The focus group shares farmers’ problems and finds answers

Fraser Tombleson believes that being part of the focus group for the Hill Country Futures Partnership program was a good opportunity to express shared issues and concerns.

Data from farmers participating in these focus groups helped develop a farmer welfare assessment tool known as FarmSalus.

Fraser and his wife Jaime farm almost 1,000 hectares near Matawai, about an hour north of Gisborne. He says they know well how some rural mountain communities are struggling.

“It was really good to be in a group of farmers who were on the same page with concerns about issues like carbon farming and the loss of communities,” Tombleson explains. “It was a good way to get feedback from farmers to express our problems and concerns and get our side of the story across at a high level.”

The $8.1 million HCF program aims to future-proof the profitability, sustainability and well-being of New Zealand’s upland rural farmers, their farming systems, the environment and rural communities. It differs from most pastoral-based research in that it takes into account the whole farming system and, critically, the wider communities that exist within these systems.

The project combines traditional scientific research, farmer knowledge, social research and citizen science. It has a strong focus on forages and provides decision-making tools to help farmers choose the best forage option for different land management units.

B+LNZ’s Ange McFetridge says members of the focus group were instrumental in developing the programme.

“We wanted to interview a representative group of people living in the highlands to help us future-proof our work,” he explains. “We appealed to the farming community and brought the group together. We met them face-to-face and got a lot of insight into their frustrations and aspirations for the future for their farms.”

McFetridge says the really good thing is that they continue as a group and are open and honest with each other.

“They all know how to work in sequence. Environment, governance and business health are very important to them.

Tombleson’s parents bought the farm in 1973. The terrain is complex – it rises from 300 meters to 1000 meters above sea level. Fraser knew from a young age that he wanted to follow his parents into highland agriculture.

After gaining a Diploma in Agriculture and a Diploma in Farming at Lincoln University, he worked on several other farms, including the large Papanui Station in Taihape. Then, in 2015, he began renting out most of his family’s farm.

He and Jaime bought 726 acres in 2019 and leased another 250 acres from their parents – 900 acres effective. They breed and finish with 3,700 sheep and rams, 1,000 chickens, 150 calves, 200 horses and 150 bulls.

Tombleson believes that the main challenges facing upland agriculture remain persistent in the face of rising costs and a wave of regulation. He hopes the program will result in more solutions for farmers.

“Land encroachment into forestry is a major concern, along with changing consumer trends and the rise of ‘synthetic alternatives,'” he explains. “It’s hard to be young and new to all this change, but for older farmers dealing with all this, it can be really bad for their mental health.”

So much to do, so much time

Fraser Tombleson says many young farmers are heavily in debt and have more they want to do environmentally, but they also need to stick to a budget.

“For example, we have land that we would be happy to refuse to plant to local residents if we could,” he said.

“My mother planted a lot, but mostly exotics like natives are more expensive and harder to establish. I am currently focusing on fencing rivers and farmland. We also want to deal with wetlands when we can. This will be very important in the future.”

Virtually no spraying is done on the farm. The work to “go the biological route” and reduce superphosphate use proved difficult in cold winters and harsh soil conditions.

Tombleson believes there is a real opportunity for upland rural farmers to play an even more important role in New Zealand’s economy – if they are supported, the necessary changes need to be made.

“I see the opportunities as ensuring that we are recognized for the most efficient farming in the world, combined with biodiversity and a high-quality product aimed at high-end markets,” he said.

“I am optimistic that consumers will see the health benefits of high-quality red meat over non-meat alternatives. I am also optimistic about the future of wool. It is an amazing product as an alternative to micro plastics. A lot of work is being done around wool, and I think the time will come again.”

Tombleson also hopes the program will help bridge the gap between rural towns by getting real stories out there.

“So people are starting to realize the really good work we’re doing.”

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