The Stewart family recently took part in a massive planting programme on their farm near Ashburton which was conducted in partnership with Synlait. Anne Lee pulled on her gumboots and headed along to find out more.

Three generations of the Stewart family were on hand in late April to take part in a major planting programme on their farm made possible by their milk company Synlait’s Whakapuāwai programme.

More than 8000 native trees, shrubs and grasses were planted along 2km of waterways in just three days thanks to the company, keen Synlait staff, ecological contractors Brailsfords – with their innovative planting methods – and of course the family themselves.

Whakapuāwai was launched last year and means to cause to blossom, flourish and thrive.

It’s multi-pronged and includes the establishment of the company’s own nursery at its Dunsandel site, the development of a 15ha native landscape haven behind the site, planting programmes on suppliers’ properties and, in the longer-term, community restoration projects within the company’s milk collection area.

Synlait supplies the plants and its staff, who receive a paid day each year to volunteer for planting and working outdoors in the programme.

The Stewart’s farm at Green Street near Ashburton has been in the family for three generations.

Currently farmed by Mark and Stacey Stewart and Mark’s brother TJ with help from their parents David and Maree, the farm was converted in 1982 by David and his father Rod.

It’s one of the earlier conversions on the plains and came about after David suggested it could be an option when he returned to the farm in his twenties after working in the North Island on a family friend’s dairy farm.

In its first year they milked 110 cows and lambed 800 ewes but by the next year they had sold the sheep and milked 150 Holstein Friesian cows.

Now, the 200ha farm is home to 550 Holstein Friesians with a few Reds in the mix too. They calve twice-a-year and have a winter milk contract with Synlait.

This year they’ll milk about 360 cows through the winter thanks to a 550-stall cubicle barn built about six years ago and aim to eventually winter milk about 70% of the herd and spring calve the rest.

The farm has come a long way from the border-dyke sheep and cattle farm of its earlier years and the whole family is enthusiastic about the next stage of development that will see planting to enhance biodiversity, bring in the native birds and protect water quality.

The South branch of the Ashburton River borders the farm and while the soils are variable, in some places the water table is just 50cm below the surface. Last season the family planted out a wetland area and this year the big project has been to plant out two snaking waterways that, although dry for short periods sometimes through the summer, carry significant flows for most of the year.

The waterways have all been fenced off but the planting was going to be a significant investment in time and money.

“That’s where this has been so amazing,” Stacey says.

“Having all of these plants supplied and the people to come and plant them all so quickly – it’s actually been a fantastic experience to be involved with,” David says.


Whakapuawai programme eases planting costs

Under the Whakapuāwai programme farmers’ only cost is in preparing the site, ensuring its fenced and cleared of broom, gorse or blackberry and other weeds.

The plants and labour to plant them is covered by the company.

In a situation where Synlait staff are coming in to do the planting, Synlait’s contracted nursery and ecological landscape specialists come in and make a plan, work out how many plants will be needed and what species should go where. Rick Wisker from Millwood Nursery in Rakaia also runs the Synlait nursery and works with Brailsfords to plan and manage the planting programme on site.

It’s Stephen Brailsford’s innovative planting system that includes a patented protective plant SeedlingSock, a digger-mounted, spot-cultivation tool to prepare each planting hole and a colour coded planting guide that has made for exceptionally efficient planting. It’s seen an increase in planting rates from eight plants per person per hour during last season’s Whakapuāwai planting to 25 plants/ person/hour this year.

The spot cultivation for each plant site is done at the correct spacing and means the ground where each plant will go is easy to identify and easy to plant into – often only requiring a trowel. The planting area is then marked out using different colour spray

dyes which coordinate with the colours on plant boxes.

“Here at the Stewart’s we’ve gone right along the water way and sprayed a different colour dot at various points up the bank and that tells the planters which type of plants to put there.

“The pink dot area will be for plants in the boxes with a pink tag and they’re the plants we know are suited to dry conditions.

“There’s a range of plants in each box – so in the pink boxes plants will include a range of coprosmas, kanuka and cabbage trees for instance, good for the drier areas.

“The blue dot areas are the wet areas and that’s where we’ll plant Carex secta for instance because it will let the flood flows pass through it.

“There’s no digging in the hard ground using this system or spending time thinking about what plant should go where and no one needs to come along putting the guards on.”

Connecting Synlait with the environment

Synlait director sustainability and brand Hamish Reid says Whakapuāwai came about as a way to connect Synlait staff with the environmental challenges the industry faces, build a greater connection with the company’s farmer suppliers and supply chain and make environmental improvements.

“It gives our people a sense of contribution towards environmental challenges and helps our farmers with something they have a huge amount of enthusiasm for but not necessarily the time or resources,” Hamish says.

The Dunsandel site nursery, which also boasts innovations such as automated potting equipment, will eventually be able to propagate more than 800,000 plants a year,

Initially the company set a lofty goal to plant 4 million trees within 10 years.

“I think that will be a bit of a stretch but we’ll plant 80,000 this financial year (between August 1 and July 31) and we’ll get close to our goals.”

Synlait also offers its suppliers a click and collect option where farmers can order and pick up plants for free to then do their own planting.

This year it’s given away 20,000 plants.

The planting day became a family affair. Stacey and Mark Stewart with Mark’s parents Maree and David along with James, 3, Paige 10, and Olivia, 7.

“We’ve had a huge amount of enthusiasm from farmers. They let us know how many they want each year and then we try to allocate them as fairly as possible,” he says.

Work will also get underway next financial year to build a walking track around the perimeter of the 15ha site planned for native planting and restoration.

“We want to create an area where our people can get out, have walking meetings rather than sitting in the office, a place they can connect with nature.”

Whakapuāwai is a significant investment with money previously allocated to a range of community sponsorships now directed to it.

“It’s where we think we can make the biggest contribution to the community,” Hamish says.

Every year a proportion of company profit is budgeted for the programme so this year’s hit on profit due to Covid-19 related issues is likely to mean short-term scaling up the programme won’t be at the rate initially envisaged, he says.

“But we see it as a very good return on investment – it’s building our culture with our staff, it’s supporting our farmers and community and it’s doing good for the environment.”

Seedling Sock system speeds up planting process

Stephen Brailsford’s SeedlingSock is part of his innovative planting system that’s not only speeding up the process of getting plants in the ground, it’s making it easier on those doing the planting and importantly is resulting in improved survival rates.

Steve’s no stranger to coming up with smart ideas – he was the original inventor of CombiGuard – the plastic sleeve with four bamboo stakes and a wool base that goes around plants to protect them from rabbits and other pests as well as wind and makes them easy to find and spray around.

Unfortunately for him he didn’t patent the idea but not so with this new planting system which he has international patents for.

Instead of having to put guards on after the plants go into the ground, Steve’s system involves taking the plants out of the root trainer and sliding the plants down into a guard, aptly named the SeedlingSock which has elongated straps, like stirrups at the bottom that go down and under the soil and roots that were in the root trainer.

The plant sits down on the stirrups with the guard around the above ground part of the plant.

He has developed a simple machine to make slipping the plants out of the root trainer and into the SeedlingSock quick and easy.

Once in the sock the well-watered plants are placed into boxes and kept damp until planting out.

The system means the plant and SeedlingSock can all be placed into the planting hole and planted in one go.

A bamboo stake sits inside the guard to hold it all upright and offer the plant some support as it grows.

The sock is perforated and as the plant grows it can bust it open so it doesn’t deform or inhibit the plant.

It is made from plastic so after about two years, once the plant is well established it can be collected up and recycled.

“We’re working on a biodegradable material that will last long enough to protect the plant and then break down naturally,” Steve says.