Case study: Omarama Station, Mackenzie Country

Mackenzie Basin 1 April 2015

With diverse income streams including a homestay and hydro-electricity generation, as well as meat and wool, this family-owned property is no traditional high country station.

Straddling the main road on the south side of Omarama village is a 12,000ha property farmed by Richard and Annabelle Subtil, supreme winners of 2015 Canterbury Ballance Farm Environment Awards (BFEA).

At a BFEA ceremony last week, the Subtils also collected the Massey University Innovation Award, WaterForce Integrated Management Award, Ballance Agri-Nutrients Soil Management Award and the Environment Canterbury Water Quality Award.

Annabelle is third generation on this glacial Omarama Basin property. The couple took over from her parents Dick and Beth Wardell in 2000. They have two children, Emma (17) and Henry (15). Stock manager is John Mathias and shepherd, Sarah Scott. The 23,000 stock units wintered include 7,500 merino ewes and 310 Angus/Hereford cross breeding cows but this is no traditional high country station. There are multiple facets – including being a classroom extension for the primary school on their boundary – and income streams.

Aided by 560ha of centre pivot irrigation, around 10,000 merino lambs and 700 steers and heifers are finished annually. Hydro-electricity generated from two sites is sold to the national grid; there is a refurbished 1930s turbine, and a turbine on the end of their irrigation pipe captures unused water flow energy in winter. One of the small seed crops grown is Balansa clover, a speciality drought resistant pasture variety and other crops include lucerne and rye corn on the dryland.

The judges noted the production and financial performance of the station was "industry leading" and wrote of Richard and Annabelle's ability to "fully integrate the classes of country available, while running a large, potentially complex business in an exceptionally organised manner".

The 560ha of centre pivot irrigated area was developed between 2006 and 2011 from 240ha of border dyked land. The process of negotiating for the increased area for irrigation, and the results, are telling examples of how the Subtils operate. "ECan could see it was a win-win situation," says Richard, "the numbers are quite stark." In 2006 the border dyke country was carrying 14su/ha and using 550 litres/sec of water. Now, irrigation on the station is putting 200 litres/sec back into the river, using 350 litres/sec, and the irrigated area is running 24su/ha.

"The consideration for both the environment and community when making management decisions is exceptional and proof that the Subtils are excellent stewards of the land," said the judges. "Richard and Annabelle have continued the visionary thinking of Annabelle's parents by continuously challenging the status quo. Their motivation and openness to new ideas will ensure a challenging property remains a sustainable farming operation in perpetuity."

Annabelle explains their guiding philosophy is "we are here for the long term, always playing the long game, we are not chasing short term gains". Alongside this is the importance they place on connections, relationships, contacts and contracts. "We like to make sure anyone we buy from or sell to we have a long-term and deep relationship with," says Richard. They prefer to buy their store stock from the same farmers each year. "Animal health is a main priority," says Richard. "So we'd rather buy stock knowing history and limitations."

The station is an original and loyal supplier of wool into John Smedley and Icebreaker contracts. Significantly however, although the station carries merino sheep, and therefore naturally values producing quality wool, "meat production is what we are targeting", says Richard. "Being able to supply meat at a time we can receive a premium for it is our aim."

They are long-term ANZCO (formerly CMP) suppliers and support the more recent NZ Merino Company/SFF initiative with specific Silere merino marketing. A recent visit to the farm by representatives of a Japanese restaurant chain is indicative of the 14 years history of Omarama Station beef supplied to the chain.

Similarly the Subtils actively seek relationships with experts and field leaders. "We try to cultivate contact with people who really know what they are doing," says Annabelle. "We have found those people genuinely love to find people like us who pose lots of questions and go away and do something with the answers."

The late Dick Wardell's relationship with Dr Trevor Webb of Landcare Research at nearby Tara Hills research station means there is detailed historic soil mapping records. With Trevor the Subtils replicated the previous tests and are thrilled to have tangible proof of soil quality rising in the area now under irrigation. "There is already a 18-50 percent improvement in the organic matter content and water holding capacity of the soil," points out Richard.

The judges commended how the Subtils used industry networks. They noted: "A willingness to try things first is clearly stimulating and rewarding for the Subtils. This makes their business ground-breaking and an outstanding example of innovation in sheep and beef production."

For the past 11 years they have worked with local iwi and the Department of Conservation (DOC) to promote the regeneration of the native longfin eel population. As part of the tenure review process for the station, a 120ha flood plain, incorporating the Omarama stream, has been designated scientific reserve.

"The relationship has grown," said the judges, "and the local school is now involved. An annual hangi is a sign of goodwill established. This ability to establish and maintain an enduring relationship through a community project supports the approach the Subtils took to tenure review."

The judges praised the Wardells and Subtils for their firm stand in tenure review that they were preferred guardians. "Right from the get-go we told DOC we were part of how the country under review had been so well looked after for generations, and didn't that earn us the right to continue to look after it," explains Richard. "We didn't want tenure review to ruin the balance of the property." Included in negotiations were access corridors allowing public into higher country. The Subtils won a prohibition of 4WD vehicles, motorbikes, dogs and guns. Wrote the judges: "This approach (and patience) has resulted in an excellent tenure review result."

A QEII National Trust covenant has been placed over 2500ha, including unique high country bog wetland containing rare native species. The covenant allows for managed grazing ensuring invasive weeds like hieracium (hawkweed) are controlled.

Award-winning high country farmers Annabelle and Richard Subtil

The Subtils met in England, Richard's home country. They spent four years working in logistics, mainly in Dubai and Malaysia. Coming home to the farm "wasn't on the radar" says Annabelle, but in 1998 they were offered the opportunity. "We gave it five years initially, and we are still here," she smiles. Dick became ill with cancer in 1999. After two remission periods that at least allowed time to see such able succession on Omarama Station, sadly Dick passed away in 2012.

Judges' comments

  • A proven farm business demonstrating excellence in financial, environmental and social
  • Established business with track record of high performance centred on clear awareness and understanding of resources available
  • Outstanding relationships; through excellent staff management, personal development, community involvement and industry leadership
  • Top industry performers; growing business in a sensitive and challenging environment while considering community and environmental bottom lines
  • Genuine interest and excellent understanding of biodiversity and species on farm; extensive habitat improvement efforts
  • Early adopters of electronic identification; working with industry organisations to refine the use of this technology
  • Utilising water for irrigation and hydro generation in integrated way resulting in improved water quality outcomes
  • Wise use and excellent understanding of regular soil and water quality testing and nutrient budgeting information

A field-day will be held on the farm at a date to be advised.

Smiling farmer

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