Conversion to organic dairying has seen Tataiwhetu Trust win awards across the industry. By Elaine Fisher.

Winning the 2021 Ahuwhenua Trophy for excellence in Maori farming did not just set a standard for Tataiwhetu Trust but for Maoridom, trust chairman Paki Nikora says.

“The win is not just for ourselves, but also for Maoridom as it helps set a platform for others to strive to achieve.”

The trust, which milks 432 Kiwicross cows on an organic dairy farm in the Ruatoki Valley, south of Whakatane, received the supreme award at an event in New Plymouth in June.

“We are still trying to fathom out for ourselves how we won it,” Paki says, in September. “It’s still sinking in. We were like stunned mullets when we were announced the winner. Winning has been an uplifting experience for everyone involved including our beneficiaries.”

Documenting the smiles on the faces of the Tataiwhetu Trust farm team.

However, the trust almost didn’t enter the awards. “When we were asked to consider it, we felt we were not good enough; there was still so much to do.”

Tataiwhetu Trust proved to be much more than “good enough” across all aspects against which the trophy is judged. Criteria include: knowledge of the industry; contribution to and participation with the community/ngā tikanga Māori and a commitment to Māoritanga; goals and plans for the future; learning and development; awareness of health and safety practices; understanding of management practices and goals and knowledge of environmental factors that impact the business.

Even before putting itself under the judges’ scrutiny, the trust had identified that the environment and its people were to be the priority, alongside financial returns. The move to organics, which began with transition in 2015, was driven by a strong desire to minimise the impact of the farm on the wider environment and improve overall animal and human wellbeing.

While the conversion from conventional to fully certified organic and reducing stocking rates has impacted on dairy operating profit, the net return of $1946 per hectare for the 2019/20 season is closer to the Bay of Plenty (owner operator) benchmark of $2215/hectare. This is driven, in the main, by the high payment received – $9.09/kg milksolids (MS).

“We are farming in a fragile environment and our farm is subject to flooding. We lost 22 hectares as a result of floods and the 2017 flood alone cost us $1,700,000.

“I believe it is possible to tame the river to meander through its bed without causing big floods. I don’t agree with the regional council’s management of the rivers and the Resource Management Act and the need to consult iwi impacts on what we can do.”

The 184ha effective milking platform borders the Ōhinemataroa (Whakatane) river and a more recently purchased 50ha support block borders the Tauranga (Waimana) river. This property is certified organic and is used to raise R1 and R2 heifers. The climate varies from 2C in winter to 38C in summer and annual rainfall is 1629mm.

One of the trust’s biggest strengths is its freehold land, left by ancestors and parents of current beneficiaries. The initial development was guided by kaumātua Frank Vercoe 23 years ago, who left today’s beneficiaries a virtually debt-free base farm. This has become a significant launching platform for trustees to grow the business.

In addition to the sense of pride the win has brought the trust, other benefits include wider collaboration with others from all sectors of the dairy industry as well as local bodies and government agencies.

“I have always been an advocate for collaboration as you can’t work successfully in isolation, and I would like others in Maoridom to realise that too. The awards have opened doors for us including from the government which I sense wants Maori to excel in all areas so we can stand on our own two feet.”

Collaboration is clearly set out in the trust’s goals which include: “to work with all associated companies, training establishments, land trusts and local schools, to upskill our younger generations into areas of agriculture, horticulture, apiculture, aquaculture and biodiversity management. To be leaders in these fields for the betterment of our current and future generations while creating future employment for whānau on their ancestral lands”.

Conversion to organic supply

The trust spent the seasons from 2016 to 2019 working through the process of converting to organic supply. This required accepting lower returns for three seasons as the number of stock units per hectare decreased. Fonterra’s payment of an extra 45c per kg of milksolids above the conventional milk price helped through the transition phase.

The stocking rate has decreased from 3.2 cows/ha (pre-organic) to 2.4 to align the farm with the Organic Industry Standards and traditional fertilisers previously used to stimulate pasture growth to sustain higher cow numbers are no longer used.

Organic management also excludes the use of herbicides.

“We are fine with that. We did not see the sense in applying more poisons to Papatūānuku, and wish to remain true to the belief that if we care for Papatūānuku, she will care for us.”

Now in its second season of receiving the full organic premium, the Tataiwhetu Trust has been recognised by Fonterra as one of the quickest to complete the conversion process and received the Fonterra Organic Award for the 2018-19 season.

The farm is now 100% pasture-based since organic conversion in 2017 and all supplements are made onfarm and on the farm’s organic support blocks.

Natural pasture growth is boosted with strategic applications of BioSea fish fertiliser. To maximise the potential plant growth from the fish fertiliser, applications are timed to coincide with when the natural conversion of soil ammonia to nitrate is occurring.

All stock are wintered on support blocks for six weeks which allows the farm’s soils and pastures to recover. A four year re-grassing programme is in place, which started last season. This season a 5ha crop cover trial will also be added. The main goal is to diversify pasture species to fit the Organic Management Plan.

Pasture cover is monitored by staff with pasture walks, plate measuring, and use of pasture satellite information. Soil type is fine sandy loam. The parent material is alluvium derived from greywacke and rhyolitic tephra. These soils are well-drained and subject to infrequent flooding.

The farm undertakes total soil carbon monitoring, soil mineral testing, milk urea nitrogen monitoring, forage mineral testing and farm water runoff testing. This data is used in a farm environment report to show the influence farming activities have on the environment.

Soil tests are now on an annual basis and samples are tested at Brookside laboratories.

“They were chosen because they have tailored the laboratory extractions to match the characteristics of typical New Zealand soils and they have no affiliation to any fertiliser supplier.”

Nutrient loss to the environment is monitored and mitigated by utilising the information contained in the Fonterra-supplied daily milk urea nitrogen (MUN) report, and the monitoring for freshwater contamination is based on this data.

The trust is implementing the Dung Beetles Innovations Ltd release programme with colonies of four species released so far.

“We consider the decision to transition from conventional farming to organic farming as being bold and innovative, and the environmental and financial benefits are now becoming apparent. Downsizing stock units per hectare by 22%, once-a-day milking and back to seasonal milking have all had positive outcomes for our land, stock, staff and shareholders.”

Energy efficiency in the dairy shed has been a focus too, with the addition of upgraded milk cooling and heat pump technology to cut energy use and cost. Pre-chilling milk using a three-stage process cuts energy and peak power draw further, while increasing milk quality compliance.

Other technologies include a LIC Protrack® three-way drafting system and LIC satellite technology SPACE™ for pasture monitoring and management. Staff also use the phone apps: Fonterra, MINDA, Levno milk and fuel monitoring and security cameras have been installed.

The trust’s focus is on far more than farming. It fosters an excellent connection with both the local and wider community, particularly through grants and scholarships and involvement with local schools. This includes using the farm to support training of school students.

There is a strong commitment to employ local people highlighted by both the farm staff and managers being tāngata whenua.

“We have a policy of offering opportunities to shareholders first and we support and encourage their industry training.”

The farm’s four staff are iwi beneficiaries who connect to the land and form part of the trust succession plan. One of the objectives of transitioning to once-a-day milking was because the trust realised that happy cows and happy staff coincided.

“We therefore ensure that management and staff get a living wage or better, plus get quality time with their families. The reward to the trust is that we have never had any staffing issues.”

Paki’s goal is to see more people return to the land.

“Maori have a spiritual connection to the land and for many that has been lost when they have left because there was no work.”

Tataiwhetu Trust forms part of a local cluster group called Rūātoki Farm and Land Trusts Group (RF&LT) for which Paki is the chairman.

This cluster is a collective of four dairy farms, one dry stock unit, an exotic forestry trust and an indigenous forestry trust forming a total land area of 19,000ha.

“The intention has always been to create economic benefit for our local whānau and hapū, plus research alternative diversification and land use options.

“The long-term goal is to create local employment, create papakāinga housing around each of our 12 marae and permit our youth to grow within their tikanga, kawa and hapūtanga, fostered by their families and kaumātua, plus respect our spiritual, cultural, historical, genealogical and environmental values.

“We recognise that succession has been a problem regarding governance and operations. RF&LT offered our farm to MPI and PrimaryITO for practical training and has coordinated meetings with the Rūātoki Secondary School, plus PrimaryITO officials, to facilitate the technical training programme.

“After four years of perseverance this was agreed to and commenced in February 2021. Of the first 15 young people to take part in the scheme, 12 are still actively involved.”

Active involvement with the land, the farms and the wider community extends to members of the trust’s board too. Originally known as Ngatirongo Trust, Tataiwhetu Trust has one trustee each representing the six original ancestral landowners who aggregated their lands to form the trust.

“As well as governance roles, several of us are also hands-on on the farms. The trustees have also been attending rural governance training workshops facilitated by DairyNZ,” Paki says.

It is more than fitting that Tataiwhetu Trust should be holders of the Ahuwhenua Trophy because visionary Māori leader Sir Apirana Ngata and the Governor General at the time Lord Bledisloe, who originally launched the prestigious award for Māori agriculture in 1933, both played significant roles in the trust’s own history.

Aggregated land supports tangata whenua

In 1921 Sir Apirana Ngata held a land consolidation meeting on Tauarau Marae for over a month, with the view of subdividing the land into productive units to sustain the living requirements of Tūhoe families. Nine years later Lord Bledisloe visited Rūātoki to monitor the progress of this scheme.

In the mid-1950s it was recognised that the land blocks owned by the families were too small, plus locals were starting with cull cows from European farmers and couldn’t meet production expectations.

“Tūhoe families walked off the land to seek more constructive employment and income from the Tasman Mill in Kawerau. Between 1960 and 1980 the land was left desolate and our ancestors and parents strived to find the answers to fully utilise the land again.”

Finally in 1986 six Ngatirongo families agreed to combine their lands to form the Ngatirongo Trust Farm. Nine blocks were aggregated giving a total start-up area of 98ha with a usable dairy platform of 80ha. Successive adjoining land blocks were then leased to give a total dairy platform of 184ha.

“Because our name was Ngatirongo Trust Farm, there was a perception that all of Ngatirongo hapū were beneficiaries in our lands, but they were not. So, in 2014 the name was changed to Tataiwhetu Trust, which means that the original six families are the only descendants of our ancestral lands.”

Tataiwhetu Trust has two sites of cultural significance within its land blocks, both of which are protected from disturbance. Te Taumata Pā was one of the pā where eponymous ancestor Tūhoe Pōtiki resided. Puketi Pā, which was known as ‘Te Heteri o te Urewera’, has been restored by the Trust in conjunction with Tūhoe Pūtaiao Trust, supported by Ngā Whenua Rāhui. The purpose of these restorations is to build an appreciation and spiritual connection by local people for the beauty of the land, and to be active kaitiaki of the land and taonga.