31 October 2008
Making the finals of the 2008 Waikato Ballance Farm Environment Awards was a bonus for a couple who have thrived on the challenge of turning their small block into an economically and environmentally sustainable business.
Jonathon and Sarah Walker, who farm 24hectare ‘Soggy Bottom’, west of Ngaruawahia, moved to New Zealand four years ago and have poured much of their spare time into environmental work and the development of a free-range meat business. Not that they have a lot of spare time. Jonathon runs a portable sawmilling operation and a small butchery, and Sarah is a specialist nurse who recently completed the Iron Man World Championships in Hawaii. The Walkers have two children – Finn, aged 13, and Mallory, 9 - and are also developing a farm tourism business on Soggy Bottom.
Jonathon says the farm’s name originated from the heavy clay soils and a boggy valley. Since buying Soggy Bottom he and Sarah have planted around 4000 trees, including eucalypts for firewood and timber trees like cypress, redwood, oaks and other northern hardwoods. The sawmilling operation means all the timber necessary for fencing and building can be grown and milled on the farm.
All the pigs, cattle, goats and sheep are rare breed animals which are farmed using mainly organic principles. The Walkers are currently New Zealand’s biggest breeder of Tamworth pigs, an ancient breed originating from the English Midlands.
Produce from these free-range-farmed pigs is marketed through farmers’ markets and Soggy Bottom’s website. Jonathon says farmers’ markets have proved invaluable for “spreading the good food message” and the popularity of his additive-free ham, bacon and pork is growing. He says free-range pork is very different in flavour to conventionally farmed pork.
Apart from a stint on a smallholding in Scotland, the Walkers had very limited farming experience. But the Ballance Farm Environment Award judges were impressed with their “knowledge of economic, environmental and social sustainability” and their openness to new ideas. “Not being farmers was an advantage because we are able to look at farming from a different angle,” says Jonathon.
He and Sarah entered the Farm Environment Awards to find out more information on environmental and business sustainability. “We are still learning, and we are always looking for alternative ways of adding value to our produce.”
Jonathon says the judging process was very rewarding “because it made us take a long, hard and very detailed look at what we were doing”. He says he enjoyed discussing ideas with the judges and participating in some healthy debate on organic farming principles – a topic very close to his heart. “New Zealand has some amazing organic farmers and I think the ‘good food’ message is definitely starting to get through.” His advice to anyone considering entering the awards is to give it a go. “All it will cost you is a bit of time.” He says he and Sarah were very happy to make the finals. Their achievement provided welcome encouragement while helping to raise the profile of their business.
Entries for the 2009 Waikato Ballance Farm Environment Awards close on November 14.
For more information, or for an entry form, contact Phillipa Crequer, Waikato regional coordinator, phone (07) 8555179 or email Waikato@bfea.org.nz