Neil Heather Farmer Advocate

November 2016

Neil Heather was named Federated Farmers Advocate of 2015 for his advocacy efforts

For Neil Heather, farming is a juggling act between running his own farm and advocating for farmers in the wider Rotorua area. Farming was always on Neil’s radar. After he left school he headed to Flock House in Bulls for a year of formal training. His first job after that was romney stud farm near Fielding. He moved back to Rotorua to work with a local wool buyer and then headed to Europe for a two-year OE. He was called back home to help with the family farm when his father was ill and never left.

The Heather family have been farming on Paradise Valley Rd since 1921. Today Neil lives in the original family homestead near the Ngongotaha River.

Awarua Farm is one of the last remaining large farms in the area. The 355 hectare sheep and Angus beef stud property on the slopes of Mt Ngongotaha is now bordered by 16 lifestyle blocks.

Neil says the property is 220 effective . The original property was a dairy farm. These days he runs Romney ewes along with the Stud angus. All up the farm runs 3000 su.

“We’ve got a good balance of contour here and climate-wise we are well positioned because we are close to the Mamakus, which is a very high rainfall area.”

About 30% of the farm is steep and the rest is rolling-to-medium hills. The home block sits at the base of Mount Ngongotaha and the second block encompasses a big chunk of the western side of the mountain.

Contour on this block is significantly steeper than the home block and gorse is an ongoing problem on the more difficult faces near the top of the mountain. Access to the plateau at the top of the mountain can be tricky. In winter it is only accessible by tractor.

Neil would like to plant gorse-infested areas with native trees, but says the cost of doing this is too high given the farm’s uncertain future.

The mountain block has good hay country on top and Neil says its northerly facing slopes grow plenty of grass in winter.

A significant proportion of the farm’s non-productive area is in native trees or waterways.

Much of the water that runs off the slopes of the mountain ends up on the home block where two waterways – the Ngongotaha and the Umuroa – converge. “All the waterways around here lead straight to the lake,” Neil says.

Neil has planted around 3500 native trees around the dams, “which were built for aesthetic reasons as well”. He’s glad he built it when he did. He says all environmental work on the farm is funded out of profit. In tough years environmental work had to be put on hold.

Neil says the environmental work that was done on the property 30 years ago by his parents has not been recognised or factored into any of the discussions now taking place about the impact of his farm business on the quality of the water in the Rotorua lakes.

He says the regional council’s sole focus with their proposals has been on nutrient loss . He has planted out water ways, fenced and installed a series of filtering dams to trap sediment and nutrient coming off Mt Ngongotaha but because he hasn’t dropped stock numbers, he is still regarded as contributing to the nutrient loads going into the lake.

Neil was the chair of Rotorua-Taupo Federated Farmers for 4 years (2008-12) and is now the co-chair of the Lake Rotorua Primary Producers Collective (Deputy Chair).

He became involved in advocacy initially because of a rain tax which he says was one of the sillier examples of council trying to impose taxes on farmers. He stayed in advocacy because of the people he was working with in the local community and the fabulous people he got to work with at Federated Farmers, particularly the policy staff whose work is often unsung.

During his time with Federated Farmers he was active in promoting the work farmers were doing in improving environmental outcomes. “ We always knew farmers weren’t the entire problem. Collaboration between farmers, councils and the community is the best way to improve water quality.”

But despite that Neil says the future faced by him and the other dairy and sheep and beef farms in the region is unclear. Neil believes targets set by the regional council are not achievable under any livestock system.

He believes the only way to achieve these targets would be to plant pine trees across the majority of the farm. This would reduce leaching to about 3kg N/ha but, in his view, a pine plantation would be a tragic waste of good farm land.

Neil has resisted the temptation to chop and change stock policies that span back to the 1950’s. “We never went into composite sheep because we always felt that Romneys did the job for us.”

The bulk of Awarua’s ewe flock is mated to Romney rams, with the ewe hoggets and poorer performing ewes going to Southdowns.

Neil is passionate about his stud Angus cattle. “The cows are great for cleaning up the lamb finishing country in summer. They are like vacuum cleaners and pasture quality comes right back once the cows have been through.”

In 1990 he and his father formed the Heather Dell Angus Stud, with the first cows purchased from the dispersal of the well-known Totara Hills stud. Neil says the stud added a new dimension to their farming operation.

Most of the bulls produced by the herd are sold as yearlings at an annual sale.

At the 2016 Federated Farmers conference, Neil won an Outstanding Advocacy Award for his work as an influencer and leader with farmers and local councils. Neil’s work advocating for farmers against the proposed rates hikes in Rotorua was highlighted. In 2015 Neil challenged rate hikes as high as 19% for farmers which council claimed was driven by property values. Neil said at the time that farmers were being asked to bail out a council that was struggling to balance its books.

Neil was also credited for his work assisting the Environment Court with mediations, bridging the gap between governance and farming.

The Federated Farmer’s award also recognised Neil’s commitment, passion for farming and sense of community.

Neil says he was a bit surprised when I learned about his nomination. He says “I have faced several challenges during my involvement with Federated Farmers which has only strengthened me as a person and reminded me that if you truly believe in your principles then you have to advocate for them for all concerned.”

“Like every other province in the country it is always a team effort and without the support of intelligent and inspirational people that I have met and worked with throughout the years in my involvement with Rotorua/Taupo Federated Farmers, this award would not have been possible.”

He has been heavily involved in the debate as strict guidelines are set to significantly reduce nutrient loadings on Lake Rotorua by 2032. He believes some of the targets set are going to be difficult to achieve. “But at the moment, most farmers around here are in limbo and they are reluctant to invest in their farms until they are sure of the future.”

Environmental work on Awarua Farm earned the Heather family a category award in the 2009 Ballance Farm Environment Awards.

Neil says no farmer goes out intentionally to pollute. “What happens here will eventually affect other areas, so it is important we get it right.”