Hakataramea adapts to change

Hakataramea Sustainability Collective members Sarah Elliot holding Gus (3), and Juliet Gray, who farm in the Hakataramea Valley. Photo: Sally Rae
Hakataramea Sustainability Collective members Sarah Elliot holding Gus (3), and Juliet Gray, who farm in the Hakataramea Valley. Photo: Sally Rae
The latest in the crusade against weeds and pests is the topic of a field day being held tomorrow  in the Hakataramea Valley. It is the second field day organised by the newly-formed Hakataramea Sustainability Collective. Agribusiness reporter Sally Rae meets two of the group’s founders and hears what it is aiming to achieve.

Climatically, the Hakataramea Valley can be a challenging place to farm.

In the 1980s, devastating drought, floods and subsequent wind erosion were among the challenges the area threw at its farming inhabitants.

For some, their innovative farming techniques and willingness to work with the land and environment, rather than against it, saw them through the tough period.

Now those ideas have been embraced by the latest generation to farm in the area, in a bid to create something that reflects the needs of today's valley community.

The Hakataramea Sustainability Collective is a landcare group formed as a community-driven platform to support the protection and enhancement of the valley environment and promote profitable and sustainable farming practices.

Two of its drivers are local farmers Sarah Elliot and Juliet Gray, although both are quick to point out that it has very much been a team effort, involving a group of motivated people.

In recent times, there has been a changing of the guard on some properties as the younger generation embarks on ownership.

Four years ago, Hamish and Sarah Elliot bought Waikora Station, a 2300ha property, from Hamish's father Murray.

For Mrs Elliot, an engineer by trade but a passionate advocate for the agricultural sector, it resonated that the vision of those farmers decades ago had not necessarily been carried through.

Like others in the valley, she was also concerned about changes in regulations and how farmers were being told what limits they had to work within from people who did not necessarily understand the farming climate of the valley, or its community and what

it was all about.

Born and bred Southlanders, Mrs Gray and her husband Richard, along with Richard's parents Barry and Heather, moved to the valley 10 years ago, when they bought Hakataramea Station.

She was quickly captivated by the environment - even though it was a far cry from the lush pastures of Dacre, where they had been farming.

Both women acknowledged it was a very challenging area to farm and, for the future, there was a need to ensure there was both greater education and a greater understanding of all stakeholders involved.

That was something that had become evident during discussions over Plan Change 5 to Environment Canterbury's Land and Water Regional Plan, around managing the loss of nutrients from farming activities.

Many of the farmers in the valley were being provided with science from people who been ''talking about it for years'', yet it was the first time they had heard about it, Mrs Gray said.

The aim was to try to make sure that all with an interest in the area had a thorough understanding of the others.

They had learnt so much off the ''locals'' who had farmed in the valley for years and hoped the group would help continue passing on that knowledge and experience down the generations, she said.

It was an ''awesome'', strong community but if farming or living in the valley was not profitable, there would not be a community.

''We want to learn how to farm sustainably for the environment but also profitably,''

Mrs Elliot said.

To initially gauge community interest, a social barbecue was held on the banks of the Hakataramea River in December 2016.

In response to the positive feedback and enthusiasm, a brainstorming session was held in March last year to allow community collaboration on the group's objectives.

Guest speaker Peter Adam, from the Pomahaka Water Care Group, provided an example of what could be achieved using a farmer-driven approach to lifting land management practices. At that meeting, a committee of 10 - chaired by Mrs Elliot - was formed to action the community aspirations.

One of the milestones was being awarded $3000 from Rabobank through a competition run by The Country radio programme to go towards the re-establishment of public access to the river

Scrub and weeds were removed and grass sown over an area about 1km upstream from the State Highway 82 bridge, in a combined volunteer effort. A covered table and barbecue were built and donated, and set in a picnic area.

Building and strengthening relationships between community members and stakeholders had been an important focus during that first year.

Communication channels had been opened with key stakeholders and it was hoped those would continue to grow, Mrs Elliot said.

The group had been working closely with the New Zealand Landcare Trust, Environment Canterbury, the Department of Conservation, Fish and Game, local iwi and the Waimate District Council.

Regulation was ''here to stay'' and what they wanted to do was front-foot it by being informed and taking that collaborative approach, they said.

The group had an ambitious action plan that was a ''bit of a live document''. If more funding could be secured, they could get through it quicker.

Both Mrs Elliot and Mrs Gray have young families - Mr and Mrs Elliot are parents to Gus (3) and 9-month-old Fleur, while the Gray siblings comprise Ben (9), Sophie (7) and Phoebe (3).

If their children wanted to eventually take over the farm, Mrs Elliot could not see them farming in the same way that they did now. So they needed to start thinking about how it was going to work.

In the meantime, the youngsters were enjoying the same rural upbringing and freedom their parents enjoyed.

Mrs Elliot was brought up on a sheep and beef farm at Waitotara, in southern Taranaki, where horses played a prominent role in her early years.

Her parents Harvey and Ann Wilson were synonymous with showjumping; Mr Wilson is a two-time Olympian and Mrs Wilson was the British ladies national showjumping champion in 1978.

Both were previous winners of the prestigious Olympic Cup at the New Zealand Horse of the Year.

Mrs Elliot always wanted a career that was related to agriculture but her school career adviser steered her away from such a path. Instead, she completed a bachelor of technology degree, majoring in product development, at Massey University.

But she kept the agricultural interest through summer jobs that included working for a company that developed the TechnoGrazing system hardware, tracking milk losses in a Fonterra plant, and working on a cattle station in Australia.

After graduating, she joined Fisher and Paykel Healthcare as a product development engineer, designing sleep apnoea products.

She then headed to the United Kingdom, where she worked for an engineering design consultancy. With her medical development and equine background, she was involved with designing a heart rate training monitor for the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

On her return, she got a year-long contract in Hawke's Bay, designing wildlife tracking devices.

Then an opportunity came to work with a team that had just commercialised the world's first true variable rate irrigation system.

Shortly after, the business was bought by Lindsay Corporation and she still did work from home for the global irrigation giant.

After being introduced to her future husband through mutual friends, Mrs Elliot left her lifestyle block in Feilding for the vastness of Waikora Station.

Hamish Elliot was particularly passionate about merino sheep, continuing a family tradition of fine wool growing.

Mrs Gray, who grew up on a farm at Waimahaka, studied physical education at the University of Otago before returning to Southland to work for Netball South.

She worked up to regional manager and it was an exciting time to be in the role, coinciding with the glory days of Southern Steel.

Her husband was keen to move to a larger property and the family had never regretted the move to the valley.

At nearly 4000ha, Hakataramea Station was a ''pinhead'' of its original size, before subdivision, but she was intrigued by its rich history.

During the summer, the Gray children spent most of their days at the river on their doorstep.

Making sure that they - and their children - could grow up enjoying those spoils of the valley was something that was very important to both farming families.

-Tomorrow's field day will be held in Invercroy Station's woolshed at 2pm.

sally.rae@odt.co.nz

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