Balancing Act

It’s no coincidence Mangarara Station is called the family farm. Local people and the wider family play a huge part in Central Hawke’s Bay regenerative farmers Greg and Rachel Hart’s lives.

Connecting people to the land is a driver for the environmentally conscious couple, who are partnering with the community to help make the world a better place for generations to come.

The Harts have spent nearly 20 years focusing on sustainability and say connection is vital, from healthy soil to healthy people to a healthy planet.

They believe farmers have the ability to mitigate climate change through their farming practices. As well as regenerative management that is resilient and profitable, the Harts have adopted a sustainable foundation across everything they do.

From tree planting to their Eco Lodge and retail meat, their bottom line is about bringing communities together in a way that supports and nourishes people and the earth.

Their journey began when they started questioning what type of future they would be leaving for their children, what sort of food their children would eat and how they could play a part in trying to create a healthy, regenerative future.

That thought process resulted in some significant shifts to their farming systems, particularly around agriculture.

Greg says their philosophy is about balancing relationships between nature and production agriculture as part of ecosystem restoration, including a focus on soil health, carbon sequestration and planting native and food-producing trees.

“We focus on the highest animal welfare and the use of holistic grazing and biological fertility management to ensure our livestock have a positive impact on our land and community. It’s about building resilience and reducing off-farm inputs, including the amount of fossil fuels it takes to grow food,” he says.

“Every mouthful of food we eat is either grown in a way that is degrading the planet, or it can be produced in a system that is regenerating the earth and we are focused on being part of the solution. Agriculture has the potential to capture carbon through sequestration, which means farmers have the ability to mitigate climate change. New Zealand signed up to the four per 1,000 initiative at the 2015 Paris Climate Change conference. This means that if soil carbon levels increase by 0.4 percent, or 0.4t/ha per year, in the top 30-40cm of soils, the annual increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere would be stopped.”

That is a very hopeful, positive message. “Pastoral agriculture relies on importing nutrients from the other side of the world. That is not sustainable and has set us on a journey looking at other forms of managing fertility,” Greg says.

“Holistic grazing offers one solution. This is based on observations in Africa of big herds of buffalo, which trample their dung and urine into the tall pasture as they graze and move through the landscape. This has resulted in some of the deepest, richest soil in the world. We try and mimic that with large mobs of cattle that we shift daily using electric fences to keep them densely stocked.”

Greg says as a result, their farm pasture cover was 3,000kg dry matter per hectare on 1st November while carrying 12su/ha, which is a lot longer than most farms. “It’s about getting carbon deeper into the soil profile and well rested pastures with longer roots pumping the energy produced through photosynthesis deeper into the soil to feed microbes, which in exchange supply moisture and minerals to the plant. A one percent increase in soil carbon results in the soil being able to store an extra 160,000 litres of water per hectare,” he says.

“We aim to have good pasture cover in front of us and by shifting cattle daily the animals are getting quality feed from a good base of clover. The cattle are trampling the dry grass and litter onto the ground and this cover acts like a mulch protecting the soil surface from being baked in the hot Hawke’s Bay sun. We have made big changes but they have to happen if we are going to give our children a lifestyle like we had.” Mangarara is not a certified organic farm but the Harts are aware of the wider consequences of their decisions and the products they use.

“We give our animals a fantastic environment to live in. They have good food but if there is a health problem we will use conventional medication. We aim to be proactive rather than reactive and try to deal with the cause rather than the symptom,” Greg says.

“It’s about having a whole lot of tools in the toolbox and using the best one to suit the situation.”

Mangarara Station is a diverse mix of lakes, wetlands, peat flats, rolling and steep hills, pasture, native and exotic trees – and like a living organism, it is constantly evolving.

Stock-wise the farm carries 120 beef cows and calves, 120 beef heifers fattened for their farm meat market, 220 dairy grazers and 600 ewes.

The Harts had been directly marketing the farm’s meat through meat boxes and an on-farm shop. In a bid to simplify the process, they are winding down their online shop and now supply their meat directly to butcher shops in Auckland and Hawke’s Bay.

They also milk 33 dairy cows once a day with the milk growing 115 calves. It is also fed to a dozen pigs and consumed on-farm. Seventy free-range laying hens in portable hen houses follow cattle around the farm adding their own layer of fertiliser to the land.

“We’re also incorporating fruit and nut trees into the pastoral farming system to create perennial fields of food to reduce reliance on annual crops and the fossil fuels it takes to produce them.”

Greg grew up on a Mid Canterbury mixed cropping farm and completed a Bachelor of Agriculture degree at Massey University. He worked in a farm consultancy firm in Ashburton before heading overseas. While he was travelling his parents sold the Mid Canterbury farm and moved to Hawke’s Bay, buying a 440ha property in Elsthorpe, half an hour south of Hastings. Greg returned to New Zealand, worked for a livestock export business and a grain company and met Rachel, who was a livestock clerk for a stock and station company. The couple married and went on to buy the 240ha farm next to Greg’s parents. They purchased the family farm in 2000 and now farm 600ha, having sold off 80ha around 10 years ago.

In 2007 the Harts realised they needed more trees and approached Air New Zealand, which was looking for an environmental project for its newly established Air New Zealand Environment Trust. The project saw funding to plant 85,000 trees, including 60,000 natives, in a 20ha gully that connected to an existing native forest.

Greg says the 3 year funding project started by being about trees and environmental outcomes. But the project has created many friendships and resulted in people building a strong bond with the farm and family. The Air New Zealand Green Team still visits the farm to help with projects and 106,000 trees have now been planted.

The planting provides shade and shelter for livestock and habitat for insects and birds, as well as sucking up carbon and helping to prevent erosion and keeping water clean.

People are a passion and the Harts have an open gate policy for visitors. As well as being part of their agreement with the Air New Zealand Environmental Trust, the couple loves welcoming people onto their land, so they can get a taste of where their food comes from and how it is grown.

“We’re growing a community of ‘care holders’ who share the stewardship of the land, as people feel connected to the land and the ecosystem where their food comes from. They enable us to regenerate the land by supporting us by buying meat from Mangarara.”

The couple, who won the 2017 Pan Pac Hawke’s Bay Farm Forester of the Year, also successfully launched a Crowd Funding project that saw $32,000 raised to buy plants for the shores of the Horseshoe Lake Wildlife Reserve. The Mangarara Million Metres Stream Project aimed to see Horseshoe Lake surrounded by lush native forest, creating a paradise for wildlife and people.

In another effort to connect people back to the land, the Harts built their Eco Lodge in 2015. The accommodation sits on the shore of Horseshoe Lake and began as two old classrooms relined with macrocarpa that was grown and milled on the farm.

Rachel admits building the lodge was a big job but it enables them to share the farm – and the journey they are on – with others.

“Town people no longer have the connection to farms. The lodge provides an opportunity for people to stay and experience farm life, be immersed in farming processes, learn about farming and connect with the regenerating land,” Rachel says.

Education is a big part of the Hart’s philosophy, with regular visits from school groups and students, including many from overseas.

“We are observing a big change nationally and globally, as people’s awareness of our connection to the earth and other species we share it with is realised. Ecological literacy must become the foundation of all fields of study,” Rachel says.

Mangarara Station employs one full-time staff member plus WWOOFers and a Japanese family, who live on the farm, grow vegetables and help out with the grounds at the lodge. Greg and Rachel’s children, 15 year old George and 13 year old twins Bill and Emma, also play a major role in keeping the farm ticking over.

While the couple have made significant changes over the past two decades, they are humble about what they have achieved.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Rachel says. “This is a life-long journey.”