Organics in the family

Milmore Downs was one of New Zealand's first certified-organic farms, and now Matt Henderson is carrying on what his parents began.

When Matt Henderson was a boy, there were no soft drinks and little in the way of processed foods on the farm kitchen table.

His upbringing was healthier than most, with organically grown beef and mutton and organic bread produced from the family farm at Milmore Downs in Scargill.

"I had a deprived childhood in that regard," says Henderson, with a twinkle in his eye.

The absence of fast foods and a clean-living diet was inevitable because Henderson's parents, Ian and Austrian-born Gita, were among the first farmers in New Zealand to gain organic certification.

The producers of organic livestock, wool and grains were certified as licensee No.19 by the organic overseer BioGro in the early 1980s. Of farms certified organic earlier than theirs, only two still exist.

Matt Henderson, 27, grew up on the farm and has managed it for the last two years while his mother and father heavily involved in setting up world organic standards live in Europe. He is carrying on the organic tradition at Milmore Downs.

People's views about organic production are much changed from when his parents first started out, he says.

"In my dad's time there was a bit of scepticism. The common reaction was that we couldn't farm without drenches and fertiliser, and I guess that was because they had been farming the same way for the last 30 to 40 years.

"Now, of course, the perception has changed worldwide and organics has been proven a sustainable practice for farming."

Ian and Gita had just returned from a five-year stint in Europe in 1978. Organic farming was a novelty then and on their way back they had stopped at Australia to learn more about how it worked.

They took over from Ian's parents, Mac and Ngaire, and were told they had five years to prove that Milmore Downs could be run organically.

The 3000 ewes that were on the property were reduced in number and cropping and cattle were introduced.

Then the Hendersons brought over machinery from Germany to begin milling their own organic grain, which they continue to do today with four small mills.

Matt Henderson says the flour they produce is from gluten wheat, but is softer and easier on the digestive system than conventionally grown wheat, so it can be eaten by some people with gluten intolerance.

"It varies from person to person depending on the severity of their intolerance. We have people who tell us that it is the only flour their child can eat."
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Dinkel, otherwise known as spelt, is the only wheat variety grown on the farm to produce the wholemeal flour. The baking wheat, from Germany, produces a fuller-bodied flour.

About 15ha of the wheat is grown each year. Like most organic grains, its yield is not startling, at one tonne to the hectare.

No-one could survive on this production, but because it is ground into flour on the farm for $5 a kilogram, the $5000 a tonne return is respectable.

Doing most of the milling is Annika Jablowski, a German who started as a student on a practical placement at Milmore Downs and has returned there to work full time.

Most of the flour goes to wholesalers such as Chantal Organic Wholesalers, in Napier, but fortnightly deliveries also go to small health-food shops in Christchurch, such as Piko Wholefoods, and to private customers, as well as being couriered farther afield.

Henderson says the organic flour is sought after by people wanting healthy food. Where it comes from is important, he says, with organic consumers increasingly wary of anything produced in China.

"I haven't baked bread with conventional flour so it's a bit hard to compare, but compared with a conventional loaf of bread in a supermarket, it tastes good.

"From an organic point of view, people want to know there have been no pesticides sprayed and there are no residues in the grain. It's becoming more important to our customers that it is a New Zealand product. I guess the whole food miles and carbon footprint stuff is gaining traction."

Assisting sales to wholesalers has been the Australian drought and new regulations stopping many whole grains from entering New Zealand because of pest and disease concerns or insisting that some be heat treated.

Milmore Downs is a 302ha farm split evenly into a "home block"and a nearby "hill block". The flat home block varies from heavy clay-based soils to lighter loams and the hill block is on rolling hill country rising halfway to the Greta Peaks.

Other crops grown organically on the home farm are ryecorn, barley and probably red lentils again this season. Out of favour is a naked oat variety. Its husk is not fixed, which makes it easy for farm processing because most of the oats naturally fall out.

The downside is that birds have a field day. Two years ago about half the crop was lost to birds.

Removing the remaining husk is also a slow and laborious process, and despite a small but loyal market for rolled oats, the bigger yields of one to two tonnes a hectare for barley are more attractive.

Henderson says that even though the farm is organic, the same business decisions have to be made.

"It's like farming in general. Being organic doesn't make much difference. Sheep and beef have faced tough times and hopefully they will come back as predicted, which will make a difference. Everyone has been feeling the pinch and last winter was tough."

Grain growing has provided a buffer at Milmore Downs and the farm is also not hurting from high fertiliser prices the way non-organic farms are..

The only fertiliser used and accepted under organic principles is reactive phosphate rock, lime and some elemental sulphur, but the total amount is minimal compared with most farms.

The flipside is that crop yields are lower than most farms, says Henderson.

"We have to accept that and we have to manage the land and the system within its capabilities. We cannot stock like a conventional place or grow the same amount of barley or wheat.

"But there are always people who want to buy organic and most will buy regardless of price, to a degree, because of its health qualities and they don't want to be eating produce exposed to chemicals from an animal that has been drenched or a crop that has been sprayed."

About 15ha of pearl barley is usually planted. The skin of this variety is rubbed off as an ingredient for barley soup for customers and wholesalers, but most of it goes to Dunedin firm Harraways, which rolls it into flakes for cereal.

The red lentils, grown over 4ha, are a difficult bush crop and like plenty of water. To accommodate this, the crop is irrigated by a side-roll irrigator introduced in the 1970s.

The irrigation runs the length of a paddock and is powered by motor-driven wheels. Water comes from a winter-fed lake on the property, supplied by the Waikari Stream.

Another 10ha in ryecorn is made into flour for sourdough bread or for kibbling (small chips) by Chantal, also for breadmaking.

The organic system at Milmore Downs is based around an eight-year rotation.

For four years a paddock is in grass so it can recover from cropping. Then a four-year cropping cycle follows, which starts with spelt wheat and then a green-feed crop, normally oats, while tick beans are also break-fed mainly for the cattle and to help fix nitrogen in the soils.

Barley is often followed by red lentils and a ryecorn crop before the paddock goes back to grass.

Henderson says they have to be conscientious about sticking to the rotation.

"The issue with it is that we cannot expand crops if the ryecorn market lifts and it's hard to modify the rotation because we cannot grow the same crop the next year because it takes nutrients from the soil."

Linked to the organic system are 65 breeding cows, which are break-fed on straw residue from the organic crops.

Originally herefords, they have progressively been mated with a red devon and angus bull for a bigger-framed hereford and red devon-cross cow and a hereford and angus cow that produces earlier-finishing calves.

This suits the Hendersons' market, with one calf sold each week to a Christchurch butcher for organic beef.

Some calves finish earlier than others, at between 250kg and 300kg, and can be sold later in the year.

The cattle also help to keep the worm burden down for lambs. The lambs can be drenched with vinegar and some drenches boost immunity, but a grazing scheme is the most effective defence against worms, says Henderson.

Normally the farm runs 600 ewes purebred corriedale, with rams sourced from the stud of Edward Orr who helped make organic sheep farming possible at Milmore Downs through 20 years of breeding to produce footrot-resistant rams.

Footrot used to be a problem, and footbaths of zinc sulphate used to be at each gate, but it is almost non-existent now.

As returns for wool fell, the family moved several years ago to a poll-dorset ram to produce fast-finishing lambs for their meat. The quicker-growing lambs spend less time on the property and are less likely to pick up worms.

The rams go out in mid February, with lambing starting at August 5 and weaning delayed until late November.

The ewes are flushed with baleage before tupping and receive an oral selenium drench approved by BioGro, because of the flock's low levels of the mineral.

This year scanning was average at 127 per cent and the lambing percentage at tailing is typically 110%-115%. Organic lamb is contracted to Canterbury Meat Packers for export and goes on the truck from December to the end of April.

Henderson will soon be joined full time at the farm by his partner and son. He muses about becoming semi-self-sufficient organically, with vegetables from a big garden, eggs from chickens, meat from the cattle and sheep and milk from the farm's house cow.

Henderson says it is unrealistic to expect all farms to go organic because they would be unable to satisfy food demand, but farmers are changing their practices, with nearby farmers looking at pig compost as fertiliser prices rise.

However, he could never be a conventional farmer.

"It's something that I would not do. At times I wish that I would be harvesting a crop with four times the yield and the same amount of work, but at the end of the day we are getting the premium for growing organic food."


Additional information for Organics in the family