Sustainability, teamwork pays off for duo

Anna Gillespie and husband Ben have a working relationship that transcends marriage and business. PHOTO: ALEXIA JOHNSTON
Anna Gillespie and husband Ben have a working relationship that transcends marriage and business. PHOTO: ALEXIA JOHNSTON
Anna Gillespie’s relationship with husband Ben could best be described as symbiotic. It works so well the Omakau farmers are multi-award winners. One thing you should never do is call Mrs Gillespie a ‘‘farmer’s wife’’. Jared Morgan reports.

Anna Gillespie’s approach to farming is best summed up by the name of her and husband Ben’s business — Two Farmers Farming. The couple operate like two sides of the same coin. Each takes their own approach to their beef and dairy grazing business at Omakau in Central Otago. That is something that, as Mrs Gillespie tells it, pays dividends. ‘‘We are two farmers farming, and we both work to our strengths.’’

For Mrs Gillespie that was managing stock and finances, while her husband’s strength lay more in managing feed — the tractor work, the crops, and the irrigation. ‘‘In some respects you only have to think about half of the farm, and I think that works in that it takes a lot of the stress out of it.’’ Together they formed a team with different sets of responsibilities that came together to form a whole.

That working in sync was not just metaphorical — the couple had synchronised calendars on their phones so they could know what the other was doing on any particular day.

Both were from historic farming backgrounds, Mrs Gillespie said.

‘‘I’m fifth-generation from North Otago, and Ben is sixth from the Wanaka area.’’

They had complemented their farming blood and experience with education.

The couple met at Lincoln University and both have master’s degrees in agriculture. Mrs Gillespie holds a bachelor of commerce (agriculture) and a master of applied science (farm management consultancy), and Mr Gillespie a bachelor of agriculture and a master of agricultural science (pasture science).

Together they worked on Landcorp’s Wairakei Estate near Taupo for a few years before making the move back south.

‘‘Ben’s parents had this [Omakau] property and we came in 2011 and leased it before buying it in 2017.’’

Since then, the couple had worked to grow and diversify their dairy grazing and beef finishing business on their 394ha property, based on best practice.

A challenging environment meant water was a key element of their operation, Mrs Gillespie said.

The couple farmed in a low rainfall area (450mm per year) where winters could be very cold (down to -10degC) and summers hot (more than 30degC).

Some 230ha of their land was under spray irrigation with centre pivots, while a further 20ha was irrigated via wild flooding.

A reason why the couple raked in awards, was that they were conscious of the environmental impact of their operation, Mrs Gillespie said.

Part of their approach was to mitigate current environmental impacts and to future-proof against regulatory changes.

‘‘Our waterways are really small, so there is very minimal runoff.’’

They also made use of variable rate applications, a wetland filter system and the fencing off of riparian strips.

‘‘Environmental best practice has always been a focus for us.’’

When it came to feed crops, they relied on a combination of fodder beet, Pallaton Raphno — a raphanobrassica and a hybrid between kale and radish — and 60ha of lucerne.

These crops fed the about 700 weaned dairy calves that arrived from two Southland farms in December. They were carried through two winters and returned to the owner, in-calf, 15 months later, Mrs Gillespie said.

She and her husband also finished about 550 beef cattle through winter and spring.

Their symbiotic approach to the farming operation led to them being named the Otago Ballance Farm Environment supreme winners in April.

They simultaneously won the WaterForce Wise with Water Award and Ballance Agri-Nutrients Soil Management Award.

In 2019, they received the best overall crop award in the Central Otago Winter Feed Competition, and two years earlier they were handed the top grazier award in the Central Otago Dairy Heifer Competition.

Mrs Gillespie said they now had their eyes on another prize.

The couple were among four New Zealand farmers selected as finalists for the inaugural Zimmatic Sustainable Irrigation Awards — a trans-Tasman competition to recognise excellence in sustainable irrigation.

The idea behind the awards was also to foster knowledge-sharing between Australian and New Zealand farmers for sustainable freshwater management.

On-farm judging took place at the end of October and being placed under the scrutiny of judges was something Mrs Gillespie relished.

‘‘It is always good having these judges on farm, it is good to hear their critique.

‘‘Generally, what they have to say is pretty constructive and that is something we take on board.’’

Their farming background and their approach to farming was something she hoped she and Mr Gillespie had instilled in their children, Will (10) and Milly (7), who, when they are not at Omakau Primary School, were ‘‘pretty involved’’.

‘‘We’ve always encouraged the kids, we’ve given them this gully and they are in charge of what is planted there and where.

‘‘It gives them this sense of ownership of the farm.’’

Whether they take up the farming mantle was up to them, but she hoped they would.

‘‘We come from such a long farming history.’’

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