Lincoln Foundation Farmer of the Year 2017

October 2017

A visit to the Lincoln Foundation Farmer of the Year for 2017

Neil and Lyn Campbell are the 2017 Lincoln University Foundation Farmers of the Year, praised by the judges for “an efficient, incredibly flexible and adaptive approach” to the development of their dryland property. Their focus has been on systems that allow them to pursue activities that generate the most profit at the most effective point of time. They were also praised for being a formidable couple in farming partnership and they describe themselves as “passionate agriculturalists” who are “farming altitude with attitude”.

The farming operations are sheep, beef, deer and cropping. 

In the early 1980s, the Campbells began equity partnership farming in central Canterbury and then bought out their partner, leasing some additional land. They sold up in 1993 and purchased the then 520ha Parkwood near Fairlie. Ten years later they purchased an adjoining 240ha to increase the total property to 760ha (650ha effective). It ranges in altitude from 380m in the valley floor to 580m at the highest point. Average rainfall is 750mm a year and with the soil types and topography this type of property would normally be producing store stock. 

Neil dates a revolution in farming practices back to his participation in the 2007 Kellogg Rural Leadership programme (based at Lincoln University), which taught him to push boundaries, do research, and network. He choose the sheepmeat quota into the European Union as a research topic, realised that the meat industry was just the way it had always been and that he needed to change, rather than expecting to get rewarded in livestock prices for on-farm efficiency. The new approach to farming was “how can we gain a premium for what we produce and the mix of protein we produce and how to gain maximum production from our variation in topography and altitude”. 

Speaking to the secret of their subsequent success, Neil Campbell said, “we can’t compete on the basis of volume and, likewise, we aren’t big enough to compete by going straight to the market. Therefore our best option is to deliver each product at the time when it is most profitable.” 

The strengths they had were good soils and under-utilised ryegrass pastures, an excellent balance of summer and winter country and infrastructure that could handle any class of livestock. Among the weaknesses were having a majority of stock ready to sell between January and April at peak times and low prices, and a late spring. 

“We needed a better way of analysing our business to determine the most profitable stock classes and where they fit in with the property. Now we base all our livestock decisions on cents earned per kg of dry matter consumed, as a starting point.” For example, even highly efficient sheep farming still gave very average returns of 10c/kg dry matter consumed and any further substantial increases in productivity from sheep were not achievable. Breeding hinds have a much better fit to feed supply with a later fawning and are returning 20c/kg DM.

The Campbells also run a greater proportion of trading stock that can be offloaded in times of adversity. They plant 80ha of autumn-sown arable crops on the better soils in the valley floor for drought feeding. 

The objective of cropping is to supply livestock and obtain seasonal premiums and not be forced to sell stock into depressed markets because of drought, or buy in expensive supplements. The farm’s small paddock sizes allow for specialist crops to be grown such as oat and grass seed, and rape seed for oil – for maximum return. 

Fodder beet is now grown and is producing 20t/ha in dry years. Neil calls it a revolution in fodder cropping for his location, similar to dryland lucerne as used by Doug Avery in Marlborough. 

Neil says fodder beet has a wide window to harvest or utilise, with no deterioration in quality and can be consumed in the paddock or lifted and sold. It is not wasted if wet, and the bulb will last all winter in the ground to be cultivated up when ground conditions allow. The crop also utilises small amounts of rainfall efficiently. It needs low nitrogen inputs and is more tolerant of insects and disease than brassicas. Good weight gains can be achieved in livestock, particularly cattle. The returns can be as high as 50c/kg DM by using it to finish stock on the shoulders of the season. 

The Campbells presented figures to the judges of the Lincoln Foundation award that showed gross farm income had risen by 2.5 times over the past 10 years and was derived from 6 sources instead of three. 

The Campbells have invested off farm in an 8ha Marlborough sauvignon blanc vineyard which is well-established, professionally managed and has generated 10%-plus return on capital. 

Parkwood Farm in Fairlie has 60ha of forestry that could be retained or split off from the farming business for non-farming siblings. This is also generating carbon credits.

Neil and Lyn have entered into a joint venture/lease farming arrangement with Stu and Ginny Neal on two-thirds of Parkwood. The Campbells will retain and run the 200ha of deer operations. “Farming is a fantastic industry; if we can be part of telling that story and encouraging the younger generation into the industry we would be most satisfied.” 

In their 24 years at Fairlie, the Campbells have created a diverse, profitable, resilient business that is working in harmony with the environment. “Our greatest resource after our own personal health is our soils and environment, while we strive to maximise production, it cannot be at the expense of the health of these two components,” they said. No permanent waterways leave the property, but the biggest threat to the environment is sedimentary loss from the deer farming. Sediment traps have been created to combat this. Nitrogen leaching baseline is 11kg/ha/year. 50ha of exotic trees have been planted on areas that were previously growing gorse and if cleared these steep faces would have been susceptible to slipping. Two areas totalling 7ha have been set aside with native regenerating bush, where thay have managed to take out pines and feral goats.