Anders & Emily Crofoot, Wairarapa
When New Yorkers Anders & Emily Crofoot took over Castlepoint Station on the eastern Wairarapa coast in 1998, they had to make some big adjustments, quickly. Gone were the freezing winters and reliable summer rains. In their place were year-round growth, frequent summer droughts and relentless wind.
High winds, poor soil, dry summers and erosion do not make coastal Wairarapa the easiest place to farm.
The task is even more challenging when you're new to the country and need time to work through best farming practices for the area. Here's one man's story.
We've been here for 21 years now. The area we came from was about an hour north of New York city.
It wasn't as different for us as people might imagine. In fact it's somewhat amusing that we'd actually never lived closer to a shop.
Castlepoint has a little store. We'd never been on public sewerage and we'd never had street lights outside of our house.
So in some respects coming to Castlepoint was more urban than where we came from in New York state.
That first month we were here was incredibily windy because it was during the equinox when the winds are strongest.
We weren't quite sure what we'd run into at that point. One of the conventionally cultivated paddocks was getting re-grassed.
About a third of the paddock, all the seed got blown out to sea. We weren't very impressed with that, and we resowed it.
And about a third of that got blown out. We finally got everything in but we decided there must be a better way of regrassing than full conventional cultivation.
Being summer dry and having a high wind run through the spring means that we don't necessarily do things traditionally.
What we've found with traditional ploughing is you're opening the soil up.
If you've got a lot of wind blowing then your topsoil's getting blown out to sea. Which doesn't do anybody any good.
That's why we've settled on direct drilling for establishing as much as we can. That leaves the soil intact, so even when it's windy it doesn't blow away.
We find even after forage crops like rape or kale which we'll use as a winter crop - when that gets grazed off there is a fair bit of open dirt.
But because it's all compacted and the roots are still there to hold it, it doesn't really blow away.
You can see the difference in the paddock - you may have some open ground but it's not dusty. Whereas on the farm tracks you'll see dust blowing all over the place.
We do about 1000 to 1500 poplar and willow poles each year. The point of that is to stabilise the slopes.
The hills here are quite prone to slips and the deep roots of the poplars help keep the hills from slipping during the winter months.
They're also really useful as shade for the livestock during the summer.
Every farmer wants to leave the land better than when they found it.
Now we're looking into different species of plants that we can grow to make better use of the limited moisture we get.
We've looked at things like lucerne. We're looking at introducing dung beetles. They're very interesting because they take manure and put it down into the soil.
They also open up some nice deep channels for the moisture to get down. They're quite an interesting animal.
I think looking after soil carbon is actually about using good farming practices. There's probably no silver bullet, it's just doing everything as well as you can.
For us direct drilling is a big part of it, other people might do minimal cultivation.
The idea is you don't want to turn over the soil if you don't have to.
Let it sit there in a good state, let the bugs do their thing and let the roots go down and develop it.
A lot of the practices that are good for soil carbon are basically just good agricultural practice.
And having good soil carbon means that you're going to have good organic matter which means that everything's actually working well.
We have no regrets about coming to NZ. It's a fantastic part of the world.
We feel really privileged to be at Castlepoint station and be the latest generation of many stewards of the land who have looked after it for many years.
So let's sum that up. Despite the ongoing challenge of wind and drought, Anders is visibly improving the condition and stability of his soil.
He's doing this through sound farming practices. At the same time he's increasing his lambing percentages and weaning weights.
Some of his actions have probably helped to preserve or even boost his soil carbon too, but precise measurement would be needed to verify that.
Right now, researchers are investigating how various farming practices affect soil carbon under different land uses, climate zones and soil types. And how to measure any changes.
You'll find information about this research on www.agmatters.nz
Along with more videos about NZ farmers working hard to manage their land sustainably. Make sure you check them out.
Coping with nature’s assaults
Anders and Emily quickly discovered that looking after their soil required a shift from traditional thinking and practice.
Two attempts at sowing pasture in a conventionally cultivated paddock—and two spring gales that blew about a third of the seed straight out to sea each time—convinced the Crofoots that there had to be a better way to establish pasture in this climate.
And that's been a theme throughout their 20+ years on Castlepoint Station, a 3,700-hectare sheep and beef operation about 65 kilometres due east of Masterton.
Weather and topography are constant challenges.
In winter, pugging and hillside slippage are problems. In summer, it's dryness. But it's the wind that Anders describes as the most striking feature of the property. In his first year at Castlepoint, a storm with sustained winds of 160 km/h struck. He'd never experienced anything like it. Now he barely blinks unless the wind rises above 120 km/h.
The station has three alluvial valleys, separated by hills that in some places run north-south and in others east-west. That variable aspect, coupled with the relentless northwesterly winds and periods of dry, create pockets where maintaining soil productivity is extremely difficult.
In these conditions, some of the traditional practices weren’t working well.
They now sow by direct drilling to reduce soil disturbance and wind erosion. They are also experimenting with deeper-rooting forages, such as lucerne and plantain, that extract moisture from the soil more effectively without compromising feed quality. Their roots also help to hold the soil together during periods of fallow.
Dung beetles are now also part of the mix. In theory, they can help to improve soil productivity by pulling nutrient-rich manure deeper into the soil and opening up channels through which more moisture can flow.
About 15,000 poplar and willow poles stabilise hillsides prone to slipping in winter and provide shade for livestock in summer.
And there's been some tweaking of animal numbers over the years to optimise the stocking rate/productivity mix, as well as a focus on high-value outputs like Wagyu beef to shore up the business against market vagaries.
Anders says that while they've made something of a shift from the conventional, everything they're doing to look after the soil and fine tune the system is simply “good farming practice”.
Their actions have seen lambing percentages and weaning weights increase, while the soil is visibly richer in organic matter and better able to cope with nature's harshest assaults.
And those assaults will inevitably keep coming.