Proof of biologics is simply in the taste

Dairy farmer Kevin Davidson, from Ongaonga in central Hawke's Bay, says biologics uses much of the same chemicals as conventional fertiliser "just in a more plant-available form."
Dairy farmer Kevin Davidson, from Ongaonga in central Hawke's Bay, says biologics uses much of the same chemicals as conventional fertiliser "just in a more plant-available form."

Paolo Pancotti knows a good cheese when he tastes it.

The chef of Napier restaurant Milk and Honey comes from Milan, the home of rich, strongly flavoured gorgonzola. But he has tasted nothing like Joanie Williams' camembert.

"It's excellent, so far ahead of any other camembert in colour, texture and flavour," he says. "I can taste the grass that the cows ate to make the milk. That's important."

Such praise is music to the ears of Mrs Williams, who with husband Richard is in the first few months of launching Origin Earth, their business selling boutique feta and camembert cheeses, yoghurt and milk from a small Hastings factory.

A couple of restaurants and retailers are their first customers and they are handing out samples to other businesses in the hopes of attracting more.

Their biggest sales come at the weekend farmers' markets in Hastings and Napier. Such has been the response to tastings that stocks have quickly sold out. "The overwhelming reaction is to the strong cheesy flavour," Mrs Williams says. "It's actually got some flavour, especially the camembert, which you don't always find."

However, she deflects praise for her cheesemaking skills. The special flavour, she says, is because of the milk.

She collects milk twice a week from Kevin Davidson's farm at Ongaonga, which uses biological farming methods.

Biologics is farming that focuses on looking after the soil's microbial life, ensuring plants receive a balance of nutrients and trace elements.

It is similar to organics, but is not as prescriptive about the use of manufactured fertiliser. However, like organics, it blames excessive use of urea, superphosphate, herbicides and insecticides for producing unhealthy soils.

Mr Davidson's main aim is to farm as well as he can while improving the environment. "I'm not in it for the money," he says. "I'm responsible to my maker, so I have to look after the land he has provided for us. There are no excuses when you get to heaven and you have to account for your life."

Profitability might not be his primary concern, but he makes money all the same. He and wife Linda, along with 12 staff, milk 1800 cows on almost 500 irrigated hectares, with an extra 230ha growing support crops and young stock.

This year, the farm will produce close to one million kilograms of milksolids, for which Fonterra has signalled it will pay $7.50 a kilogram.

They have been farming biologically for four years, ever since Mr Davidson heard American agronomist and medical doctor Arden Andersen speaking about the link between plant nutrients and human health.

He has since seen his animal health stabilise and milk production rise 10 per cent, although he says this is also due to other changes to his cows' diet.

The appearance of his farm has changed. The grass is more luxuriant and greener, with a waxy coat to the leaves. The grass sugar content has more than quadrupled, making it more palatable to cows and resistant to pests.

He uses Dannevirke fertiliser company Outgro, founded by helicopter pilot Jim McMillan. The fertiliser is a blend of lime, serpentine rock, guano phosphate, humates and other vitamins and minerals, ground fine and mixed with seawater into a slurry to be sprayed on to pastures.

It is a regimen dismissed by many soil scientists as unproven, expensive and unlikely to do more for soil and pasture health than conventional fertiliser.

But Mr Davidson says biologics uses much of the same chemicals as conventional fertiliser "just in a more plant-available form. The key to that is the foliar uptake from the sprayed slurry".

He says regular herbage analysis shows his pastures are healthy, less than 0.5 per cent of the cows had to be assisted at calving and he hasn't had to drench young stock for four years.

A sign that the soil is healthier is in the number of worms found in a spade cube, now more than 20 worms from the six to eight found originally. "The worms are like canaries in a mine," he says. "If they cannot survive, neither will the micro-organisms that make a healthy soil."

The figure that resonates most with farmers is the production - at 560kg of milksolids a cow, it's well above the national average of 320kg. Mr Davidson's goal is to reach 600kg.

HE SAYS many farmers are unhappy with their reliance on chemicals and want alternatives. When he has field days at his farm he asks the farmers: "How many of you think that if you stick with your current fertiliser regime your farm will be better off in 10 years' time?" About 10 per cent put their hands up.

"The others know in their heart of hearts that what they are doing is not good for the environment."

But convincing them to change is difficult. Trustworthy science on New Zealand biological farming is needed and Mr Davidson is trying to convince Dairy NZ to do the research.

"It's a struggle," he says. "They want to compare my accounts with a neighbouring farm, but we have different soils, management systems and herds. The best way would be to compare milk, soil and herbage tests along with grass growth. That way, cows and management don't affect the results."

He is sure analysis of his milk would find more vitamins and minerals coming through from the more "nutrient dense" pastures and crops.

Mrs Williams needs no science to prove to her that what she and her customers taste in her cheese is the goodness in Mr Davidson's grass. "I see wonderful pastures and amazing cows in brilliant health," the former Waikato dairy farmer says.

She worked for 12 years for agriculture service company PGG Wrightson, ending up as dairy channel manager studying future trends in which concern for the environment featured prominently. This brought her into contact with biological farmers, one of whom expressed his annoyance that his milk was disappearing into Fonterra's system without recognition of its qualities.

He challenged her to do something about it. It was a challenge she remembered when she took redundancy two years ago.

At the same time, her husband, who is an independent television cameraman working on Country Calendar and Rural Delivery, had a health scare which she says made them realise they needed to combine their agricultural experience to come up with a plan for better financial security.

Up till then they had been kitchen benchtop cheesemakers, producing small quantities for their own use. When they told their friends of the plan to expand this into a business they were laughed at. Lately, the laughter has been replaced by praise and an apology.

It took 10 months to begin production. A factory had to be found and assembled, and machinery installed and running efficiently by technicians who placed a low priority on helping the fledgling business.

At the same time, cheese and yoghurt recipes had to be perfected and the setup had to meet stringent food safety standards.

Mr Davidson was an obvious biological farmer to go to for milk. His farm is less than an hour's drive away and, most importantly, he has in-shed-milk monitoring and electronic identification that allow him to trace what each cow has been fed and a fertiliser and grazing history for each paddock.

"That's a big point of difference. It's a great story and I tell it to everyone," Mrs Williams says.

The farmers' markets are a key part of their marketing. The first cheese, yoghurt and milk went on sale 13 weeks ago.

"The customers let you know if you've got it right. 'It tastes like real milk' is what I hear a lot.

"Freshness is part of it - the products are made within hours of coming from the cow - and we've got the recipes right, but it is Kevin's milk that makes it stand out.

"At the markets, we get a chance to tell everyone this. If we were in a supermarket we would just be another package on the shelf. We'd be a secret, and you can't sell a secret."

Although it's still early days, she has big plans for the future. Expansion into other cheeses is next as word gets out and sales rise.

Eventually, the Williamses want to take Origin Earth into other biological products, such as beef and lamb with regional characteristics.

"I'm passionate about farming sustainably," she says. "It is essential to protect the environment - we can't keep over-using fertilisers and pesticides - but it can also give us a marketing edge over our trade competitors."

Mr Davidson agrees.

"This is the future; it's just beginning. Don't take my word for it - look at the cows, taste the milk. That's the proof; cows don't lie."

In the Milk and Honey kitchen, Mr Pancotti is preparing dessert. He poaches a pear in a syrup of red wine, cinnamon, star anise, sugar and lemon and orange zest and serves it with a slice of Origin Earth camembert.

"People are surprised at how good it is. You have the fattiness and creaminess of the camembert with the spicy sweetness of the pear. It is something they do not expect," he says.

BusinessDay