The owners of Mt Somers Station have long family links to the property and plan for those links to remain in perpetuity. Anne Lee reports.

It might have been less than a tenth of Mt Somers Station’s total area but converting to dairying in 2013 was the key factor in enabling succession on the historic Canterbury property.

The 3800-hectare station, in the foothills of the Southern Alps, is now a highly diverse operation with its owners and custodians, David and Kate Acland, farming it with a deeply rooted sense of responsibility to those who have gone before and those who will come after.

If they feel weighed down by that responsibility, they don’t show it.

The couple instead share an air of excitement, eager to take on new challenges, learn and grow.

They’re prepared to take risks, but calculated ones and ones that don’t put the core asset – their land – at risk.

The station was settled by David’s great, great grandfather more than 160 years ago but then sold.

In 1983 David’s parents Mark and Jo bought it back. They too saw the benefits of diversifying their income and were prepared to adventurously try new ventures – championing live deer recovery and farm tourism.

David has two younger brothers and while there was a succession plan in place, the deaths of first his Mum and then his Dad seven years later in 2014, and the fact his brothers had other careers meant the succession plan had to be fast tracked.

“The dairy farm has already been part of the plan because it gave us a parcel of land that could create dividends for all members of the family,” David says.

He and Kate have now bought out his brothers and wholly own the station.

“We didn’t really see it as an option not to have a go at purchasing the whole station even though it was financially quite a stretch,” Kate says.

She holds a masters degree in farm management consultancy from Lincoln University as well as a degree in viticulture and oenology.

At just 26 and before she’d met David, she bought a 7ha vineyard and packhouse in Marlborough and developed a small winery in time for the 2008 harvest.

But it was there that Kate learned the art of survival and “pivoting “– a phrase that’s become all too common for many this year amid Covid-19.

She’d just started her Sugar Loaf label when the global financial crisis hit and grape land prices plummeted.

“I was young, I was really naïve and I had to change direction really quickly if I was going to survive in business.

“I threw the business plan out the window and identified a market where there was a shortage of winemaking space for small producers.

“So changed direction a bit and did contract winemaking where people contracted us to take their grapes and make wine for them under their labels.

“That became a major strength of the business in addition to making our own wines.

“We focused on providing an excellent service so they felt like they were a big fish in our small winery rather than what had been the more typical situation for them with larger wineries.

“It worked and it allowed us to retain the business and then grow,” Kate says.

In 2008 she was processing 200 tonnes of grapes and by 2012 that had grown to 1000t producing one million bottles.

The winery and the Sugar Loaf label along with its sister label Orchard Lane remain part of the wider business and is one of many strings to the Mt Somers bow. It’s continued to grow and its wines are now exported to 17 different markets internationally.

Kate and David have put their minds to pivoting too on the station and constantly have an open mind to new opportunities.

The dairy farm for instance, itself a diversification from the station’s core sheep, beef and deer is now offering further income streams.

“As with any diversification the numbers have to stack up first and with the dairy farm, even though it required capital the numbers worked and the bank would lend on it. It added value,” Kate says.

“Its core business is to produce milk for Synlait and we’re not going to risk that with anything else we do but there is more we can do with it without risking that core.

“It gives us a ready resource in the calves.

“They’re not just a by-product. We’ve got the opportunity here to add value again – to both the dairy farm and the rest of the business,” David says.

The 350ha dairy platform, on the river terrace land, peak milks 850 cows to produce about 425kg milksolids (MS) per cow. Profit not production is the aim with supplement use on the non-irrigated farm kept to about 400kg barley grown on the station and silage from the milking platform.

Through the first six weeks of mating, Hereford semen is used over any lower BW cows or cows cycling that they don’t want to keep replacements from.

Once the artificial insemination (AI) period is over, station-bred Hereford bulls are used to follow up.

The station has a 220-cow Hereford herd and the best 150 dairy cross bull calves are kept for finishing while the best dairy cross heifers are run with the beef heifers. A total of 200 heifers are finished and all of the other beef cross calves are sold as yearlings.

All calves move off the dairy platform once out of the rearing sheds to be grazed on the station. The couple employ a dairy farm manager, Brent Tutty along with three dairy staff. Twenty people are employed across the wider business, including the winery. David says being exposed to the vagaries of the weather on the dairy farm means feed supply can be a lot less certain than it is for those further down on the plains with irrigation.

“Pasture walks are a constant here – monitor, monitor, monitor. We’re always looking ahead, asking questions and forecasting so we can plan for periods when it gets dry.”

He uses crops rather than relying on feeding out and says he’s always looking at new ways of improving feed supply.

They graze lucerne successfully and have also found success with Raphno rape.

It’s a hybrid between kale and radish developed by PGG Wrightson Seeds under the Forage and Innovations joint venture with Plant and Food Research. Sown in October, it can be grazed by Christmas, giving a boost in drymatter when pasture can often come under pressure from the dry.

It saves on running the tractor feeding out and the time pressure that puts on staff at a time when people are trying to take time off. It provides multiple grazings with the last grazing in May and is undersown with grass in the autumn.

A total of 60ha has been sown with heifers also grazing it on the station.

David says they had used turnips for a summer crop and fodder beet in autumn but they’d moved away from both this season with the success of the Raphno.

“We’re in a high wind zone here and we can struggle to get good yields with fodder beet.”

David says there’s a precision and science he enjoys in dairying.

“It’s very numeric, more science than art and there’s a lot of work that goes into controlling the variables.”

The couple looked at further processing a portion of the milk from the dairy farm but couldn’t readily make the costs and time involved in the red tape and meeting food regulations stack up.

That’s even though they have ready outlets in the two local stores they’ve bought and rejuvenated. The Mt Somers and Staveley Café and general stores are destinations in themselves, retaining the yesteryear look and feel.

Kate says they feel strongly that having a local store is key to helping retain thriving rural communities.

The Staveley Store was established in 1876 and both stores stock the farm’s produce including venison, lamb and beef as well as their popular honey, heritage lambswool blankets and Sugar Loaf wines.

The station has 800ha of retired scrub and beech forest at the base of Mt Somers and three years ago David and Kate saw the opportunity to switch from simply allowing access for beekeepers supplying a local honey company, and earning royalties from that, to employing a full-time beekeeper themselves and branding their own honey.

They now have 450 hives and sell 6-7 tonnes of mono-floral manuka honey with a unique manuka factor (UMF) of 7-9 in bulk by contract.

They sell another 4-6t of multi-floral, clover and beechwood honey dew under their own label.

“Again, it was diversification without risking the core. It makes the most of an existing resource without any negative impacts on the environment,” Kate says.

The lambswool blankets too, make the most out of the existing resource – something the wool industry has been struggling to do.

“They’re totally made here in New Zealand, processed, spun and woven and we’re very proud of them,” she says.

One of the key aspects of successful diversification is to make sure they’re things you enjoy. “The café, the winery, the honey, the blankets – they all stand up financially but fundamentally they interest us and we enjoy them,” she says.

“Since we took over the farm in 2012 diversification has been a deliberate strategy.

“We’ve spread our income stream so we’re not at the mercy of any single industry. Now 83% of our income comes from four sources.”

100-year vision

Diversification is embedded in Mt Somers Station’s business vision – to be a highly diversified, values-led, multi-generational, agri-food business that our families and staff are proud to be part of. It’s centred around three pillars of success – place, people and profit.

Place, Our land is fundamental and central to our vision. We value the health and integrity of our land and native habitats and take a 100-year view on all decisions.

People, We aim to have a safe and secure environment for our people, foster their development and recognise our farm is their home. We value our community and remember the achievements of those who came before us as we plan for the future.

Profit, We recognise that in order to farm sustainably we must farm profitably. We set high expectations and remain agile, flexible and open to change.

Dairy diversification at Mt Somers Station Video: