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Homing in On Sustainability: Patoa Farms

Patoa Farms is the largest pig farm in New Zealand, dedicated to a system that focuses on sustainable farming practices. This includes the production of 100,000 pigs per year, within an ecosystem where all straw and manure from the farm is recycled or repurposed. The vision for the business was birthed when Steve Sterne and Jens Ravn’s two families joined forces with a shared goal of farming pigs sustainably and in their most natural habitat – outdoors.

Established in 1998, Patoa Farms is known for its large number of pigs and high-quality pork products. The farm is surrounded by the beautiful North Canterbury countryside, with the Hurunui River flowing nearby. Across 450 hectares, they free-farm 5,000 sows and their piglets, who roam through large paddocks with straw-based shelters used for farrowing. Postweaning, they have roughly around 30,000 piglets housed in eco barns with deep straw litter. They have more land on either side of the farm which they lease out to cropping.

Twenty years on, the farm makes use of innovative technology to ensure the pigs' health and comfort, and prioritises animal welfare and environmentally friendly methods in their operations. Tjaart Grové, general manager of Patoa Farms said, “We use straw bedding for our pigs, which we turn into compost. Interestingly enough, the straw that we buy from the farmers in Canterbury is the straw that gets composted. The farmers then take a lot of the compost back and put it on their own paddocks, so it’s quite a nice cycle. Even transport-wise it's very efficient, because they bring a load of straw and then take a load of compost back.”

“In terms of making sure we look after the land, we deal with consultants to help us with our soil nutrient budgeting, to make sure we use it in a sustainable way long-term. We get all the audits from Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) to make sure that we stay on the straight and narrow with regards to what land we can use and can’t use,” he added.

Originally from South Africa, Tjaart grew up on a farm which gave him the desire to study agriculture. Tjaart has a wealth of experience, having worked with a diverse range of animals, including dry-stock beef, ostriches, chickens and now pigs. After finishing his studies, he started working at an ostrich farm just up the road from where he lived. The farm had a lot going for it, exporting all their meat to Europe and even holding a tannery on site where they turned ostrich skins into leather. He then worked with beef cattle before emigrating to New Zealand 17 years ago, where he started working on a broiler chicken farm. Tjaart left agriculture for ten years to become a quantity surveyor and project manager, where he spent time working on the Canterbury rebuild. It was through this project that he became friends with the owners of Patoa Farms. This is when he decided to come back to his first love, farming, and realised that he couldn’t stand city life in the end. Tjaart ended up working at Patoa Farms as the project manager, and over the next six years, he slowly developed into his current role as general manager of the breeding herd.

Before becoming general manager, Tjaart was a herd manager, working first-hand with the animals. Within his new role, he deals a lot more with people management, recruitment, and health and safety protocols. Patoa Farms employs 55 workers plus a few casuals. They work a lot with the Rural Exchange Programme, so they have a few students doing their practical work on the farm. “One thing we do very well as a farm is we are very flexible with our work hours to value the welfare of our team."

Tjaart mentioned that they have a tracking system to make sure staff are only working their usual 40 hours per week. They have policies in place on the farm where you’re not allowed to work over nine consecutive days. "A large part of mental health is your state of mind. There's a lot you can do to help your workers, such as making sure people are well looked after and not overworked."

When Jens and Anne Ravn retired from the business in 2013, Steve and his daughter Holly continued the legacy, producing free-farmed pork for Countdown supermarkets nationwide. The business is PigCare™ accredited, which means that their farm has met the industry requirements and has high animal welfare standards on farm. "One of the biggest strengths is our size; being the largest pig farm in New Zealand, it makes a big difference in terms of market opportunties. When people who have previously worked here come back to visit the place, they recognise that the farm is constantly improving infrastructure and technology. Although it's a big company, it's still a family-orientated business. It's still small enough that you can take the values from a small farm, like reasonably quick decision turnarounds, making it a bit more agile than a big company in terms of processes,” Tjaart said.

When Tjaart is not working at Patoa Farms, he finds solace in playing squash for the North Canterbury interclub circuit. He’s also involved in his local golf club and enjoys tramping adventures with family and friends. Tjaart enjoys a good work-life balance, and wants the same for their workers. “We’re not looking to grow numbers, but instead consolidate and improve what we've got. We're definitely in the process of land development and making improvements where we can to be more functional and effective. I suppose, for us, the biggest thing is staff culture and how we can work and continually improve that.”

Tjaart mentioned that within the pork industry, there seems to be a holding pattern as the uncertainty surrounding regulations continues, whereby people might be a bit hesitant to invest in something that is still pending. “The advantage of pig farming in New Zealand is the flexibility of securing your place in the market. When a product needs to be imported, it may not be as flexible. In terms of the meat produced in New Zealand, pigs have a pretty low carbon footprint. Our animal health and welfare is of a high standard and that should be a huge benefit to our New Zealand consumers,” Tjaart concluded.