Nature's way

Doug Avery on his Bonavaree Farm in the Grassmere Valley
Doug Avery on his Bonavaree Farm in the Grassmere Valley

Integrating with the power of nature instead of trying to dominate it brings financial, environmental and social benefits for South Marlborough farmer Doug Avery.

He will speak at a Marlborough Forest and Bird meeting in Blenheim on Thursday and about Synchronising Agriculture Better with Nature.

"I talk to a lot of people in the course of a year - and I love doing it," says the 2010 South Island Farmer of the Year.

His message is not only relevant for farming folk.

Urban people need to understand the importance of using the country's rural land and its natural resources responsibly, he says.

"When I was a boy, nearly everybody in town knew someone who had a farm. Nearly every urban person had a rural experience."

New Zealand is now one of the most urbanised countries in the world, with 87 per cent of its citizens living in urban centres.

"We also have, of all nations in the OECD, the greatest reliance on agricultural export," Doug says.

"The dairy industry gets a lot of flak, but if it crashed, we'd all be stuffed by lunch-time."

Doug will not be talking about dairy farming on Thursday evening. Instead, he will describe how traditional farming practices were abandoned on his sheep and cattle farm in favour of sustainable, ecologically-friendly systems. Financial, environmental and social gains proved his switch was the right one.

His original farm, Bonavarre, was a 246ha block purchased by his grandfather in 1919. His parents owned it from 1946, then sold it to Doug and his wife Wendy in 1979. Their son Fraser and his wife Shelley are embracing the sustainable-farming policies Doug adopted in the late 1990s and will be the farm's next owners.

These days it covers 1550ha and a further 250ha of land is leased.

Sustainable farming was adopted after 17 years of drought showed traditional practices were no longer viable. In 1998 Doug attended a seminar where Lincoln University soil scientist Derrick Moot outlined the benefits of growing lucerne and other plant species on non-irrigated pastures.

Doug returned to Bonavarre and started replacing its former rye grass and clover pastures with lucerne, mixing it in some paddocks with fertile prairie grass and the mineral-rich herb plantain.

A different breed of sheep was purchased and farming practices adapted to work with rather than against nature's forces.

"The first four years were terrible. If I hadn't had the support of my own families and a hell of a lot of commitment, I never would have made it out the other side," he admits.

But the struggle paid off.

"We've stopped trying to farm the summers," Doug says, explaining the high-nutrient pastures allow stock to be sold with good weights during spring.

Conservation is the the focus in other areas of the farm. A protective QEII covenant has been placed on a wetlands area and 30 hectares of gully fenced off under a Significant Natural Areas programme. Two other SNA areas, one 23ha, other other 4ha, are to be fenced.

Each year Doug plants more native trees on two or three small areas of land, taking care not to "over-commit" himself in the dry terrain.

Preserving native plants on his property brings huge benefits and makes it a great place to work, he says.

Greenstone TV will include Bonavarre in Keeping It Pure, a six-part documentary on businesses improving their environmental footprints and later this year the property will feature on TVNZ's Country Calendar.

Doug marvels at how farming philosophies have changed in his lifetime. Landowners were once paid by the government to clear "scrub", he says. "Now we get paid to protect what's left!"

Doug wants to help keep the debate alive about future land use.

"Sometimes in our hurry to create wealth, we can lose the plot all together. But as you grow older, you grow wiser. My vision is there's a huge need for country people to embrace their urban colleagues and share some of the exciting things happening with modern agriculture."

Doug Avery will speak to Marlborough Forest and Bird from 7.30pm on Thursday in the Blenheim School hall. All welcome.


The Marlborough Express