Family work together on water quality
With his father Lyndon tied up with a fertiliser company rep updating Overseer, it's left to 20-year-old Eldon to show off the 267ha Matthews family farm just out of Waikari in North Canterbury.
Two and a half years of drought seems finally to have broken and the farm's rolling hills are green and slightly greasy beneath the wheels.
"So far this year, the first four months, we've had two thirds of the rain we had in 2015. A month ago this was all brown and it's just three weeks of rain and it's coming back pretty fast," Eldon says.
He knows the family farm well but says until a few years ago agriculture left him cold.
"Until year 12 in high school I had no interest in farming at all," he says, adding that changed in about 2013 when the long-dreamed of local irrigation scheme, Hurunui Water Project, ran into consent issues.
"I guess that's when I got interested. When that project goes ahead, we'll be able to get water here hopefully, so it was at the point I decided I was interested in the environmental and farming side."
Now in his last year of a B.ComAg degree at Lincoln University, Eldon prepared the family farm environment plan as well as talking to the regional Ballance Farm Environment Awards judges when they visited.
He told them of the family's efforts to enhance tussock cover on limestone outcrops and showed them the wetland that's been fenced off and planted in natives.
"This was willow trees along here like all riverbeds in New Zealand and grass was grazed all the way into it. We've pulled them all out except one up there that's a bit big for the digger and it's turned into basically a wetland."
With stock now fenced out, a variety of natives including flaxes and cabbage trees are thriving and raupo appeared in a wet corner of its own accord, apparently striking from some vestige of earlier years.
Another change on the farm that should be good for the environment is a change from using a silage wagon to feed deer in winter to self-feeding silage stacks, Eldon says.
"The self-feed silage pits mean we're not making massive ruts and compacting areas of the farm and we're not risking the staff driving in winter conditions.
"We've got very happy stock. Because they're self-feeding, whenever they're hungry they go feed, there's no competition, they don't fight each other and they just sit on the hill the rest of the time."
Lyndon Matthews says it's gratifying to see the next generation – Eldon, his sister Delaney, 18, and brother Thomas, 17 – taking an interest in the environment on the farm.
"We treat stewardship of the land seriously so I guess that's where the kids get it from and it's great to see it reflected in the next generation."
Since Eldon reached high school age, the Matthews have lived in Christchurch during the week and spent their weekends at home on the farm. Lyndon works in banking and Millie is South Island account manager for a bathroom company.
"We wanted to do the kids' schooling in town and the farm was never going to pay for it. I talked to one or two people and said, 'How are people doing it?' They said most people were debt-funding it," says Lyndon.
"We were determined we weren't going to debt-fund it so we went back to work to pay for the school fees."
Lyndon now works four days a week for ASB bank, as area credit manager for the upper South Island and has three days farming. A manager looks after the 3000 stock units on the farm, comprising deer and sheep at about a 60:40 ratio, when he's away.
"People say, 'You never stop', and it's like, well, no, but when you come home, it's physical work and you're in the outdoors and then you're back into town and you're shut inside but you're getting the mental stimulation of dealing with proposals coming through."
Sometimes that involves having "honest conversations with people", Lyndon says.
"I went into the credit role because I don't like seeing people lose equity so sometimes you're better to say no to somebody rather than watch them go broke."
As a farmer and banker, he knows how tough it's been for farmers in North Canterbury after two and a half years of record-breaking drought.
"We've had droughts in the past and we've learnt that you just keep bringing in feed and you keep your stock numbers there because it'll come right eventually, but this time it kept going on for so long.
"You don't realise how much feed your farm grows until it doesn't and then you've got to truck everything in. It was a phenomenal amount of feed, something like 500,000kg of dry matter, $150,000 worth of feed, it was ridiculous."
Matthews says it's not uncommon for North Canterbury farms to have $250,000 of extra debt because of the drought. "There's debt gone on balance sheets that will stay there forever as a result of the drought. It's been real, it's tangible and it's not going to go away."
The family are strong supporters of the planned Hurunui Water Project which after years of effort and $12 million in costs, finally has planning approval and should give farmers in the Hawarden-Waikari district some relief from future droughts.
"I think primarily it's going to mitigate drought as opposed to a scheme that will see large-scale wholesale conversion to dairy."
He says a look at the shareholder base shows most have quite large areas of hill country and small area of flats.
"That small area will get developed, it will allow them to grow winter feed, it'll allow them to finish stock and it'll take variability out of their business. When I look at what was spent on feed in the last few years , I never want to have to do that again."
The family are now looking forward to spending a couple of days planting trees in moist ground, bought from the prize money they won for the Environment Canterbury Water Quality Award and the Beef + Lamb New Zealand livestock award.
"We haven't been able to plant anything for a couple of years with it being so dry and I establishing trees as they are an enduring legacy," Lyndon says.
"It's not a great environment for growing trees here, it takes a long time, but when you look at the legacy of what somebody planted 130 years ago, like that walnut tree out the front here … if you plant trees, future generations will get to see them."