Going green and staying out of the red

For a husband and wife farming team, finding the best way to maximise the profitability of their Canterbury foothills station at the same time as protecting the environment has lead to many a debate, as they tell Tony Benny.

Ashburton zone committee chairwoman Donna Field and husband Ben Todhunter, a Canterbury foothills farmer.
Tony Benny

Ashburton zone committee chairwoman Donna Field and husband Ben Todhunter, a Canterbury foothills farmer.

Ben Todhunter studied commerce at Lincoln University and for a while mixed farming with lecturing in finance at Lincoln, before realising the two careers didn't easily mix.

So he turned his full attention to Cleardale Station, on south side of the Rakaia River, about 10km inland from Rakaia Gorge.

He describes the 1400ha property as intensive foothills and over the past 10 years he's increased production and profitability, putting on irrigation, developing pasture and increasing the stocking rate to 10SU/ha.

Cleardale's halfbred flock is created by putting English leicester rams over merino ewes, using genetics from the ...
Tony Benny

Cleardale's halfbred flock is created by putting English leicester rams over merino ewes, using genetics from the station's own studs.

"You need to keep growing your business," Todhunter says.  "You can either buy land or utilise the resource you've got – we've done a combination of both I suppose."

Unlike Todhunter, whose family has lived in this part of the world for nearly 100 years, his wife Donna Field does not come from a farming background. After completing park ranger diploma she worked at Fox Glacier, "for a long time", guiding tourists on the glacier.

Later she ventured to the Canterbury side of the Southern Alps, working at Mt Hutt skifield and met Ben on the dance floor at the Mt Hutt ski patrol ball.  Now she and Ben have four children and she's lived on the farm for 23 years.

"The weather was a big change from the West Coast – it's so windy here – and just how all-absorbing your own business is was probably one of the biggest things. Ben and his dad were farming and he just worked all the time," Field recalls.

And while Todhunter took a very business-focused approach to farming, that didn't always sit well with her conservationist principles.

"Most of our debates have been around clearing of indigenous vegetation and how we go about doing that, or how we use water on the farm," says Field.

"We have debates around matagouri and come to compromises," Todhunter agrees. "It's leave some and take some and protect some areas as well. We have some bits that we're still having discussions around."

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While he concentrated on farming and farm politics – as high country chairman Todhunter successfully lead Federated Farmers' fight against the then Labour Government's move to increase rentals for crown lease land – Field retained her interest in conservation.  She's still a member of Forest and Bird and joined the Whitcombe (Upper Rakaia) Landcare group, eventually becoming its chair.

"Early in the piece, I initiated getting rid of wilding trees in the valley.  I was tied down with four children so it was good to have opportunities to do something I really love."

A garden shrub gone wild, cotoneaster, which is hard to kill and can easily be spread far and wide by birds eating its berries, was another target.

"Ben would get home and I'd go on a walk with a saw and cut down some cotoneasters and now we're almost cotoneaster-free which is really good.  They're such a pest and they spread well into forests."

When Environment Canterbury launched the Canterbury Water Management Strategy and formed zone committees to give locals a say in resource planning, Field found herself in a new role.

"I was nominated on the Ashburton zone committee by both Federated Farmers and Forest and Bird.  I am quite good at seeing both points of view and maybe that's a strength.  It doesn't mean I'm always happy and it doesn't mean everyone's always happy but generally I can see that we have to do something," she says.

The 10 zone committees in Canterbury have an unenviable task, trying to find a way to satisfy the many community demands for water, be they for irrigation, recreation, cultural or environmental concerns, and formulate workable policy and rules for ECan planners to develop.

"I really do admire ECan for what they're trying to do and I don't always know if it's the right way to do things, to try to keep everyone happy, but I think it's a really good start at the moment and having baselines laid down by central Government's helpful – having figures does actually help."

Field is now chairwoman of the Ashburton zone committee and says as the process has gone on and more controversial issues are tackled, it's been more difficult to find suitable people to volunteer their time and join the committee.

"It's not easy to get people who are not farmers to go on zone committees because it's not an easy job," she says.

"It's got trickier as times have changed, as the committee composition's changed.   It's been harder to find a broad range of people in Ashburton, people who can see both sides of issues."

The monthly meetings, sometimes a day long,  the time spent with the ECan-appointed facilitator and on phone calls all take time but more time-consuming, Field says, is the brain power that's required.

"The biggest thing is the thinking about the zone committee, how to make it work as the chair, making sure everybody's involved.  At the moment there are a lot of new people and there's thinking about how you're going to run the meeting and then for me, personally what do I think is best.

"I'm not really meant to have an opinion, that's one of the things about being the chair, it's a bit hard to say what you want. However, sometimes I will say, 'I'm taking my seat away from being the chair, I have something I want to say, it's not coming from the chair, it's coming from me'.

"It's probably not normal meeting procedure but it's not quite a normal meeting either."

Field's just heard she's been made a director of QE2 Trust, which she says is "pretty exciting".

"I recently went to a field day they had and it was such a positive scene, it was really good because the Canterbury Water Management Strategy's not always a positive scene, it's quite a different area to work in."

Meanwhile, back on the farm, her husband Ben continues his quest to find the most profitable use for the land.  He's identified halfbred sheep, bred from Cleardale's own merino and English leicester studs, as the best way to go.

"They're the breed we currently think we can make the most money from," he says.  "They're a really good sheep  and their wool's worth a bit more and you can get some customers for that wool now.

"We've benchmarked the performance of those halfbreds against other halfbreds and against crossbred sheep and we think we're as well off financially, if not better, by getting high performance from fine-wool sheep here than we are from running a crossbred system or a straight merino system."

He continues to test that thinking though and is now comparing quarterbred production against the halfbreds.

The halfbred ewes are mated to poll dorset or southdown terminal sires. The mixed-age ewes scan at 175 per cent and lamb over 140 per cent and wean lambs at 32-33kg. Ben's brother Philip, on neighbouring Mt Heron Station, breeds the halfbreds on contract for Cleardale.

The Todhunter family has had sheep studs since the 1920s and he's keen to carry on the tradition.  He's more of a believer in what the figures tell him than how an animal may look to the eye.

"I think the genetics nowadays, there's more and more with the data we can get on them.  It used to be 80 per cent feeding and 20 per cent breeding, it's probably become a little more breeding than feeding now."

Cleardale now has four separate studs, merino, quarterbred and halfbred plus English leicesters, a breed not often seen nowadays.

"We've probably got one of the largest English leicester studs in the world, they're a bit of a rare breed.  They make a good halfbred."

While other farmers use border leicester or lincoln rams over merino ewes to create the dual-purpose halfbred, Todhunter prefers to use English leicesters which he believes are hardier.

Cleardale also has an angus cattle stud, where the focus is on marbling to provide commercial farmers with the right genetics to breed animals suitable for the Five Star feedlot in Canterbury.

As well as the livestock operations, milling wheat is grown on Cleardale.

"What we do with our business is try to find customers for our products. For our milling wheat, we've got a contract, for our beef, we're targeting Five Star genetics, for our lambs, they go to Waitrose in the UK, for our halfbred wool we've got a contract with Godfrey Hurst, of if you're going to breed a quarterbred,  Smartwool's a big user of that wool.

"We try to find a business that's got a customer that we can relate to and work with."

While he's no longer heavily involved with Federated Farmers, Todhunter still has off-farm interests.  He's a director of New Zealand Merino and also chairs Lincoln University Foundation which runs the South Island farmer of the year.

Cleardale has 208ha under irrigation, with water taken from the tailrace of a small hydro power station that draws water from Little River, which runs through the station.  Todhunter was looking for a way to use the river's water but first had to find a way to "break the head", effectively to reduce the pressure created by gravity from water taken from high up the hill.

By working in with local lines company Mainpower, they found a solution – a power station is the perfect way to break the head.

"They own the power scheme with an easement through our property and we've got an agreement that we take the water out of the tailrace.  For them it gives them access to a property and a water source and a generation opportunity and it for us it helps to capture water and put in the right place for irrigation, still using gravity."

Ben Todhunter and Donna Field are finding ways to make their farm as profitable as possible, at the same time as doing their best to protect the environment.

"It took a long time for me to become more money-orientated really," says Field.

"People say farmers are conservationists but in all reality what you have to do if it's your own business, is you have to make money first and foremost. We're lucky to have our lifestyle because of the farm and maybe if everything I wanted to do was done, it wouldn't be such a great farm.

"Sometimes I look at the farm and I'm really proud of what we've managed to keep and protect and the development.  And it's not always been right either way, there's always impacts with development but hopefully by thinking about it you do it differently so you minimise the impact on the land and the habitats it provides."

 - Stuff

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