Environmental and social trials are underway at a dairy farm near Ashburton.
Rhys and Kiri Roberts liken conventional agriculture to a regenerative system, giving staff more work flexibility and providing them with free farm-grown food.
“Offering your team veggies in this climate right now is such a fantastic thing to do,” says Rhys.
Rhys is CEO of Align Farms. The company has eight farms milking 5,000 cows and employs 30 people in Mid-Canterbury.
Kiri manages one of the farms, Clareview, where the trials take place.
A market garden was established on the 297-hectare property a year ago and is managed by Kiri and her mother Liz Phillipps.
“At the moment we have about 13 different vegetables, not including herbs, and then in the summer we can have more than 20,” she says.
Boxes of vegetables are distributed to staff every week and come with free-range eggs from the farm.
“I hope that by the end of the year we will also be able to supply meat and milk,” says Kiri.
Rhys says the boxes are a way to show staff they are appreciated.
“The team is really essential. They have been very loyal to us and we have people in our company who have been here for 10 years, so we have to give back to them.”
Kiri and Rhys’ team is also testing a flexible list system. This allows them to choose when and where they work.
“If they want to work 4 to 9 a.m., that’s fine…or they can take a shift in the garden if they want to,” Rhys says.
So far the system is working well.
“We really want to bring a lot of people with us on this social journey,” he says.
The regenerative agriculture trial is a multi-year project.
“Can we grow without synthetic fertilizers and can we increase crop diversity while maintaining a reliable level of productivity? Rhys said.
The Clareview farm was split in two, with one half being farmed according to the “conventional” model. Running two systems makes daily management more difficult for Kiri.
“The conventional paddock next to us was rutabaga and we have just re-grassed it with a ryegrass clover mix, and the regeneration paddock we are in has undergone a full cover crop which has around 28 species” , she said. explained to country life recently.
So far, milk production has been uniform in both systems.
“Part of the season, the regeneration side is doing very well by producing cows, then it changes and the conventional takes over.”
Rhys also examines the profitability of each model and in the first year of the trial, conventional farming won out.
“If we were optimistic, we can close that belt, but at this point conventional is more profitable by $900 per hectare, so there’s still some work to be done.”
The couple are proud to share the results of the trial with the farming community.
“Farmers need sound data to make good decisions,” says Rhys.
“It’s all well and good to say that we haven’t put any N (nitrogen) on this paddock for three years and I’m really proud of that, but there have been adverse effects…so it’s to take farmers along the road, a journey of good, bad and ugly.”