Neighbourly co-operation feature of modern farming

JON MORGAN
Last updated 15:52 22/11/2012
Jamie Falloon
LOREN DOUGAN/Fairfax NZ
JAMIE FALLOON: "It's important people understand where their food comes from and what efforts we go to ensure it is of good quality and safe to eat."

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New Wairarapa Federated Farmers president Jamie Falloon's mission is to get as many farmers as possible involved with two big changes looming for the region.

They are local government restructuring, with possible loss of services and increased rates a worry, and Greater Wellington council's new regional plan.

The plan's proposal for a collaborative approach to setting new rules for water quality and allocation in each water catchment is likely to attract widespread interest.

"It's imperative farmers get involved in the discussion," the Bideford sheep and beef farmer says. "It's going to take a lot of time and effort from individual farmers, but it's important we don't rely on other people to make the decisions for us. We don't want limits placed on our activities that we haven't discussed."

He accepts that water quality has declined and says urban as well as rural users are to blame.

For farmers, it is most important to know exactly what their impact is.

"If you can measure that, then you can make changes to your farming system to reduce it.

"For example, on my farm, it would be good to know whether the quality of the Tauweru River is worse when it leaves my land than when it enters it. Then I could determine if what I was doing was having a negative effect."

On his 1100-hectare hill-country farm, poplar poles have been planted on unstable slopes, eroding land has been retired into forestry, patches of bush are protected with QEII Trust covenants and he has allowed scrub to regenerate on south-facing slopes.

"I want to know how beneficial that has been and whether I need to do more. At the moment, I don't know."

He realises having the ability to precisely measure the various parts of a farm would not be practical, but says a reliable model is needed.

A recent Environment Court decision made the Overseer program developed by AgResearch the model to be used in the Manawatu-Whanganui region, but Overseer has a 30 per cent margin of error.

"I've never used Overseer, but I would question whether it's the appropriate model for the hill country at the moment. However, it is the only model we have."

The Land and Water Forum's approach, where more than 60 divergent groups with interests in water quality and quantity have collaborated to present a series of recommendations to the Government, gives him optimism.

"It's better than the old way of having a fight in the Environment Court. With Greater Wellington the opportunity is there and it would be a real shame if we didn't take it. Otherwise, we could get a plan that doesn't represent all parts of the community."

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Farmers need to be more alert to the potential for misunderstandings, he says.

Narrowing the rural-urban divide is another aim and he wants to build on the momentum created by Federated Farmers' farm days, when farms are opened to the public.

"It's important people understand where their food comes from and what efforts we go to ensure it is of good quality and safe to eat."

He supports a merger of the three Wairarapa district councils, but is worried by a proposed unitary authority.

"Reports so far show a possible deficit of up to $10 million if Wairarapa goes it alone.

"To fund this, services such as rail and bus subsidies, tree planting on erosion-prone land and flood protection in the lower valley would have to be cut. To keep them, large increases in rates would be needed.

"People need to get involved or the wrong decision will be made for us."

His family has been farming at Bideford for more than 100 years and he and wife Georgie, who have three children, took over in 2005.

He says taking degrees in accounting (Otago University) and forestry (Canterbury University) were a consequence of his upbringing in that tough farming decade, the 1980s.

"I saw the high interest rates, the removal of subsidies and some severe droughts and thought there had to be better alternatives to farming."

He worked in sales for Fletcher Challenge Forests and Fletcher-owned Winstone Aggregates before going to Turners & Growers in Auckland to look after exporting and importing avocados and tomatoes.

He admits the decision to return to the farm was more about the attractive lifestyle than anything else. "I was looking through rose-tinted glasses.

"It's not until you get involved that you realise the challenges and complexities."

These challenges were not long coming. Six months after his return, his father, John Falloon, died. Mr Falloon held several posts in the Muldoon and Bolger governments, including agriculture minister.

"I lost that experience opportunity, which is a key part of being a successful farmer. I've got a pretty good skill set in understanding a lot of the components of business, but farming is one of the things you can't just read a book to learn."

He had two years to get used to the farm, with the help of an experienced worker, before the first of what was to be three consecutive droughts hit.

The key insight he gained to surviving a drought was to realise that a decision had to be made as soon as possible. "It may not be the right one, but it sets you on the path to getting through it." He admits it was a lesson he took a little while to learn.

He has 5000 romney-coopworth ewes and a small herd of angus-hereford cows. The aim is to have the lambs weaned and all but the replacements off the property before Christmas.

He has a leased finishing block near Masterton that takes some of the lambs, but the bulk are sold, either to other farmers through an agent or at stock sales.

Then the effort goes into building up the ewes, hoggets and replacement lambs to be in good condition for mating.

"We hope for rain in autumn, so we can build up some covers for winter, and for a reasonable spring, so our stock comes off the farm in good condition. That's the challenge we face.

"As long as we understand that, we can handle the dry."

But every year there's something unexpected. Last summer, the dry period didn't arrive. Rain fell through summer and autumn and he struggled to cope with the abundant grass.

"That was almost as bad as not having enough grass," he says.

So far this year, it does not look promising. The weather has been cold and dry and grass covers are low.

Helping the family survive the tough years has been income from Georgie's business, Willow Shoes. She has four shops, in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch, as well as internet sales, offering shoes for women with long feet - size 10 and up.

Also a big help is the willingness of farmers to share their knowledge.

"Very rarely in any other industry would you have a group of people and businesses getting together to provide cashflow information so they can understand how they've made decisions," he says. "In the corporate world there's absolutely no way you would tell anyone how much money you're making or not making.

"You compete with the environment and other farmers and businesses in other parts of the world, but you don't compete with your neighbours. For me, that's what sets farming apart."

- The Dominion Post

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