Words by Richard Rennie
The Acland family is renowned for the energy and breadth of enterprises throughout Canterbury and beyond, and newly elected Ruralco director Kate Acland is bringing even more fizz to the family empire.
Kate and husband David run Mt Somers Station, a title that is rapidly becoming more than just the name of a high country run, and very much a brand emphasising source, quality and sustainability.
Back in 2013 Kate and David oversaw one of the biggest shifts in the station’s history as they converted 210 hectares into a dryland dairy operation running 1,000 cows.
Five years down the track they have stepped the numbers down to 860 cows, giving the operation greater self-sufficiency when the occasional dry year hits, running what is for Canterbury a relatively light 2.5 cows to the hectare. The station’s altitude helps make it relatively safe summer country, while an extensive winter cropping programme helps take care of winter feed demands.
The dairy unit conversion was very much a family project, with Kate, husband David and David’s late father Mark all working on it.
“We do tend to take a long term view of any project we are involved in, and accept you may not always get your money back in the short time frames often used for projects,” says Kate.
Kate’s primary sector interests also include her ownership of Sugar Loaf Wines in Marlborough. The wine operation represents a return to her original tertiary training where she gained a wine makers degree from Lincoln but then decided the business was not for her.
But after time spent in Marlborough some years after completing it she realised what she was missing, and set about establishing her own wine label.
Converting an old apple juicing plant into a winery has her now with a well established reputation for producing excellent Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and some Pinot Gris.
The business has gone from strength to strength and today exports over 90% of its product to all corners of the world. Kate has overseen a major expansion of the winery’s volume over the years, with a total of 26ha of both owned and leased vines in the Marlborough region, with a visit up there every month.
As busy as these projects may sound, Kate is also playing a role in some of the family’s other ventures that revolve around the Mt Somers Station “brand.”
The family’s lambs’ wool blanket business is going well, with its sales of 1,500 blankets a year accounting for half the station’s lambs’ wool clip, with hopes to grow the sales to ultimately account for it all.
The family have a reputation for innovative use of wool, with David’s brothers Hamish and Ben creating the well-known woollen ski and fashion brand Mons Royale that is based heavily on fine wool Merino.
David’s late father Mark was also the founder of Lynn River, a market leader in safety products and gloves with many keen Canterbury gardeners sporting his “Showa” gardening gloves over the years.
A more recent enterprise has been the Mount Somers Honey venture, with 450 hives providing Manuka, Honeydew and Clover varieties, tapping into the growing interest in single variety pure honeys that are sourced with a distinctive provenance brand behind them.
The family’s ownership of one, and soon to be two, country stores is also providing a useful outlet for the growing range of products the Aclands are associated with.
They have owned the Staveley Store since 2015, and are about to take up ownership of the Mount Somers store from its retiring owners shortly.
“There are some good synergies there, and personally I believe it’s important communities have a store, they tend to form the heart of these villages, and so often you see first the pub close and then the store. We are looking to bringing a new set of eyes to the Mount Somers store.”
Kate managed to find time in her busy family and business life to put her name forward as a director candidate for the Ruralco board last year.
On being selected she says she is keen to spend some time seeing how the co-operative runs, appreciating what a business looks like from the outside can be quite different to how it actually functions on the inside.
“Overall I believe Ruralco is on a very good trajectory and as a rural co-operative it punches well above its weight. It has enjoyed a great couple of years.”
She says she was drawn to Ruralco knowing it faces the same challenges many rural businesses face, trying to stay relevant and profitable in the face of a rapidly evolving retail market, dominated with some large, heavy hitting operators.
“Putting myself forward for the board was a great opportunity to get involved in something else that is local. It is always a challenge with a young family being able to do that, and it is also another way of putting down roots in your community.”
Kate finds the Ruralco board admirable for its breadth of experience and diverse opinions.
“I am hoping I can also bring some forward thinking and ‘big picture’ experience to the board table to reinforce the talent that is already there.”