping’s lumpier income patterns, and also fit well with grazing lambs, the other stock class the Marrs have introduced since coming home to farm.
“If you look at pasture as a crop on its own, the income per hectare is not as lucrative as some other crops but there is a lot less risk. What pasture gives an arable farm is probably the best break crop available and it real strength is the lengthening of rotation.”
“We trade in grazing lambs from late summer through to mid-June, after which time the heifers come in along with 800 dairy cows to be wintered.”
The 5000 lambs also fit well with the seed cropping programme. The Marrs’ main seed crop is cocksfoot grass seed, accounting for 170ha.
“The lambs are a good tool for us with the cocksfoot. They clean up the grass left in the paddocks, which we get six to seven harvests out of one sowing, and it is important to clean up the remainder once we have finished harvesting, which they do very well.”
Other crops include malting barley, oats and autumn wheat, process peas, along with smaller amounts of red clover, and fodder beet. In the past they have grown kale, radish, pak choi, bok choi, borage, potatoes and mustard.
Farming in a dryland environment with an annual rainfall of 1200mm and 450m above sea level offers good cropping yields, but the howling winds through the Rakaia Gorge can also limit the choices of crop to grow.
“There are a few crops you can grow on the Plains themselves that are simply too challenging here when it comes to crops we have to leave to dry – the wind simply dictates we can’t do that for a lot of vegetable seed crops.”
“The wind also means ground cover is very important and we are very conscious of soil erosion. It is front and centre in most cropping and cultivation decisions. My grandfather used to say that soil came here in the wind and it will leave the same way.”
The family are always open to other options however. One that is increasingly popular in Canterbury and has been accompanied with plenty of profile lately is hemp seed, particularly now it has been granted approval to be sold as a human food.
The Marrs align themselves with all the major seed companies operating in Canterbury, and Hamish says the relationship they have is very much a partnership approach, based on a lot of mutual trust. Their seed cleaning and drying operation enables them to grow, harvest, dry and process much of their crop, and is attractive to their customers.
Hamish agrees the arable sector in Canterbury is enjoying something of a Renaissance right now. After a few years of seeing more farms convert to dairying, the numbers have stabilised. He believes that threat of seeing farms go out of cropping has sharpened the industry’s focus on success and quality.
The sector is also undergoing something of a generational shift as younger farmers come on board, adopting latest techniques and working hard on farm systems that are sustainable and likely to comply with growing environmental demands being placed upon them.
“I think overall the industry is in very good heart. And while we don’t have irrigation, I am also conscious about the positive effect irrigation systems have had on Canterbury, and the options and opportunities in all land use types that has bought with it, much of it quite recently.”
A year spent as a Nuffield Scholar (see accompanying article) also highlighted to him how respected New Zealand is as a safe place to source seed from, thanks to its tight biosecurity controls and lack of corruption at local and central government levels.
“Both are important for our sector where purity is critical.”
Just as pastoral farming has been under the spotlight for environmental management, the same is applying to the cropping sector, with nitrogen losses and erosion particularly high on regulation lists. As Canterbury enters its seventh iteration of a Plan Change, Hamish is concerned about the assumptions based in Plan Change modelling, and just how realistic its expectations are.
As a Foundation for Arable Research committee member he is pushing hard for best practice standards to be applied throughout the industry by the industry rather than regulators. Although, it is a very difficult thing to identify absolute best practice because arable farming operations are all so different and different for so many reasons.
“But after what I have seen in Europe, we are very fortunate here to have the government be regulating on outcomes, rather than on inputs. Over there they dictate to farmers what they can apply, and when they can apply it.”
And he has seen evidence of how poorly applied regulation can impact upon farm productivity and even food quality.
“In Denmark they regulated nitrogen applications and use to only 70% of the economic optimum about 15 years ago. But what they found was the protein level in their cereals declined, impacting on milling quality and they ended up having to import cereal for flour.”
“Meantime their pork, a major export, was found to be less economic to produce because of the lower protein levels in the cereal feed meaning pigs took longer to finish. They have had to lift their nitrogen levels to try and deal with this.”
He believes there are lessons there for New Zealand and particularly Canterbury as attention turns to nitrate levels in ground water, and drawing a realistic line between healthy water and economic farm operations.
Hamish and his brother Stuart work well together, with Hamish “keeping it growing” while Stuart an ex-aircraft engineer “keeps it going” – maintaining the farm’s extensive inventory of equipment. Graham looks after the stock side of the operation and they employ one full time team member and one or two over summer.
Hamish says it is a real privilege to be farming with family and it is very enjoyable to be doing it all together.
“There are unconscious synergies at play that you can only get within families and it is the little things that combine to create the overall ethos of the operation.”
Longer term Hamish feels very confident about arable farming in Canterbury and farming in general for New Zealand, a confidence reinforced after a year traversing the globe on his Nuffield scholarship.
“We have a very compelling and real provenance story here, with people clambering over each other to get product from this part of the world, and we have to be cautious not to ruin that, but also be aware of the impact environmental standards could have – it’s about taking that part of our population not engaged in farming with us.”