Tim Anderson’s description of his farm as a “hill-country farm with a wee bit of flat,” doesn’t do justice to the breathtaking views and roller-coaster thrills of driving through his paddocks.
Anderson and his wife Sue raise sheep, cattle, honey and trees on their 922-ha spread located about two hours north of Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island.
While crops and vineyards thrive in surrounding areas, raising livestock is about the only way you can farm in these steep, densely forested hills following a coastline posted with tsunami warnings.
As one of the country’s top breeders of the Perendale and Coopworth sheep, dual-purpose New Zealand breeds, they’ve learned over the 44 years they’ve been in business together that diversification and a focus on quality are the underpinnings of their success.
They have about 2,000 ewes, 1,000 of which are fully recorded stud ewes. About 70 per cent of their revenue comes from selling replacement rams to other sheep farmers. While that doesn’t insulate them entirely from the vagaries of the meat and wool markets, it has helped them weather the uncertainties.
We met in mid-March after renting a sprawling farmhouse surrounded by lemon and grapefruit trees on their property through Airbnb. With a measure of pride and trepidation, our hosts informed us that we would be Hundalee House’s last guests, as their son and his fiancée were moving back to the farm at month’s end to join the family business.
Pride because the transition will mark the fourth generation to earn a living here. Tim’s grandfather and father were offered an opportunity to buy this land as part of a government resettlement program for returning Second World War veterans.
Trepidation because after droughts, market upheavals, escalating land values, increasing regulatory pressures and even an earthquake three years ago, the COVID-19 crisis adds a measure of uncertainty that no one saw coming — and the implications of which are impossible to predict.
“We are all pretty apprehensive at the moment, we don’t know what’s actually going to happen with the meat industry,” he said.
A beef carcass that was worth NZ$1,400 in late 2019 was worth about NZ$900 in March.
To add to the pressure, New Zealand farmers are amongst the least subsidized in the world. They receive extension support but little else by way of direct subsidies.
“So there’s a lot of technical advice out there and that’s wonderful, but we die on our sword really with prices, and there’s a lot of gloom out there at the moment because we don’t know where this is going. And there will be nobody to prop us up,” Tim says.
New Zealand farmers, like their Canadian counterparts, are highly export dependent. They both rely heavily on China as a customer. China is their second-largest market next to Australia. China is Canada’s second-largest export market for agricultural commodities next to the U.S.
The African swine fever outbreak in China has boosted the demand for lamb as an alternative meat protein in that market, but it’s unclear how sustained that demand will be.
Meanwhile, the COVID crisis has lessened demand for the kind of wool they produce, which is used as fibre for carpets and upholstery. At the moment, the sale of the wool they harvest barely covers the cost of shearing.
The livestock sector in New Zealand has learned to be vigilant against legislation and levies designed to protect the environment.
“We’ve been lucky as sheep farmers as we haven’t been taxed,” he noted. “They tried to tax us about 10 years ago, they called it the ‘fart’ tax, but there was such a rebellion because it was based on poor science. But now we’re looking at offsetting trees or putting carbon-saving grasses, all sorts of things they are looking at.”
Anderson notes livestock producers have done a lot through genetics to reduce their environmental footprint.
“We’ve naturally done it as sheep farmers in New Zealand. We had 79 million sheep here 20 years ago and we’ve now got 39 million, so we’ve lowered our carbon output by dropping our sheep numbers,” he said.
As well, he’s participating in carbon trading programs and he’s become a tree farmer, although he has yet to see any revenue from the investment. Two stands of farmed timber are due to be harvested, but the downturn in China’s demand for wood products has sunk prices to a level where it makes sense to leave the stands intact until market conditions improve.
A third dimension to their environmental stewardship is working with a conservation organization to return 200 ha of their farm to native bush. Key to regenerating the forest will be fencing off the area and removing the wild deer, a species that was introduced to New Zealand during settlement and is now considered an environmental threat.
Anderson had recently sown a paddock surrounded by a deer-proof fence in one of the highest sections of his farm to a cocktail of grasses, legumes and forage brassicas to attract the resident population. The gate is designed to allow deer to enter but there is no way out.
They were still considering the pros and cons of obtaining the required certification to allow them to harvest the captured deer for meat, but the market potential was uncertain.
Much of New Zealand was experiencing drought through its summer months, with many parts of the country living under water-rationing orders.
The reduced carrying capacity of their existing land base, combined with the recent loss of 300 ha of leased grazing land in a nearby country and their son’s return, has the family grappling with whether to buy more land or scale back the operation to accommodate lower livestock numbers.
Foreign investors have been aggressive bidders on local land put up for sale. With grazing land in the area priced at around NZ$15,000 per ha, it’s hard to pencil out a return in the current economic environment.
That’s a bit daunting for a young farmer stepping up. “A month ago we were in the midst of this drought and he was pretty depressed about the whole thing and especially losing this lease and not getting another one — he’s had to question what the future is,” he said. “And we’re questioning it too. So it all looked pretty rosy a year ago, but just at the moment we are in flux.”
But farming in this area has never been easy. The Andersons are counting on the same qualities that have carried the first three generations of this farm through to today to carry it forward: a love of farming, hard work and the pursuit of excellence.
“I don’t think he’d be doing it and we’d be encouraging it unless he was enthusiastic. And lucky for us he enjoys genetics and enjoys breeding sheep and he’s good at it,” Tim said.