Geoff Ross: Farming Beyond the Gate
Lake Hāwea Station
We had the pleasure of visiting Geoff Ross, owner of Lake Hāwea Station, situated just 20 minutes north of Wanaka in beautiful Central Otago.
BIG CITY LIFE TO COUNTRY LIVING
Three years ago, Geoff and his family moved to Lake Hāwea Station from Auckland after spending 18 years in the big city. They had previously holidayed in Central Otago and took a great liking to the region. Rather than just buying a lifestyle block, Geoff and his wife, Justine (who both come from farming backgrounds) decided to buy a proper farm in amongst the stunning landscapes of Lake Hāwea.
Lake Hāwea Station is a 6,500-hectare merino and beef station comprising of 200 Angus cows and around 9,000 merino sheep. The property spans over flat country, lakefront terraces (where they direct drill their thriving regenerative crops), to rolling hills filled with golden tussock or as Geoff likes to describe it, “the classic Central Otago alpine country.”
The Station is home to over 250 species of living organisms, including the kārearea, New Zealand’s native falcon. Geoff told us that there are only three to four thousand breeding pairs left in New Zealand. They also have the Clutha flathead galaxias roaming the streams in the backcountry, as well as the grand skink, an endangered species to the Central Otago region. Grand skinks are said to be around 25cm long and Lake Hāwea Station has the last known remaining population in the wild.
Lake Hāwea Station’s mission is to continue building up its stock units and provide its customers with premium New Zealand natural products, such as meat and wool. Geoff told us that world agriculture is at a very exciting time, where people are now taking into account products that are healthier for themselves and the environment. Some examples of these include low carbon food and fibre, regeneratively sourced products, and animals that are being raised in a good environment.
“I think there’s a big junction coming up for New Zealand agriculture. I compare it with when New Zealand was first able to export frozen meats. That was a time that went on to create a huge amount of wealth for New Zealand. The next big junction was when the herringbone milking machine was invented in the Waikato around the ‘50s. That changed our dairy industry forever and created a huge amount of wealth for our country. I think the junction we’re coming up to now is around low carbon and regenerative agriculture.”
Geoff grew up on a dairy and deer farm just outside of Auckland. He studied agriculture at Lincoln University but took a different path down the road of advertising and consumer brands for 30 years. His entrepreneurial nature and experience with consumer brands led him to create the brands 42 Below Vodka and Ecoya Fragrances. Geoff also has ties to Trilogy International, a natural skincare company.
He wanted to take his expertise in branding and apply it to farming, creating opportunities for New Zealand’s premium produce. Geoff is a firm believer in transparency when it comes to their farming practices at Lake Hāwea Station. He enjoys sharing his knowledge with others in the hope that it will create prosperous outcomes for New Zealand farmers.
The thing that sets Lake Hāwea Station apart from a lot of other farms around New Zealand is that they present themselves as carbon clear. They’ve calculated their carbon footprint and the farm is sequestering two times more than they emit. Being carbon clear is what Lake Hāwea Station uses as part of their brand proposition, to sell to customers who are looking to buy premium wool and meat from a farm that is conscious of their carbon footprint.
At Lake Hāwea Station, they have a staff of four who look after the day-to-day running of the stock. As a business, they are big advocates for the welfare of their staff. “There’s a lot of talk in the rural sector about mental health and staff welfare. And it is a very important topic,” Geoff said. “We’ve experienced that, in the two years we’ve been farming here, there are days where you are overwhelmed and there’s so much new stuff coming at farmers right now. There is the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), water, council rules, exchange rates, foreign market moves, COVID-19, your finances, interest rates. Then underneath all that, you’ve got to farm. You’ve got to get out and do some work and produce fantastic food and fibre.”
“I don’t know of any sector where you have that amount of diversity in your day thrust upon you."
"So, it’s busy, and it’s big. I think that is possibly why at times, there’s a bit of fragility in mental health and farming.”
Geoff talked about a few things we can all do a little better when it comes to taking care of our mental health and wellness in the rural and agricultural sector:<br><br>1. Share how you’re feeling<br><br>2. Get off-farm and take breaks<br><br>3. Do other forms of exercise<br><br>4. Healthy eating<br><br>5. Stay curious
BECOMING CARBON ZERO
Lake Hāwea Station calculated their carbon emissions through a programme called Overseer, giving them a number for how much they are emitting, which was then checked and audited. The majority of their emissions were produced through their livestock and a few tractor hours. But Geoff said that 95% of what the Station emitted was through methane. What they also measured was the amount of carbon that the farm sequestered. This was through the growth of regenerating gullies of kānuka and new forests starting to emerge. Due to this, they sequestered more carbon than what they were emitting, making Lake Hāwea Station carbon positive.
Toitū, an organisation dedicated to creating positive change for our people and the environment came and audited Lake Hāwea Station. The team of experts at Toitū measure and certify businesses’ carbon footprint and with that said, Lake Hāwea Station has been named the first farm in New Zealand to be certified carbon zero.
Geoff said that measuring your carbon footprint is not as difficult as you might first think. “There are various programmes and online calculators that you can have the first crack at it - Trees That Count has one. Also, a programme called Overseer is very good at calculating your emissions profile. We used Overseer that gave us a number for how much we’re emitting,” Geoff said.
The Station then got someone in to take a look around the hills to see if there were any new plantings or woodlots. Geoff mentioned that they also had a digital map of the farm that they used to measure and calculate their emissions, as well as getting tables from MPI to input information, including forest type, age, and tonnes per hectare. The process once you’ve collected your farm’s carbon information is to add up all of the carbon that you’re emitting and then minus it by all the carbon you’re sequestering and hopefully, you’ll end up with a positive outcome.
The biggest emitter that most farmers will see on-farm will be methane from their stock. However, Geoff believes that you can build stock numbers and reduce your carbon footprint at the same time. “There’s some cool stuff going on in that space that’s going to potentially help us lower our methane output without having to compromise our production. One of those things is seaweed."
"There’s a seaweed in Australia called Asparagopsis taxiformis. Early trials show that it will reduce methane output of stock by 90%”
There have been differing opinions on the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), whether positive or negative, but for Geoff, he said to look at it as an opportunity. “Emissions trading is going to be part of the new world we live in. The ideal would be having no emissions, right? That’s what it’s trying to do. No one is very fond of taxes but we, as New Zealand farmers, can avoid emissions tax if we’re carbon positive. The opportunity to make money is to sell those as carbon credits. So, in a net balance, I think it’s an opportunity for New Zealand farming.”
When looking at regenerative agriculture, Geoff mentioned that the term has different meanings for a lot of people, but the main focus is on the principles. “If there’s more life above the soil, there’s going to be more life below the soil,” Geoff said. “So regenerative agriculture should be better for the animals having more diversity in their diet, better for the soil with more nutrient exchange going on below our feet. Then ultimately better for the planet, because the soil is building up organic matter and carbon. That means there’s carbon coming out of the atmosphere and into the soil.”
Their “North Star” at Lake Hāwea Station is carbon. That is what they’re known for - the sequestration of carbon and supplying premium products to customers all over the world. “If we’re going to heal the planet, it’s because we’ve got to emit less carbon. Regenerative agriculture is one of the great emerging tools to enable us to do that.”
“Some studies are going to be underway soon in what regenerative agricultural will do to methane to reduce it. So, if we’ve got a diverse diet and our stomachs are happy and behaving, our methane outputs are going to be less than if we only ever ate lettuce all year. So, if that’s true in animals, which I suspect it is, it’s another case for diverse regenerative diets.”
Geoff discussed the fact that we’re only measuring trees when looking at carbon sequestration efforts. However, over time, hopefully this will include regenerative pastures and the carbon that is sequestered from having healthy soil.
ANIMAL WELFARE AND APPAREL
As a business, they pride themselves on their animal welfare practices, which also plays a large role in their brand proposition to their customers worldwide. “I think it’s important to all farmers as they do care about their stock. But it’s really important to our customers as well,” Geoff said.
“We have a customer called Sheep Inc, which stands for Sheep Included. As crazy as it sounds to us, some of the customers think a sheep is killed to be shorn. They don’t understand the process of actually getting wool from the sheep. The fact that it’s really important to remove the wool, as it’s better for the sheep. If they’re shorn regularly, they perform better and they’re healthier.”
Lake Hāwea Station has applied safe and healthy animal practices where they’ve added mattresses at the bottom of the chute after shearing so that the sheep land softly and don’t get injured.
Geoff and the team at Lake Hāwea Station have a merino flock of around 17.5-18 microns. A lot of their wool goes to making sweaters in the United Kingdom. Geoff said being a merino farmer, you cannot help but fall in love with the product and mentioned that natural fibre should take a far bigger part in our clothing in the future.
“Recently we’ve all seen the banning of the plastic bag, and in time could that mean we’re going to ban plastic clothing? You know, 80% of the world’s clothing is made from synthetics,” Geoff said. “We’re hearing stories of when you wash synthetic products, microplastics are going into our water. Synthetic products are made as a by-product of the petroleum industry. That’s not good, either. I’m hopeful, just as they banned plastic bags, there’s going to be a time where they ban plastic clothes. Because that is such a huge opportunity for wool, for sure. But other natural fibres as well,” Geoff continued.
FUTURE PLANS MOVING FORWARD
The goal for Lake Hāwea Station moving forward is to continue to improve their carbon position further and make connections with customers offshore. Geoff talked about brands like Sheep Inc and Allbirds, who both supply carbon-positive products. They hope to use their carbon zero position as part of their brand story.
Geoff believes that the New Zealand farming community as a whole is a very entrepreneurial group that is good at sharing information. This helps in the effort towards building new opportunities for New Zealand farmers as our natural products are incredibly important.
“This is why I think New Zealand has a distinct opportunity over our agricultural competitors worldwide because we’re largely pastoral farmers. So already, we’re further advanced than those who are raising animals in barns and feedlots."
"Our carbon footprint is already less, our animal welfare is already better. The opportunity isn’t to necessarily be threatened by some of these incoming changes. The opportunity is to actually embrace them and move our pastoral grazing, our carbon footprint, and our regenerative practices forward."
"We can own them, we can be leaders in them, and therefore, we will be leaders in agriculture worldwide.”
Geoff went on to conclude, “The future of farming in New Zealand, I think is really exciting. which is what’s drawn us to farming. I think we’re on the cusp of a new era, where consumers around the world do care about where their food and fibre come from,” Geoff said. “Therein lies the opportunity for New Zealand farmers. We should be proud of what we’re doing here and be ready to showcase it to the world.”