No regrets taking on ‘utterly beautiful’ farm life

Challenging and enthralling.

That’s how marketer turned man-of-the-land Carlos Bagrie describes the past few years on Royalburn Station, the farm near Arrowtown which he bought with his celebrity chef and cookbook author wife Nadia Lim.

The couple, who have been together for two decades, traded city life in Auckland for the Central Otago countryside.

While it might have seemed a giant U-turn, Mr Bagrie has farming in his blood - he is a fifth-generation farmer and always said he would return to the land to farm one day.

As he looked out the window, Mr Bagrie enthused how the couple lived in paradise - "we live in a place that’s just utterly beautiful" - and that they could not have found a better place to be.

"This is living your best life,’ he said.

Now approaching their fifth season, farming has not been all beer - which was released on Friday - and skittles, as he acknowledged the couple approached their farming foray with a level of naivete. That could be seen sometimes as a strength but also as a weakness, he believed.

Their farming endeavour had been very public through the television series Nadia’s Farm, which documented both the highs and lows of life on the land. Another series would screen next year.

Royalburn Station’s Nadia Lim and Carlos Bagrie outside their farm shop in Arrowtown. PHOTO:...
Royalburn Station’s Nadia Lim and Carlos Bagrie outside their farm shop in Arrowtown. PHOTO: JAMES ALLAN PHOTOGRAPHY
Asked what it was like to be operating under such public scrutiny, Mr Bagrie said he was not frightened about success or failure.

"If what’s working works, I’ll say so. If it doesn’t, I’ll be pretty brutally honest about it. I think most farmers are generally pretty honest about their own learnings."

Once the show aired, there was a huge amount of positive feedback, especially from rural quarters, particularly for showcasing how hard farming actually was.

One thing that could not be underestimated was the workload that sat behind farming, he said.

There was also some valuable advice offered, especially around the couch grass problem (a perennial weed) in the farm’s market garden, and they tried some of the suggestions with success.

Farming was like learning a whole new language; it was the language of nature and growing things and the perfect intersection between the likes of biochemistry, biology, IT and marketing.

There was a risk people oversimplified farming and that was unfair. It was such an interesting, exciting and intriguing industry, he said.

Mr Bagrie was recently awarded a 2024 Nuffield New Zealand Farming Scholarship, an accolade awarded to leaders and innovators in the New Zealand primary sector.

Nuffield scholars selected an area of interest and were granted all-expenses-paid travel to countries of their choice.

Earlier this month, Mr Bagrie joined a Rural Leaders tour of Kellogg and Nuffield scholars through the North Island, which he described as an "absolute eye-opener".

Farmers tended to work in their own "silos" and it was an opportunity to learn more about everything, including dairy, meat, fruit and logistics.

"You realise how much this country does in so many different places. It’s pretty incredible. You’ve almost got to see it to appreciate it," he said.

When it came to applying for the scholarship, it felt like he had reached a point where he had spent a lot of time on the farm, on the handpiece and behind the wheel of the tractor, and understanding how to do that, he wanted to get out and see the world and hopefully expand his horizons, Mr Bagrie said.

While the timing could not be worse given he was leaving a young family, his youngest son nine months old, equally it was probably the best time to do it, he said.

Describing it as a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he wanted to return with new ideas and see things from a different perspective.

An incredibly strong part of the Nuffield organisation was the contacts. There were "hundreds" of scholars over the years and it opened the doors to people and places that might otherwise be inaccessible.

He planned to research large scale, direct-to-market food production — he had a background as one of the founders of meal kit home delivery service My Food Bag, so he was particularly interested in supplying food direct to customers — as well as zero-waste circular farming, turning waste on-farm into a resource.

His corporate marketing background combined with food production was an interesting mix.

"The more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know," he said.

New Zealand was a country of innovators but what the country did not have was massive scale and he suspected he would see some scale, particularly in the United States.

At the moment, farming was hard and the average New Zealand farmer was in a precarious position. But there was always going to be a market for fresh, high quality food - and that was what New Zealand grew - while the global population was expected to expand.

Putting the long-term lens on farming in New Zealand, it had a very good outlook, but the caveat alongside that was around establishing what the collective vision was, and thinking needed to be 25 to 50 years ahead.

His week in the North Island had demonstrated some "crackingly smart people" involved in the primary industries and he was optimistic about the future.

Despite what many might think, the couple had a "reasonably large" mortgage. Like other farmers, they were also paying more interest, increased labour, fuel and insurance costs, while commodity prices had declined.

That was why it was important to look long-term and why the couple were looking at value-adding products.

Swifty beer  a dream come true 

They had worked with Wellington brewery Garage Project to create Swifty, a beer named after the Swiftburn Creek which flowed through Royalburn, past several of the barley fields which produced the grain used in the brew.

Mr Bagrie described it as an easy, relaxed beer, the type of beer to be drunk on a hot summer’s day at the beach or after mowing the lawn. It took nine months of work.

As a lover of the food and beverage industry, Mr Bagrie had always wanted to have a beer in the market and the release was a "dream come true".

It was initially available by the keg, stocked by bars and taverns around Central Otago, and other options would be explored next year.

As well as his Nuffield commitments next year, there would also be a focus on operations at Royalburn.

"There’s a lot of things we can tidy up. We built things really quickly, put things into the market and hoped for the best. Now it’s time to go back for the boring stuff."

It was also about continuing to drive the successful growth of Royalburn’s meat and beer. Royalburn recently won the primary sector award for its lamb at the New Zealand Food Awards.

Royalburn’s farm shop in Arrowtown had been a wonderful chance to connect people directly to the farmer and learn about what was done on farm, Mr Bagrie said.

Some things tried at Royalburn he was very proud of now but he might not necessarily have tried them if he had known more. One example was the on-farm micro-abattoir, which worked but had been a "really hard road".

Not wanting to put stock under stress, they wanted to process all their lambs on farm and sell direct into the market themselves. But he acknowledged they had been "ridiculously, poignantly naive" and there had been a great amount of stress and red tape, while ongoing compliance was huge.

Asked whether he ever had any moments of wanting to move back to the city, Mr Bagrie said "categorically no". While not wanting to put down Auckland, home was on the farm.

sally.rae@odt.co.nz

 

 

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