Words by Richard Rennie
The steep terrain of the Mangamingi district in south eastern Taranaki is not farming country for the faint of heart. The Collier family are well into their fifth generation farming this unforgiving country, with that fifth generation working hard to craft a sustainable, high value business into their traditional hill country operation.
Brothers Ben and Tom Collier have taken over the family’s 2,500ha property after the untimely death of their father Cam in 2015. For Ben the shift back to the farm not long after Cam’s death was a bittersweet move.
“It was not as if I had ever thought I would not come back, it was more a case it was unexpected - it was looking less likely, given where my career was heading at the time,” says the ex-Blackstick hockey player and Olympian representative.
He and his wife Julia moved from Auckland where Ben had been working in corporate finance as a Senior Relationship Manager with the Commonwealth Bank. Coming back to Taranaki was a return to a childhood home, with many good memories, and the challenge of picking up the mantle with Tom to continue developing the family farm.
“It would of course have been great to do this with Dad, but the time spent since with Tom and Mum has proven to bring its own rewards, and some really interesting challenges with the farm business.” Their mother Sarah remains very active in the daily operations of the farming business.
Tom, a Lincoln graduate, had been bull beef farming on the East Coast prior to coming back, having also spent some time working overseas.
The farm lies in country best defined as “steep” and “very steep”. The Collier property only has about 80ha of river flat country, with 500ha of “steep” land and another 500ha of “very steep” country.
The steepest papa mudstone-based country has had about 50ha of harder southern facing land retired back into native bush, with assistance from the Taranaki Regional Council’s bush reversion scheme.
In the last three years the brothers have spent together they have focused closely on working hard to re-develop the tough property. This has included a focus on the three pillars of dry-stock productivity - subdivision, fertiliser and reticulation to help lift the farm’s productive potential to a sustainable reality.
Water reticulation has been high up the list of priorities, taking dam water and pumping it along a ridgeline across the top of the farm, to be stored for paddock delivery to most parts of the farm.
This has had two key benefits. It has enabled them to get water to the steeper, higher paddocks, better utilising the grass supply in the higher country of the farm by ensuring stock don’t have to move and camp in the lower areas near natural water supplies.
In addition to further paddock subdivision, it has enabled them to better match stock rotation to grass supply.
“It has also enabled us to fence off most of our riparian areas too, something becoming more of a requirement on dry-stock farms these days,” says Ben.
The farm has some sensitive catchments on its boundaries including the Lake Rotokare scenic reserve and the Patea River dam area on its northern boundary.
The farm also includes 400ha of QEII covenanted native bush within the boundary, one of the largest privately held bush areas in Taranaki.
The tendency for manuka scrub to flourish on this sort of country was once the daily challenge for the boys’ grandfather Keith. Keith and their grandmother lived off the property while managers ran it, while they lived on Fields Tracks.
“The river flats were largely swampy and full of barberry, and the hill country had heaps of manuka scrub on it. Our grandfather used to load his dogs into his Cessna and fly up here to work from the Parapara’s, before he bought the family here in 1985.”
Today the farm runs as predominately a cattle and sheep breeding property. The majority of the lambs are sold to family. The cattle are calved as rising two-year heifers and run through a once bred heifer system where non-replacement heifers are finished as rising three-year olds, and most steers are sold as weaners.
Along with subdivision and reticulation, the brothers have focused capital fertiliser on the easier twinning country, about 700ha of the farm. Harvesting some of the pines Cam planted 26 years ago has provided a valuable source of funds to re-invest into the farm.
On the flats they planted 30ha of rape crop this year for the first time and use the flats to hold the lambs over summer, feeding up the ewes prior to set stocking them on the higher country.
The irony of once holding down summer holiday jobs chopping down manuka is not lost on Tom or Ben today. That same country they used to cut it off is the same country they are encouraging manuka to grow on today because of the value it plays in the family’s latest business venture, the Bee & Flow manuka honey company.
Only just kicking off into their first commercial year, Bee & Flow is capturing the family’s efforts to combine a sustainable food business into the existing farm operation, with both enterprises benefitting from the synergies that can bring.
“We have been working on a policy of cutting manuka, as opposed to spraying it out, to match supply with pasture cover. The manuka grows like crazy here in Taranaki, and we figure it is better to work in with it than try to fight it.”
Some parts of the farm they have converted to agri-forestry has the manuka thinned out where necessary, and thinning has also helped encourage better plant flowering and pasture growth, through improved light penetration.
“So, it creates a nice balance and it fits with what our honey brand is ultimately all about,” says Ben.
But the move to a family honey brand has not been an overnight one for the Colliers.
When manuka honey’s value started to surge eight years ago, the family built a strong relationship with commercial bee-keepers keen to place hives in the farm’s prolific manuka stands.
“At the same time, we started learning more about the craft ourselves.”
His wife Julia started a Taratahi course on beekeeping, learning literally from the ground up about hives and how to manage them.
Her move to New Zealand with Ben had already been a big step from her native Mexico City, and the step into the relatively remote Taranaki countryside an even bigger one that she has thrived on regardless.
“Julia found learning about beekeeping has given her an additional interest while raising a young family, and a sense of contribution to the family enterprise.”
The family started with only five hives of their own working in with the commercial beekeepers and have gradually replaced the commercial hives with their own.
Today they have 70 of their own “Collier” branded hives and proudly declare their Bee & Flow manuka honey “single-origin” to discerning consumers.
“We permanently site our hives, which is a point of difference and means we can genuinely claim to have “single origin” honey. This is also good for the bees. They are much calmer not being moved regularly, there is less stress and disease as a result. We have distinct apiaries of five to six hives each throughout the farm.”
The bees also tend to winter well, thanks in part to the family’s focus on preserving bush where possible.
“The 400ha QEII block is not only a nice piece of bush, it also provides a valuable food supply for bees over winter.”
The Colliers are working closely with Taranaki Regional Council and their farming neighbours to help develop a bush corridor for wildlife, leveraging off the work done in the nearby Lake Rotokare Halo project catchment.
The project aims to make the area a wildlife sanctuary from which rare and vulnerable wildlife can spread out from into the surrounding landscape.
Intense trapping programmes for rats, mice, stoats, and possums began in 2015 and by 2017 the area covered about 3,000ha. The project linked with a trapping project run by the South Taranaki Forest and Bird, and the Taranaki Kiwi Trust, ultimately growing to 4,500ha.
Continuing efforts aim to extend its “halo” area as funding allows and initiate pest plant control alongside the pest animal controls.
“Our neighbour has 300ha of bush with introduced kiwi in it, and our block is the next cab off the rank to introduce kiwi into,” says Ben.
He believes with all landowners taking small steps to contribute, the ultimate result will be a larger bush sanctuary in the region that council, farmers, and local communities will all share in, and be proud of.
“Ultimately we would love to be able to create a bit of a corridor between Lake Rotokare and the Patea River dam area.”
The native manuka that plays such a vital role in acting as a nursery plant protecting native seedlings fits nicely with the plans for a bush corridor, and as a vital component of the farm’s honey business.
The family has developed a website and e-commerce platform for marketing and selling their honey and look forward to seeing it make its way with initial markets including Holland, Julia’s native Mexico City and possibly some other EU countries.
“We are quite happy to start small and just grow, letting the supply meet what demand we have, we really want to build a reputation for quality and provenance with the brand.”
Initial sales this year have proven very promising, and the lockdown left them cleaned out of stock. Global demand for manuka and its therapeutic benefits was greater than ever, coming from increasingly sophisticated consumers who are aware of what indicators like MGO and UMF mean in terms of quality.
The loss of the tourist trade has made that aspect of sales harder, but e-commerce is increasingly helping overcome the tyranny of distance, while more product in the local market is being appreciated by New Zealand consumers.
“We have always had a view that if we can tell our story well, people do appreciate it. We have even had times when people have assumed, we are organic, simply based on how they see our farming operation, and the low impact effort we take with the land.”
While the busy honey harvest season can see all hands helping, including the farm’s two full time staff, Ben and Tom find they work well together drawing on their respective strengths.
For Ben, the focus is on stock and operational management, while Tom brings a strong practical mechanical talent to the farm. This has proven invaluable in ensuring the farm’s re-development programme is an enduring one.
“The water reticulation project is one where Tom’s attention to detail has been invaluable. He put a solar power system in place that pumps the water out of the dam, 3-4km along a ridge top to the tanks. He has also put a water monitoring system in place that gives us an indicator of water levels remotely.”
The quiet hills in south-eastern Taranaki are as far as one could get from the bustling urban centres where Ben has lived, but he says there are no regrets about coming back home.
That time away had been spent not only in Auckland, but further afield pursuing his hockey career, one that saw him in the team that made seventh place in the Beijing Olympics.
He is philosophical about sport and what it bought with it, comfortable with the results he achieved and how much it has contributed to where he is today.
“We were supposed to be the dark horse, having beaten the Dutch and drawn with the Aussies, but we lost to Spain with 10 seconds left, we did well and it was not a bad result, taking New Zealand’s ranking to 5th in the world.”
Back home today he is finding the rewards come in being part of a family business that is producing something tangible, including honey, meat and fibre.
“The work you do, you see the result of your hard work that people buy and consume. You also get to see the results here on the farm of the changes we make, all those tweaks and adjustments to the farm system, they show through over time.”