Variety is the spice of life on Miraka Farm
Who says men can't do more than one thing at a time? Andrea Fox meets a farmer who knocks that idea on the head.
If Waikato agroforester and dairy farmer Graham Smith could bottle his energy, he'd make a killing.
Running four businesses from his 37 hectare farm in the Korakonui area, 25km south east of Te Awamutu isn't enough: he's about to launch a fifth, and just for fun, excavate a submerged ancient forest and create a little sport museum.
Profitably milking 80 crossbred cows provides the base for all these entrepreneurial efforts, but it's growing an unusual tree with multiple uses and benefits that sets him apart and proves it is possible to make a small farm a good earner.
Graham grows paulownia trees – a fast-growing hardwood that is the lightest wood in the world apart from balsa. Used in Asia for more than 2500 years, in New Zealand it's increasingly sought by makers of boats, kayaks, surfboards and furniture. Other uses include interior sarking, snowboards, body boards, picture frames, polo mallets, fishing lures, competition gun butts, musical instruments, gift boxes, aircraft fittings, coffins and for pattern-making.
When Graham bought his flat to steep contour property, Miraka Farm, nearly 29 years ago, it hosted just two trees. Today on its 10ha of flats, cows graze among 500 paulownias and scattered elsewhere are 300 kauri, 400 Mexican cyprus and 3500 pines. Poplars, useful for fence posts, line the trout-filled Mangatutu Stream running through the property.
Paulownias, which grow 6m in one year, are ready for harvesting at between 12 and 20 years, and Graham fells all year round according to demand. Through their company Paulownia NZ, he and wife Tess are the biggest suppliers of the wood in the country. Planks are filleted in the paddock, air-dried for up to six months and every piece personally graded by Graham.
The first paulownias were planted on Miraka in 1992 and the first timber milled in 2010.
Miraka Farm also makes an income selling around 3000 duck eggs a year to North Island fans. Graham initially bred ducks for meat sales, but when he couldn't compete with supermarkets, he tapped the egg market.
Another on-farm business is hosting tourists. The Smiths have a tourist accommodation unit, a stream stacked with trout that attracts visitors from all over the world, and a great learning environment for city dwellers who want to know about rural life. Graham is a keen teacher at milking time and on environmental enhancement matters. Later this year he'll launch a tourism adventure business in partnership with a climber who regularly practices on the farm's vertical cliff faces.
"People said I was crazy to buy a farm with cliffs and streams. They said 'you can't milk those'. But I am."
Also on the go on-farm is a museum project which will preserve the history of the sport of Kiwi style tug-of-war. Graham is president of the national association and has competed at national championships. He also has plans to expose an old forest on the farm long buried by volcanic eruptions.
Tess operates her own garden maintenance business, Great Garden Workz, which at times employs up to six people.
Graham says he became a bit of an entrepreneur out of sheer necessity. After his first marriage failed and with children to support, he risked losing the farm if he didn't create cashflow over and above the earnings of his small dairy herd. Things were pretty desperate for a few years he recalls while he took training courses and hunted around for extra money-spinners like growing wasabi and water cress.
He was already interested in agroforestry – growing trees among livestock in a land use system that balances productivity with environmental enhancement and protection – but knew that more pines weren't the answer. The farm had a legacy crop from a 1990 erosion control scheme but for Graham, the pine harvest wait was too long. (An eventual pine harvest paid for a farm infrastructure upgrade and the tourist stay unit.)
He saw an ad for paulownia seedlings and "by fluke chose the right trees".
Miraka Farm is in a valley and has everything paulownia needs to thrive. The property's sheltered from wind with highly fertile and free draining Kairangi silt loam on the flats. Graham started selling the timber through another party but quickly decided to do his own marketing as demand started growing for the super-light, strong alternative to fibreglass and other materials.
He sells the hardwood, which must be clear of knots, for between $11 and $16.50 per metre.
He recently sold a shipment to the Singapore National Heritage Museum.
"In 20 years I've made a heap of mistakes, all the mistakes you make when you don't belong to a farm forestry group." (These days he's heavily involved with the Waikato Farm Forestry Association.)
The Smiths' paulownia company is today turning a profit but even more to Graham's liking is what the trees are doing for his System 2-3 dairy farm.
"In two paddocks I have 100 trees per hectare and I'm still milking cows on them. Because tree roots go deeper into the soil than many farmed crops, they can access more nutrients and water, reducing soil degradation and erosion.
"The tree roots pick up the nitrogen that leaks past the grass. I believe on this farm 75 to 80 per cent less nitrogen escapes through the system because of the trees."
He notes research at Guelph University in Canada has shown that agroforestry reduced farmland nitrogen losses by 50 per cent, compared to conventional farming methods.
"They also help stabilise drainage, improve animal welfare and I think they improve productivity. There's no doubt I'm growing more grass in summer because of the trees. "
Paulownia leaves are like icecream to cows. "As soon as they hear the first branch fall (when pruning), I'm swamped with cows." The leaves are also high metabolisers of energy for cows.
"A mature paulownia grows 100kg of leaves a year. That's 10,000kgs of dry matter above grass and on top of that I get the timber and the (soil) benefits of the roots."
The deciduous paulownia is highly attractive in spring – its lilac-coloured flowers are easy on the human eye and a beacon for bees and birds, notably tuis.
Graham also likes it that in full summer leaf, the trees still allow the sun through to sweeten the grass. "But 60 to 80 per cent of the grass isn't in full sun so it doesn't dry out, and the tree is bringing up water which hydrates pasture."
He pole prunes the trees at 8-9m to ensure clear wood and high shade. About 100 new trees are planted a year from the farm's own nursery.
Miraka Farm's dairying-paulownia combo keeps government and private sector research scientists coming because it's so unusual, he says.
But while diversity keeps farm life hopping, dairying is very much the foundation activity.
"It's the base of everything and any other business must never constrain it or cut production back," says Graham, whose first experience of dairy farming was in 1977 when persuaded by a mate to join him contract milking.
He built up one of the country's top guernsey stud herds while sharemilking but converted to a kiwi cross herd between 2000 and 2005.
Last season 80 cows were milked at the peak, yielding 28,800kg milksolids. Miraka Farm's seasonal production is normally around 30,000kg but a cold, wet 2016 spring and a record 900mls of rain since January this year put paid to that.
Last season the farm bought in 70 tonne of grass silage and around 50 tonne of palm kernel extract. Graham is working with a Farmwise consultant to reduce pke use while keeping production steady.
Calving starts on July 15.
AB is used for five weeks from October, with another 4.5 week tail off using short gestation AB semen. Twenty replacement calves are retained a year.
The herd is milked twice a day until mid-January, then once daily until drying off in mid-May.
Graham says he's "heard it all" about small farms being uneconomic and unsustainable and while there was an element of luck in his choice of trees, he's happy to be proving the naysayers wrong.
His message to other farmers thinking about diversifying is simple.
"Think outside the square and get good advice."