Open Farms a win-win for participants

On Sunday 1 st of March, farmers and growers opened their gates to the public as part of the inaugural Open Farms event. A national initiative, farmers of all backgrounds signed up to share their knowledge, initiatives and produce with hundreds of visitors in an effort to close the gap between urban and rural communities.

Heading to North Canterbury, Farmlands’ Director of External Relations Mark McHardy visited Eyrewell where Ngāi Tahu farm Otūkākau was educating young and old alike; while Communications Advisor Nina Poletti and Marketing Product Manager Madison Wight ventured to Greystone Wines in Waipara to taste the organic fruits of their labour.

Greystone Wines – the organic way

Greystone has not always been organic. The vineyard was established in 2004 and operated under conventional systems until 2011, when the transition period began. The move took approximately 3 years and for Viticulturist Mike Saunders, going organic simplified things.

“If you can do something without using hard chemicals, why wouldn’t you?” On arrival at Greystone Wines, guests were invited to take their cars on a 5km driving tour of the whole vineyard, seeing it from all angles, before being escorted by Mike on a walking tour of the closest Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay vines.

For many attendees, the difference between organic and non-organic wine was unclear, but Mike’s expertise quickly put that to rest. With an organic certification, the vineyard is audited annually, and records of every product used on the plants is required. Financial records also have to match up with the products used. Use of less product is encouraged and as a result, Greystone Wines is beginning to diversify.

Cutting the lower leaves of the vine back exposes more of the fruit to the sun and air, decreasing the chance of fungal infections or disease taking hold. To assist with leaf management, Greystone has employed the help of “sheep leaf pluckers”. When the grapes are still young and green enough to deter sheep, they are let loose in the vineyard to graze the grass between the fruit lines and eat the leaves off the bottom side of the vines, meaning the use of chemical is unnecessary.

On the un-cultivatable land, native tree and riparian planting is underway to offset carbon emissions and support bird life.

Working with nature as much as possible means that less machinery is used and, as a result, work is safer. A venture into organic meat supply also creates long-term market sustainability for the property.

For Greystone Wine’s General Manager of Sales and Marketing, Nik Mavromatis, the Open Farms event worked well, was easy to run and came at a good time in the viticulture calendar so guests were able to get out into the vines and taste the fruit.

“We had a large number of new immigrants attending which was a surprise. Rural New Zealand isn’t that accessible for people who have recently arrived in the country, so this day gave newcomers an opportunity to interact with farming,” Nik noted.

“For those who have grown up locally, there is a bit of a disconnect with farming but for people arriving from other parts of the world, they want to know how it really works in New Zealand.”

With 90 attendees booked for the day and approximately 75 coming through the gates, Nik was impressed by the interest in the industry. “There is a big gap in storytelling within the agriculture industry and a lot of people are very far removed from the process. This day gave us a chance to work together to improve this.”

Otūkākau and Paritea Farm – Ngāi Tahu on display

Ngāi Tahu Farming is a corporate business so making their Open Farms event happen was a real team effort says Technical Farm Manager, Ash-Leigh Campbell.

Both Otūkākau and Paritea are dairy farms, based in Te Whenua Hou (Eyrewell), near Oxford in North Canterbury. A 2-hour event was held at both properties, with Otūkākau entertaining crowds in the morning and Paritea in the afternoon.

In the morning, families that wandered through the gates were taken out on the property to learn how the grass was transformed into milk. What seems like basic knowledge for farmers, was completely new for many of the children who attended, most of whom assumed milk just came from a bottle in the supermarket.

Ash-Leigh and her team stressed New Zealand’s advantage in creating a premium milk product. The opportunity for cows to graze on grass instead of manufactured feed means that the best protein and nutrient levels are absorbed into the final product. Lysimeters in the ground on Paritea Farm measure how much nitrate is leaching through the soil and the results are sent to Lincoln University to collate data.

With 40 lysimeters measuring the environmental impact of operations, Ngāi Tahu is currently operating one of the largest commercial scale monitoring systems in the Southern Hemisphere. From the paddock, the group moved around to the milking shed, where a Synlait tanker was waiting to take the morning milk away. The children climbed in the cab and sipped on flavoured milk provided by Fonterra.

“Patting the calves was a big winner,” Ash-Leigh says, “but what surprised me most was how excited the kids got about being able to plant a tree.”

A collaboration between Ngāi Tahu, Synlait and Fonterra meant trees were available for each attendee to plant for both events on Otūkākau and Paritea. This initiative is part of Ngāi Tahu environmental stewardship efforts and offsetting their carbon, as well as protecting their waterways and re-establishing mahinga kai (traditional food sources).

“Our events were focused on quality over quantity, we wanted each individual attending to have a positive experience,” Ash-Leigh says.

“Now that we have a structure and the capability, we can expand visitor numbers for next time. I believe everyone left with more understanding about what really goes on.

“Our guests were mostly retirees and families, so the challenge was making sure we were providing the right education to keep the adults interested and as much ‘doing’ as we could for the kids.”

Overall, Ash-Leigh and the Ngāi Tahu team were very happy with how the Open Farms initiative was run.

“Open Farms did a really good job at the front end – signing up was seamless and they were more than happy to help. We had an initial phone call and the organisers were proactive in sending out information such as the visitor lists and ticket sales. We could also see how the other farms were doing.

“The guys even called after the event to close the loop and to thank us for our participation, which we really appreciated. Everyone who attended thanked us for the opportunity and we would absolutely do it again!”