Wekas, seaweed and sustainable farming: meet New Zealand’s ‘least worst farmer’

[New Zealand] Roger Beattie is on a roll. The wild sheep breeder, blue pearl and kelp entrepreneur, and, yes, would-be weka farmer, a man who most days has a dozen ideas before breakfast, wants to explain where all this weka business is heading. He kills the quad bike and, for a moment, there’s silence.

Somewhere above us on the slopes of Kowhai Vale, one of two farms that Roger owns in precipitous peninsular country across the water from Akaroa, a sheep bleats loudly. Pitt Island wild sheep, a breed that Roger so admired while working on the Chathams that he brought some home to farm, have thrived here. And now he has his clever scheme, one that pulls together the wild sheep and his other great slow-burning project, the wekas.

The plan is hats. Beanies, to be accurate, as well as blankets, a new category of high-end woollen products exploiting the unique properties of the Pitt Island fleece, which has a helical crimp and a twist that gives it great bounce and stretch.

“It’s exceptional wool,” Roger says. “It’s lightweight, resilient, it’s got loft, warmth – all the attributes. These hats are unbelievable. They weigh two-thirds of a Merino hat but they’re far warmer.”

The new brand, to be known as Wyld and featuring a logo of a wild horned ram, will launch in 2016, targeted at the main tourism towns. But here’s the Beattie twist: the flagship product will be the Weka Woo hat, a premium beanie with a feather pinned on it – a weka’s feather, naturally.

The weka, it should be remembered, is officially an at-risk species. Roger predicts a sharp response from his long-time antagonist, the Department of Conservation.

“It will be a battle we will have openly with DOC. If they don’t argue, great, we’ll just get on with it. If they do argue, even better. They’ll do all our advertising for us.”

Beattie with a blue pearl grown inside a paua shell, an aquaculture product he has developed in Akaroa Harbour for jewellery.
Beattie with a blue pearl grown inside a paua shell, an aquaculture product he has developed in Akaroa Harbour for jewellery.

It was arguing with DOC that first brought Roger to national attention. He has long contended that farming weka commercially can save the species. In 2010, he appeared on Close Up to debate with the then director general of DOC, Al Morrison. Whether you accepted Roger’s logic or not, his proposal was so counterintuitive, yet so colourfully argued, that he simply couldn’t be ignored. In the public eye, he became that “weka guy”, the maverick businessminded conservationist.

The maverick tag seems inevitable, given Roger’s background. His father, the late Doug Beattie, was another ten-ideas-before-breakfast man, a Marlborough farmer who developed the first plastic insulator for electric fences and pioneered that industry. (Roger and his two siblings now co-own the Kaikoura-based business, Beattie Insulators.)

Doug, who featured in one of the earliest Country Calendar programmes, left school early, says Roger, and it was the making of him.

“He was never taught that there were limits to the human imagination. Dad was still inventing stuff right up until the end. Weeks before he died, he invented a better catheter holder!”

If his father set the tone for Roger’s life, of innovation, entrepreneurship and hard graft, the Chatham Islands was his finishing school. He moved there after a year of university studies – political science and economics – to shear sheep. From shearing, he went into the freezing works, then possum hunting, paua diving and culling for the Wildlife Service, where he was introduced to those wild sheep. In one year, he shot 3000, mostly from the back of a horse.

The more he culled, however, the more he admired the so-called pest. “I thought, ‘By heck, these sheep are tough.’ They’re being hunted by man; they’re running on 3500 acres of land competing with bigger Romney wethers, cattle and pigs, a wild environment, and yet every single hogget had a lamb. They had no dags, no fly strike, no foot or mouth problems. I decided I really needed to try to farm these sheep.”

Before he could pursue the idea, however, things on the Chathams suddenly went sour. A farming venture with a mate crashed, leaving a pile of debt. So Roger returned to paua diving.

“Getting back into paua coincided with the advent of the quota system, so I was issued with a whole lot of quota. And because I could see the writing on the wall, I bought a whole lot more. At one stage I was the single largest paua quota holder in New Zealand, with 34 tonnes.”

Eventually, he swapped diving for farming paua, exporting the meat to Asia and establishing New Zealand’s first ocean-based blue pearl farm at Whangamoe Inlet, on the Chathams.

Beattie and his son Robert commercially harvesting giant bladder kelp, which is turned into fertiliser and food products.
Beattie and his son Robert commercially harvesting giant bladder kelp, which is turned into fertiliser and food products.

At this point, it bears restating that Roger is by nature restless and serial in his business interests. Why pursue one project, when juggling four is much more fun? Does he spread himself too thin? Possibly. “But this is what gets me out of bed in the morning.”

Which brings us back to the present, to Kowhai Vale. Roger and his wife, Nicki, a GP-turned-farmer, first saw the property in 1992 while looking for areas in which to establish a mainland-based paua farm. They later bought it as a place to release the wild sheep and do some hunting.

“A friend said, ‘Roger, you know that you have the largest lifestyle block in the country?’ We didn’t do anything with the sheep until their numbers built up. Then we really had to do something.”

★★★

Crack! The shot from the Remington .222 silences the cicada thrum. Roger, the former culler, has picked out a wild ram lamb on a hillside a hundred metres away, just before it can vanish into bush. With his youngest son, Andrew, who is home from university for the summer, he butchers the animal on the spot, resharpening his knife periodically like a father at a Sunday roast.

Those first eight wild sheep that Roger sent over from the Chathams have, over time, become 3000, the largest Pitt Island wild sheep flock in mainland New Zealand, spread between Kowhai Vale, a smaller, certified organic property further down the peninsula at Lucas Bay, and a block called Ataahua near Lake Ellesmere (Te Waihora).

Roger says they’re part way through a genetics programme, after taking over the running of Kowhai Vale from managers in 2014. Since then, they’ve shot a lot of rams. “Our policy is one of negative deselection. We don’t think we know what a good sheep is, but we do think we know what a bad sheep is. So the approach is to get rid of the worst ones. I view us as being the least worst farmers in the country.”

The wild sheep may have some tricky characteristics – they’re a handful to muster – but they make wonderful eating. Roger intends to chase the gourmet meat market, using the Wyld brand and emphasising the family’s chemical-free approach to farming (Kowhai Vale is not certified organic, because they spray the gorse, but is otherwise run organically).

Beattie mustering Pitt Island wild sheep above Akaroa Harbour, where he harvests kelp and farms paua for blue pearls.
Beattie mustering Pitt Island wild sheep above Akaroa Harbour, where he harvests kelp and farms paua for blue pearls.

“We’ve been worshipping at the altar of productivity for so long that we’ve forgotten what the consumer wants,” says Roger, carving a chop off the carcass for Andrew to bag. “And what they want is tasty food that is natural. These sheep have been bred for survivability traits, not productivity, and it makes for better eating. People often say about our sheep, “Heck, this tastes like meat used to taste!'”

There are other uses for the sheep. Some are sold to lifestyle blocks. Up until the global financial crisis, Roger was also selling at least a hundred a year for hunting, mostly to Americans. Hunters prize the big sets of horns on the wild rams, he explains, adding that the market is bouncing back, with 40-odd sold last year. “We take a whole-beast strategy,” he says. “We’ll sell everything, including the baah!”

But there are changes afoot. In 2004, Roger bought an experimental flock of fine-wool, barebreech sheep from AgResearch, which he named Bohepe and has been vigorously breeding ever since. More recently, he’s taken on a larger, coarse-wool sheep called Scobie, from another trial. Eventually, all the Pitt Island wild sheep will be sold from Kowhai Vale to Lucas Bay and replaced by Scobies, with the Bohepes farmed at Ataahua.

a-striking-pitt-island-wild-ram-a-breed-roger-beattie-admires-for-their-fleece-easy-care-and-resilience

The common theme is the manner in which they are all being farmed. Roger hasn’t tailed a sheep for 15 years. And even on the non-organic properties, he doesn’t use chemicals on his animals. The same applies to the small herd of Murray Grey cattle. Not only is it the right thing to do, he says, but it makes commercial sense.

“One of our approaches is to identify the false premise and run as hard and fast as you can in the opposite direction. The false premise here is that chemical farming and unethical farming – that is, doing painful and unnecessary things to animals – are sustainable. They’re not, and will eventually be done away with by consumer pressure.”

There’s a link here to his approach to breeding. “Our whole operation is based around low-cost, easycare, ethical farming, the minimum amount of stress for the animals, and letting them express [genetically] whatever it is they want to express, whether that is wildness in the wild sheep, or contentedness with the Murray Greys. And you know what, we hardly lose a sheep or cow in the winter. Our death rate would probably be in the top 1 per cent of the country.”

The lamb Roger has just shot might beg to differ with that cheery assessment, but it’s in no position to argue. When Andrew has bagged the last of the meat, Roger aims the quad bike in the direction of the weka enclosure – or what’s left of it. As we round a corner, the damage is immediately apparent. A large slip a few years ago took out part of the excluder fence.

“I’d never build a predator-proof reserve in such a difficult area again,” remarks Roger, who is nevertheless proud of what he built here.

“It was New Zealand’s first mainland predator-proof reserve and we were a catalyst for helping others to develop reserves.”

When the weka at Kowhai Vale bolted, Roger had a back-up population at his home property at Halswell, near Christchurch. In any case, he wasn’t going to be thwarted: the weka project means too much to him, not least because of that history of disputation.

Some background here is useful. Roger’s birds are buff weka (Gallirallus australis hectori), a subspecies once eaten by Maori and early settlers but that disappeared from the east coast of the South Island in the 1930s. In 1994, Beattie built the predatorproof enclosure and began bringing buff weka back from the Chathams, where the birds continued to thrive – in fact, they were at pest levels. Initially, he had DOC consent. But his proposal to breed the birds commercially for their meat got the cold shoulder.

His argument? “I’m from a farming background, and sheep and cows aren’t endangered in New Zealand. Why? Because people are making money out of them. Passion will take people only so far in saving a species. When that passion dies, you need something else, and the commercial imperative will keep it going.”

He can certainly claim some success at breeding weka, including a pair that produced five clutches in a year and raised 17 chicks.

The new Weka Woo hats, with their incendiary trophy feather, seem likely to reboot the debate. Roger believes he has public opinion on his side – thanks in part to Country Calendar’s coverage in 2008.

“Twenty years ago, if you had said we need to be farming some of our endangered bird species to save them, most people would have disagreed. There’s been a seismic change, and that show was a catalyst.”

So what’s the weka thing about? Is Roger a conservationist or a businessman? He says he favours the label “environpreneur”, which describes an entrepreneur who seeks to turn an environmental problem into a profitable venture.

Roger was, it should be noted, the first South Island member of ACT, and by his own account was twice asked to lead the political party. But he also sees himself as a conservationist. Living on the Chathams, he rubbed shoulders with the Wildlife Service and its DOC successors.

“I was there when they saved the black robin, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the ethos.”

He has consistently lobbied ACT about the need to take a different line on environmental issues. Otherwise, he says, “as soon as you attack the Emissions Trading Scheme or DOC without having that credibility, you are just seen as being greedy, capitalist and against the environment.”

Meanwhile, Roger has other fish to fry – or, at least, kelp to sell. From the hillside track at Kowhai Vale, he points out a shadow in the harbour waters. It’s a patch of giant bladder kelp, or Macrocystis pyrifera, one of two species of kelp that the Beatties harvest. The other, known as wakame, is commonly used in Japanese cooking, and Roger long ago identified it as a viable export.

Predictably, there have been battles. The Beatties successfully took the Ministry of Fisheries to the High Court for the right to harvest the bladder kelp. In the case of wakame, DOC wants to eliminate the highly invasive species, which probably arrived here as hull fouling. Again, Roger contends that the commonsense approach is to treat the problem invader as a commercial opportunity.

Initially, Nicki headed the kelp operation, and the focus was on marketing it as a healthy pepper-like condiment high in nutrients. Now the Beatties are shifting their focus to the agriculture, horticulture and animal production markets under a new brand, Zelp.

“Our biggest customers are dairy farmers, who feed it to their cows to improve general condition and fertility. The other big market is putting it with seed. We’ve done experiments and had outstanding results for increased germination and growth.”

In fact, Roger is working with a Canterbury farmer to chase some world records using kelp. “Last year he got a 26.7 per cent increase in his carrots and a 14 per cent increase in his barley. This year he’s really going for the record, and we’ve said we’ll give him as much kelp as he needs. Then everyone – the bureaucrats, the chemical Charlies, the farmers, the research outfits and universities – will have to take notice.”

Wild sheep, giant kelp, native birds – what’s the common thread to Roger’s ventures?

“They’re all dealing with native or near-native species, all adding value where none existed before, all creating something unique and marketable and brandable,” he answers.

“They are also all multigenerational businesses. If my children want to take them on, they can, and if not then someone else might.”

He’s nowhere near finished, either. On the long run back to the farmhouse, he collects great armfuls of manuka, for propagating purposes. Manuka honey is taking off in a big way, and Roger wants to be part of it.

A small fortune has been spent over the decades trying to clear Kowhai Vale of manuka, says Beattie, who has entered a joint venture with a beekeeper.

“We need to take a fundamentally different approach and embrace it. We’re going to plant 20 hectares this year in manuka and just keep cranking it up.”

It’s another idea before breakfast, another iron in the fire, another opportunity too good to ignore. Who knows when it will come to fruition? But Roger’s confident that eventually he’ll be vindicated – and the same goes for the weka.

“I’ve found that if you work on projects long enough and they’re good projects, they eventually become profitable. My argument is: people should have faith.”

 

View original article at: Wekas, seaweed and sustainable farming: meet New Zealand’s ‘least worst farmer’

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