Farmers urged to tell their stories

Justine Ross addresses the crowd attending the South Island Dairy Event in the Oamaru Opera House...
Justine Ross addresses the crowd attending the South Island Dairy Event in the Oamaru Opera House last week, watched by her husband Geoff. PHOTO: SALLY RAE
"Farmers are the world’s rock stars."

That was the message from entrepreneur Justine Ross to more than 400 farmers, industry representatives and sponsors attending the two-day South Island Dairy Event (Side) in Oamaru last week.

But farmers also needed to be brave "and a little bit louder" as they were terrible at telling their stories, which consumers around the world were craving to hear.

"They want to hear about your farms, hear about your life. They want to know you," Mrs Ross said.

Mrs Ross and her husband Geoff, co-founders of vodka brand 42 Below and branding supremos known for their involvement with a variety of other successful companies, including Trilogy skincare, Ecoya, and Moa beer, were keynote speakers.

The couple now farm Lake Hawea Station, on the eastern shores of Lake Hawea, which they have developed into New Zealand’s first carbon positive certified farm.

Both came from farming backgrounds. Mr Ross grew up on a dairy farm near Auckland and his father was one of the first to get into dairy farming. He was also very entrepreneurial and accepting of change and careful about protecting native bush and streams on his land, so his son inherited his conservation and environmental values.

Initially Geoff Ross went to Lincoln University with the intention of being a farmer but got "seduced" back into the city, where he and his wife were involved in consumer brands. A few decades later, the couple could not deny their roots any longer and embarked on their farming journey.

Deciding they needed to leave a legacy that was "more palatable than vodka", they left their home in Herne Bay, Auckland, and took on Lake Hawea Station — the single hardest thing they had done in their life, Mrs Ross said.

After buying the station in 2017, they leased the 6500ha property back before taking over the farming of it in 2019, aided by staff. The couple had had more arguments since going farming than during their 30-year marriage, she said.

Shortly after going farming, Mrs Ross insisted they create a brand — something Mr Ross thought he had left behind, as he was keen to just "get farming".

She developed the Lake Hawea Station brand, along with the associated social media, a website, various merchandise and a homestay operation. The subsequent feedback and interest reminded them of the power of the brand.

They believed all farms should have a brand — "our customers all over the world love hearing our stories" — and developing that brand and logo, and sharing it with the world, provided a sense of pride and passion "and something relatable others can identify with", Mrs Ross said.

If all of New Zealand’s 60,000 farms had 2000 followers, then that would be 120 million consumers following those farming stories around the world and that was a "hugely powerful message", Mr Ross said.

One of the first things the couple did when they went farming was visit their customers. In marketing, that was typically the first thing that was done but many farmers just farmed "to the gate".

Just before the first Covid-19 lockdown, they went to London and met startup fashion brand Sheep Inc where consumers could scan a QR code on their knitwear garment and "adopt" a sheep from the farm where the fibre was grown.

The fashion industry was one of the worst contributors to climate change— providing about 10% of global emissions, which was more than sea transport and aviation combined. The goal at Sheep Inc was to be the first carbon positive fashion brand, by the power of 10, Mr Ross said.

It got them thinking, if they could create a carbon positive wool, then customers would be willing to pay a premium for it. Returning home, they calculated the station’s carbon footprint, which was a "relatively simple process", he said.

They emitted 2500 tonnes per year of greenhouse gases but they also had a lot of regenerating native bush and had done a lot of planting, so a calculation of their sequestration showed their native vegetation brought in 6000 tonnes. That made Lake Hawea Station 2.5 times climate positive.

That carbon footprint had since been certified by environmental certifications provider Toitu Envirocare. It was the first farm in New Zealand or Australia to have carbon positive certification.

Another key concern for consumers was animal welfare; many thought sheep had to be killed to harvest their wool and thought of shearing as a very brutal activity. They also did not realise shearing was important for the welfare of the sheep.

It was Mrs Ross who came up with the idea of rewarding the shearing gang on how the sheep were treated in a way that was profitable to both parties.

Last year, they created a matrix, covering how the sheep were brought into the pens, which was the first moment of stress, to how they were brought on to the board, the shearing itself, and then how they went down the porthole and into the paddock. Mattresses were placed at the bottom of the porthole.

While Mrs Ross laughed that she was not entirely successful with having classical music played all day, she was delighted the care taken by the shearers was subsequently taken to other farms.

The couple would soon be announcing an association with a new women’s fashion brand in New York, with their fibre chosen because of the animal welfare steps they had taken, Mr Ross said.

When they looked at the margin tree, it was "so fuzzy". So much work happened on-farm, and there were so many challenges, yet the farmers were sometimes getting such a small piece of that margin tree, Mrs Ross said.

"It’s very, very important to ask those questions and make sure you understand who’s clipping the ticket and exactly what they are getting," she said.

Climate change was the biggest challenge the agriculture sector faced — it was the biggest problem every sector in the world faced. The issue of methane was causing a huge amount of anxiety and fear in farming, but Mr Ross wanted to turn that around and view it as an opportunity.

While there might be costs coming, there were also opportunities for income from sequestration. He was involved in a carbon startup company which was launching in a few weeks that would allow farmers to create value for any trees on their properties.

Paying for methane did not solve the issue — it did not reduce emissions — but he did not believe productivity needed to be compromised when it came to solutions.



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