Farming on an island sounds like an idyllic lifestyle in many ways. Sun, gorgeous scenery beautiful beaches, amazing fishing, peace and quiet. But there can also be plenty of challenges.
John and Ave Gardiner have been farming on Matakana Island, (20km long and only 3km wide and a 45-minute barge ride from Tauranga) since 1983. While they own cows and Fonterra shares they lease their farmland and runoff from four Maori trusts.
Ave was born on Matakana Island into one of several Maori families that have landholdings, and John also has family connections to the multiple Maori ownership. The island land will always stay in trust ownership but is leased to various agriculture enterprises, including five other dairy farms, maize growers and kiwifruit and avocado orchards run by the trusts.
Soon they will pass responsibility and day-to-day working of the farm to their daughter Maria and son-in-law Cale Taiapa. Initially, the young couple will be responsible for the herd management of the 130ha, 320-cow dairy farm, but will take on more in a year or two.
In the 35 years John and Ave have farmed on the island they have encountered good times and bad. The recent downturn in Fonterra’s payout coincided with drought. And recent storms lashed the island, bring extra financial pressure and forcing the couple to downsize their dairy operation.
“We culled any unnecessary stock, cut costs, didn’t buy any feed in and only went to town if we also had a back-load [by barge, $60 each way],” John says. “We took a long hard look at absolutely any expenditure on the farm and only spent what we had to.
“But it was interesting to see what fell out at the bottom – we didn’t actually make a loss, we still made money.”
This prompted a review, he says. “We talked about how to get through the tough times and the advantages – and disadvantages – for autumn calving and winter milk. Four other dairy farms on the island are now doing winter milk.
“We decided it would be good for us, but it’s not about the money. Family is more important and the ability to farm well, taking into account the particular climate conditions on the island.”
Matakana Island gets very dry from December through to the end of February most years. The Gardiners decided they could dry their herd off in January when there is less grass, less rainfall. It is also the best time for family and staff to have time away from the farm.
They are changing their herd to autumn calving. Seventy heifers calved in September and will be mated in June. Another mob of heifers are calving now but won’t be mated until June and a mob of empty heifers will also be carried through for mating in June. The transition to winter milk supply will be complete next season.
“Autumn calving or winter milk gets rid of our curve and Fonterra will pay a premium for the winter milk which will help,” John says.
He is adamant the island has to “move with the times”. “In the past we have just farmed the old way. But now we have to be more compliant, there are more issues to get to grips with, more technology to apply.
“It’s not just have some cows, milk them and send off the milk. Now we have to have shed compliance, and our shed is an old – very old – shed [28-a-side herringbone]. We have to have good milk-chilling equipment. Our milk has to be down to four degrees before it is collected and of course our milk is tested so we have to be grade-free.
“That stretch of water [between Matakana Island and the mainland] doesn’t help in any of that. Our milk is collected by tanker every second day and there is a 20 to 45 minute barge crossing both ways for the tanker dependent on the state of the tide. So it is imperative the milk is chilled down and ready for transport when the tanker arrives.”
Everything and everyone has to come to the island by barge. Contractors, equipment, fertiliser and even metal for farm laneways all has to come across the water so there is often a time-lag and, of course, extra costs. Even getting a vet to a sick animal has to be carefully considered and the Gardiners have had to become self-sufficient and versatile.
John says they need to keep up with technology. “If we don’t, we will fall by the wayside. We need to go to discussion groups to keep touch with the real world – the island isn’t really the real world. We can exist here in our own pleasant bubble.”
They have spent a lot of money to bring the shed up to compliance standards and still have a major restructure of the cooling system to complete.
“Fonterra has been very helpful with both advice and offers of low-interest loans to ensure we get properly operational before our winter milking starts,” John says.
They are milking 300 cows presently but numbers will increase once the autumn calving cows come into the shed in June.
The resulting autumn calves will all be reared on the farm and sold as weaners or even carried on through to yearling. There will be no bobby calf pick-ups. It is just not practical.
“All cows are in calf to angus so there is a beef element and we will rear many of them here on the island. We just have to deal with it. It is part of farming on an island,” John says.
Staff are also an issue. Maria and Cale are taking over the herd management but the farm needs one more staff.
“Getting good staff is hard. I have a theory,” John says with a big grin, “breed your own. The proof is in the pudding. Our son Ronald is managing a large herd in Winton but moving back to the area this season so we will see our grandkids more. And having our daughter part-time and Cale working full-time will be good for the farm and hopefully good for them and for us.
“The farm can comfortably sustain two families but it is time for us – for mum and dad – to take a step away. We bought a 10ha block with a house down the road and moved there three months ago, leaving the homestead on the farm for the youngsters.”
Maria has been responsible for the financial operation of the dairy farm for some years and she is now working three days out on the farm while still working part-time as an accountant in Tauranga.
Maria and Cale are giving the farming operation a two-year trial period to see how it will work for them and their young family who go to school on the island. Grandmother Ave is on grandkid school duty, something she gets a lot of pleasure from.
The young couple came back to Matakana last year to work on the family dairy farm. Both had tried life in the big cities – they crossed the Tasman to Sydney (“too big and fast,” says Cale) and then up to Brisbane where Cale easily found his choice of job as an electrician. However the opportunity to return to Matakana was a chance for them to get ahead and also for Maria’s dad to step out of the shed and back into his other passion – large green tractors and jobs using them. They readily admit there is still plenty to learn about dairying and the challenges with taking on more responsibility.
“We need to teach our kids to be involved with the community and in the dairy industry. I came through the dairy cadetship and there wasn’t all this technology back then,” John says.
“Education is right up there. It’s nearly as important as family. We need that next generation to be able to take over the family business and they need to have the ability to keep up with the ever-changing technology.”
For John and Ave, handing over some of the responsibility means they can develop their 10ha block. They are building workers accommodation to provide another income stream that will support them while still maintaining a working link with the dairy farm.
“We have had road workers and bush workers staying in the new block. They are glad to get somewhere to stay while they are working on Matakana,” John says.
“If there was one thing I would say to anyone – it’s important to own your own dirt – dirt that you work for. It will always be there, it will support you and yours – if you work hard.”
By: Fritha Tagg