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Those who were present at our January meeting were privileged to have local resident Heather Atkinson as our guest speaker. In 1988 Heather, together with her late husband Ian, decided to convert their Pirinoa family farm, Wharerata, into a resilient, organic unit, obtaining certification from BioGroNZ  in 1990. The 244 ha farm has 8.5 ha in native regeneration under a QE2 covenant and 13.5 ha planted in eucalyptus. There are 6 km of native-planted shelter belts established by surrounding each tree with a square of carpet to suppress weed growth, retain water and provide mulch.

The farm carries 400 ewes and 150 hoggets, 250 dairy heifers being raised under contract, around 40 beef cattle and a herd of breeding red deer hinds. The diverse pasture is grown from 14 plant varieties, some deep-rooted and less vulnerable in drought. Recycling of animal manure into the pasture is greatly accelerated by dung beetles. The first release of dung beetles in the North Island was at Wharerata. “They should have been brought into the country at the same time as settlers introduced grazing animals,” said Heather.

Organic crops of wheat, barley, lucerne, buckwheat and chia have been grown as well as kale, brassicas and turnips for winter stock feed. The farm is self-sustaining in that no feed is bought in, and no pesticide sprays are used. Fish fertiliser was used early on with a range of approved fertilizers more recently. The ground for cropping is cultivated strategically to optimise weed growth and subsequent disruption of weed growth and avoiding the need for spraying or mechanical weeding. Firewood is harvested from coppiced trees.

Through selective breeding from Border Leicester, Romney and other breeds and by selective culling of those that didn’t measure up, their sheep are “clear pointed” (faces and lower legs clear of wool), free of foot rot and dags, and don’t require dips, drenches or vaccines.

Wharerata was one of the first licensed deer farms in the North Island. Their original stock was captured in the vicinity of Wairarapa both from the Aorangi’s and the Western Lake areas Venison (cervena) is exported directly to Germany and Europe for the restaurant trade. Marketing of organic lamb in New Zealand was an early challenge for Ian and Heather. Only about 10% of the NZ population tends to buy organically produced food and a good proportion of that 10% are vegetarians. However, they formed a close association with a butcher in Cuba Street, Wellington, who developed a faithful clientele. They also developed a mail order business and often sold at farmers’ markets.

The eucalypt plantation is experimental. In association with the NZ Dry Forests Initiative, they planted 137 families  of one eucalypt variety (Globoidea), totalling 10.000 trees. They were looking  for varieties with straight trunks and “ground durability”, one of the goals being to have a source of long-lasting wooden fence posts that did not need chemical treatment. The young trees were not irrigated, testing their ability to develop deep roots. 

Their overarching goal for their farming business was to achieve resilience in the face of natural variations of climate. In their early days they were ridiculed, later they encountered opposition. Now, after 30 years, many of the practices they have pioneered are accepted as self-evident.

The South Wairarapa Rebus Club meets in the South Wairarapa Working Men’s Club on the fourth Friday morning of each month and organises an outing in those months with a fifth Friday. Anyone in the retired age group who may be interested in SW Rebus Club is welcome to come along to a meeting as a visitor.  Please contact David Woodhams 306 8319.

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