On Farm Story - Farmers Weekly July 2019

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The nation’s least worst farmers

by  Luke Chivers

Banks Peninsula farmer and self-confessed radical Roger Beattie is never short of new ideas for the primary sector. Luke Chivers visited him to hear about some of the maverick’s pet projects.

On the south side of Banks Peninsula, where the wind gives the tussocks a permanent bend and the next stop is Antarctica, Roger Beattie is mustering his next big plan.

The wild sheep breeder, blue pearl and kelp harvester and would-be weka farmer wants to explain how unique foods and fibres can be produced by combining the diversity of nature with Kiwi can-do ingenuity.

He takes a bite of seeded slice, sips a freshly brewed tea and for a moment there’s silence.

“How do I put it? If someone says something’s black, I’ll say it’s white. 

“I’ve long been a contrarian,” he laughs.

Not far from us, on the slopes of Kowhai Vale, one of three farms that Beattie owns in rolling-to-steep hill country across the water from Akaroa, live Pitt Island wild sheep. 

It’s a breed he so admired while working on the Chathams he brought some home. 

And now he has his clever scheme, one that pulls together the wild sheep and another of his great, slow-burning projects, wekas.

Beanies, scarves, gloves, socks as well as throws and blankets, a new category of high-end woollen products, are exploiting the unique properties of the Pitt Island fleece, which has a helical crimp and a twist that gives it great bounce and stretch.

“It’s amazing wool.

“It’s very light, it traps a lot of air, it’s so cosy, it doesn’t itch and it has a luxurious feel.

“We get it organically scoured at Washdyke, spun by Wild Earth Yarns in Christchurch and then knitted in Dunedin and the socks done in the North Island.”

They weigh two-thirds of Merino knitwear but they’re far warmer, made from 50% Pitt Island fleece, 30% Bohepe mid-micron wool, 20% possum fir and a small amount of nylon for strength, he says.

The brand, known as Wyld, features a logo of a wild horned ram. It was launched in 2016 targeting the main tourism towns. But the flagship product is the Weka Woo hat, a premium beanie with a feather pinned on it – a weka’s feather, naturally.

The weka is officially an at-risk species, Beattie says.

He has long contended with his antagonist, the Conservation Department, that farming weka commercially can save the species. In the public eye, he became that weka guy, the maverick, business-minded conservationist.

The maverick tag seems inevitable given his background. 

His father, the late Doug Beattie, was another inventor, a Marlborough farmer who developed the first plastic insulator for electric fences and pioneered that industry. 

Beattie and his brother Ivan now co-own the Christchurch business, Beattie Insulators.

Doug, left school early and it was the making of him, Beattie says.

“He had about 50-odd patents in his lifetime.

“We used to sell insulators to Gallagher. Really, we were in the electric fence insulators game before they were. 

“In fact, after three days of trial and error my father developed insulators out of low-density polyethylene. He was the first person in the world to develop thick, sectioned polyethylene moulding.”

If his father set the tone for Beattie’s life of innovation, entrepreneurship and hard graft, the Chatham Islands was his finishing school. 

He moved there after a year of university studies – political science and economics in 1975 – to shear sheep.

From shearing, he went into the freezing works then possum hunting, paua diving, culling for the Wildlife Service and shearing for Pitt Island farmer Jim Moffett, where he was introduced to those wild sheep. In one year Beattie shot more than 1500, mostly from the back of a horse, and shore about 300 Romneys a day.

That was in 1976, the days of subsidies.

The more he culled, however, the more he admired the so-called pest.

“I learned a lot about stock, sheep, animals and nature just by spending a lot of time observing.

“I thought ‘By heck, these sheep are tough. They’re being hunted by man, they’re running on 3500 acres of land competing with bigger Romneys, cattle and pigs, a wild environment, and yet every single hogget has a lamb’. They had no dags, no fly strike, no foot or mouth problems. I decided I really needed to try to farm these sheep.”

Before he could pursue the idea, however, things on the Chathams suddenly went sour. A farming venture with his brother and friends crashed, leaving a pile of debt. So, he returned to paua diving.

“Getting back into paua coincided with the quota system coming back in so I was issued with a whole lot of quota. And because I could see the writing on the wall I bought a whole lot more. At one stage I was the single largest paua quota holder in New Zealand, with 34 tonnes.”

Eventually, he swapped diving for farming paua, exporting the meat to Asia and establishing NZ’s first ocean-based blue pearl farm at Whangamoe Inlet on the Chathams.

So, is he a conservationist or businessman?

Beattie favours the label environpreneur, which describes an entrepreneur who seeks to turn an environmental problem into a profitable venture.

Which brings us back to now.

Beattie and his wife, Nicki, a British doctor-turned-Kiwi farmer, first saw Kowhai Vale, a 322-hectare coastal property, in 1992 while looking for areas in which to establish a mainland-based paua farm. They later bought it as a place to release the wild sheep and do some hunting.

The first 10 wild sheep from the Chathams have, over time, become 3000, the largest Pitt Island wild sheep flock in mainland NZ, spread between Kowhai Vale and a 353ha certified organic property further down the peninsula at Lucas Bay while Bohepe are run on a 296ha block called Ataahua near Lake Ellesmere/Te Waihora.

The couple also own a 13ha inland lifestyle block at Lansdowne, Canterbury, home to the family’s flock of four generations of Pihepe sheep. The property is also used for intensive farming practices and experimental trials.

The Beatties keep their coastal land well-grazed with about 250 Murray Grey cattle, which were introduced to the South Island from Australia’s New South Wales-Victoria border by Doug.

From 1994 onwards they bought any and every Pitt Island wild sheep they saw advertised for sale in mainland NZ.

“Any animal where I had the slightest bit of concern about purity of the genetics was culled. The numbers bred up every year and for the next five years I introduced new rams to the mob.

“We don’t think we know what a good sheep is but we do think we know what a bad sheep is. 

“So, the approach is to get rid of the worst ones. 

“I think we’re the least worst farmers in NZ.

“We’re culling for body score and dags – and we’re finding that harder and harder because we’ve been doing it for so long now and it’s not a very high hereditary trait. We’ve made magnificent progress.”

The wild sheep might have some tricky characteristics – they’re a handful to muster – but they make wonderful eating.

The Beatties are chasing the gourmet meat market using the Wyld brand and emphasising the family’s chemical-free approach to farming.

Kowhai Vale is not certified organic because the Beatties spray the gorse but is otherwise run naturally.

A growing number of high-end restaurants – The Sugar Club on the 53rd floor of the Sky Tower, for instance – are using the meat. 

“The head chef was interviewed before Christmas and said Wyld meat was so good he didn’t even have to cook it.

“So, he dry-ages it, slices it thin and then serves it,” Beattie says.

“We have to sell products to people who are as far from rural New Zealand as possible, people who live in cities but want to enjoy that experience of far-flung lands. Give them food and fibre that they can love.”

There are other uses for the sheep. Some are sold to lifestyle blocks. 

But changes are afoot. In 2004 the Beatties bought an experimental flock of fine wool, bare breech sheep from AgResearch, which he named Bohepe and has been vigorously breeding ever since. 

More recently, they’ve taken on larger, coarse-wool sheep called Scobie from another trial. 

“We now have about 350 of them,” Nicki says.

“They’re hard case things that are quite big, have short little tails and have a different personality. They’re going well on the property.”

The common theme is the way they are all farmed. 

The Beatties haven’t tailed a sheep for 18 years. And even on the non-organic properties they don’t use chemicals on their animals. The same applies to the small herd of Murray Grey cattle. Not only is it the right thing to do but it makes commercial sense, Beattie says.

“The false premise here is that chemical farming and unethical farming – that is, doing painful and unnecessary things to animals – are sustainable. They’re not and will eventually be done away with by consumer pressure.”

There’s a link there to their approach to breeding. 

“Our whole operation is based around low-cost, easy-care, ethical farming, the minimum amount of stress for the animals and letting them express genetically whatever it is they want to express, whether that is wildness in the wild sheep or contentedness with the Murray Greys.”

Nicki says most of the diseases sheep and cattle get are stress-related.

“They’re either an imbalance in diet or they’re grazed for too long or they’ve got a worm-burden that’s been management-induced.

“We haven’t drenched an animal in 15 years and you know what, we hardly lose a sheep or cow in the winter. Our death rate would probably be in the top 1% of the country.

“More farmers need to ask themselves ‘Is this animal good enough to eat even though I drenched it just two weeks ago?’

“Why would anyone want to eat animals with chemicals in them?”

She can certainly make a case, having worked in the medical field for more than two decades and farmed for about the same length of time.

“To me, really, the farming sector and the health sector should be absolutely in parallel. We should be in the same field. If it’s not in the soil then you aren’t going to get it in your food. You are what your food eats.”

Meanwhile, in the shadowy waters of the Akaroa Harbour is giant bladder kelp, or Macrocystis pyrifera, one of two species of kelp the Beatties harvest. The other, known as wakame, is commonly used in Japanese cooking and Beattie long ago identified it as a viable export.

Nicki runs the kelp operation, marketing it as a healthy pepper-like condiment high in nutrients. But in recent years the Beatties have shifted their focus to the agriculture, horticulture and animal production markets under a new brand, Zelp.

They also farm paua for their jewellery business, Blue Pearls.

Wild sheep, giant kelp, native birds – what’s the common thread to the Beatties ventures?

“They’re all dealing with native or near-native species, all adding value where none existed before, all creating something unique and marketable and brandable,” Beattie says.

They’re nowhere near finished, either.

“We want to become a more profitable organisation and be a catalyst for changing away from heavy chemical use farming,” he said.

“Farmers can do it,” Nicki says.

“The reason why we can do what we do – and we have a lot of businesses on the go – is because our farming system is so low-cost, easy-care. 

“Really, we have zero inputs apart from buying pink Himalayan salt for using on our kelp.”

The couple feel good about their business and say other farmers should, too.

“We don’t have to put masks on.

“I genuinely feel the way we farm is the right way.”

They believe modern chemical farming is only a blip in the sector’s history.

“Farmers have only been using chemicals for the past 50 years. This is not the norm.”

You can, only for so long sustain a degenerating system, Beattie says.

We pause and reflect. 

Beattie takes another bite of slice and downs his now-cold tea.

“Nature has been around far longer than modern chemical farming practices and has a way of ensuring its own survival. It would be truly remarkable if we thought we had more wisdom than nature,” he says.

Nicole Sowman