The Waiterenui Farm

Out of the cold, wet rain, a green desert rises in the bosom of Hawke’s Bay. To the human eye, it defies all other landscapes. Blink and a colorblind could easily confuse its grassy bent hills for golden sand dunes. Farmhouses appear as tiny specks against an emerald backdrop; a mirage in the middle of this Saharan antithesis. And we are thirsty. Very thirsty. Thirsty to know whose hand created this endless rolling parade of pasture and what we can learn from it.

Following a solitary country road, we arrive at the MacFarlane farmhouse near dusk. The cry of the guineafowl spooks us quickly out of our car and up to the front door. It is a good thing that we can’t see them because the guineafowl face bears an eerie resemblance to the Joker, which only intensifies the spookiness of its call. But as soon as we enter their home, the MacFarlanes make us feel instantly welcome.

When you put a farmer and a chef in the same room, there are bound to be interesting conversations and even more so – one might expect – when that farmer is a third-generation Angus cattle breeder and that chef has been a vegetarian for over twenty years. But the reality is that these are just silly stereotypes that most people can laugh about within the first five minutes of conversation, which we is what we did. I continue to be amazed by the powerful human act of hospitality. Whether it be learned behavior or simply genetic benevolence, it is the most uplifting part of travel and perhaps any interaction I’ve had with other human beings to date.

Will and Viv MacFarlane were different only in that they raised the bar beyond what we could have ever imagined. If hospitality is a human instinct, then the MacFarlanes come from a dominant trait line that stretches back thousands of years. Our time on their farm gave us our greatest reprieve from any worry and we slipped into a simple routine of waking up to the rooster, taking care of the dogs and the horses, and indulging in exceptional food, cold beer, and thoughtful conversations on the palette of cultures we represented: New Zealand, England, Argentina, U.S.A., and the Basque Country.

In fact, I would venture to guess that when Santa Claus is not getting ready for the Christmas season, he takes his vacations in New Zealand. Will MacFarlane is likely a distant cousin, because while he is as fit as a farmer can be, he has the same jolly cheeks, twinkling eyes, and big laugh. An excitable intellect, Will starts his ideas with words like “Gee!” and “Aha!” and can never resist an evening glass of spirits by the fire. (As we know, Santa Claus prefers milk, but I’m with Will on this one).

Viv is also bright-eyed and merry, best described as someone who seems incapable of having a selfish thought. She made sure that we didn’t work too hard and that we had plenty of ideas for places to explore. She listened intently to everything we said and shared, so much that, after we expressed our deep love of cheese one night over dinner, she showed up the next day with a grab bag of different regional cheeses for us to try. We could barely believe it:  we were over thirty years old and still being spoiled like kids.

On our first day, Viv took us on a tour of the Waiterenui farm by truck and we were impressed. The green grass was as wide as the ocean and as infinite as the sky. It was difficult to understand the magnitude of the land and the miracle that is New Zealand grass, but in the days that passed, we began to gain a better understanding of what it means to be “a grass farmer” in New Zealand.

“Waiterenui”, the name of the farm, is the Maori word for big, fast flowing water. Will’s great grandfather started breeding cattle in 1915 when he came over from Scotland. Then Will’s father, followed by Will, carried on the family tradition of maintaining a successful herd. At present, the herd is 100% grass-fed and rotated through the pastureland in correlation with pasture growth. Their bulls are top choice for other New Zealand farmers looking to improve their herd and their beef serves premium Angus markets across the world.

The Waiterenui farm felt very distant from the kind of industrial farms I grew up around in the Midwest of the United States. The MacFarlanes are careful to eat mostly locally produced organic products at home and their bookshelves are full of reading like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and sustainable farming practices. Will is an active member of the local political group, Pure Hawke’s Bay, which recently won a measure to ensure that the Hawke’s Bay region remains a GMO-free zone.

When I asked about these differences, the MacFarlanes pointed out that Kiwi farming is a fundamentally different pursuit, because unlike the U.S., it is unsubsidized. In 1984, the New Zealand government cut farm subsidies in an effort to bring the country out of an economic crisis and while the initial transition to unsubsidized farming was painful for many, New Zealand was able to turn the corner, survive, and thrive. They are now an important player on the global food market, known for their high-quality products, and Kiwi farmers have grown proud of their innovative, diversified farming practices.

“When they cut subsidies in ’84, there were also really high interest rates and a serious drought, “ Will recalled. “That really taught us a lesson because it was the first big drought that we had and we have lived with droughts ever since.”

And when farming was subsidized, pretty much anyone could farm but when the subsidies were taken away and we experienced those droughts, a lot of farmers had to sell, “ Viv explained. “We lost a lot of farmers. But the ones that stayed, the ones that preserved, were the ones that were smart enough to figure it out. We were left with the savvy ones. There were some guys that went out of business that shouldn’t have but they just didn’t have enough money.”

“The downfall of subsidized farming is that it distorts a lot of things that you don’t realize it distorts,” Will asserted. “Without subsidies, you’ve got to learn how to spend money on things that improve efficiency.”

Farm subsidies have always been a point of contention for U.S. farmers and tax payers but big business has stifled much of the opposition. It is true that it would be difficult to apply the success story of a tiny country like New Zealand to the behemoth food industry and population of the United States and hope for the same results, but it also clear that our current modus operandi is neither logical nor sustainable.

“Big business is a problem in the U.S.,” Will observed. “In New Zealand, thankfully, there have been some really good brains in agricultural academia. And since we don’t have a lot of big business influence, they’ve been able to stay there. They’re not forwarding any agenda, just science.”

“And consumers don’t realize they’re actually paying for the food twice when they support subsidies,” Viv pointed out. “They’re paying taxes for those subsidies and then they’re buying the food that’s been subsidized at full price. So I just can’t understand how those kinds of subsidies keep going in other countries.”

The fact that the entire country of New Zealand remains GMO-free could be a testament to their immunity from big business influence, but as our discussion deepened, I realized that this fact may just as well be a purely economic positioning. This is Will, talking about the local political group, Pure Hawke’s Bay, that was established eight years ago to ensure that the local district would declare the Hawke’s Bay region GMO-free.

“And it worked. They saw the rationale,” Will said. “We’re an example because we supply two markets that stipulate GMO-free. One is Waitrose (a supermarket chain in Britain) and the Angus Pure Special Reserve Beef in America. These markets exist and they are premium markets that New Zealand can serve.”

Yet once this moratorium on GMOs expires, the future seems uncertain. Will is pragmatic about the use of GMOs while Viv doesn’t see it as a viable strategy for the country.

“Look, GMOs have got a future,” Will insisted. “Especially if they nail the RNA side, but we’re just not convinced yet. The timing isn’t right at the moment, but it’s inevitable in the future.”

Well I don’t think it’s inevitable,” Viv disagreed. “There is just no sense in New Zealand going down the GMO path. We can’t produce huge amounts. We can’t feed the world. That’s not our plan.”

Well yes, we can only feed 45 million people at the moment, so let’s make them 45 million wealthy people,” Will responded with economic alacrity, referring to New Zealand’s strategic position in serving premium markets. “That’s what it’s all about. But we also feel like we have an ethical mindset as well. What’s nice about New Zealand is that without big business, we can still make the decisions about how we want to farm ourselves.”

New Zealand is also blessed because the mentality of “go big or go home” farming has not played out as viciously as in the United States. Will insists that it exists but because the country has a lot more community owned banks, farmers have better options when gaining access to funds.

So in the absence of big business, what does influence the farming philosophy of the MacFarlanes?

“The weather,” Viv says. “And Will is an intellect. He can’t just go in and do normal farming. He’s got to have a challenge. A mental challenge. He’s always looking for better ways of doing things.”

“My dad had a very old style of farming. We wanted to increase production and achieve better utilization, so we changed a lot of things,” Will adds. “Viv also has a great empathy for animals, which I think either you have or you don’t.”

During our stay, we many more conversations were had about farming, the rise of fast food and the death of the family meal, and food ethics. We celebrated many of the well-known “food fighters” in the U.S. working against the industry and praised the Basques on their respect for all things culinary. We admired New Zealand farming innovations and agreed that when it comes to cooking meat, Argentinians know best. We are certain that world needs more farmers like Will and Viv: those that view farming as a lifestyle philosophy rather than just a means to an end. And we need more consumers who seek to understand the impact of their most omnipotent every day choice: what to eat.

Never underestimate the importance of your food. You are what you eat and at Waiterenui, we were free roaming, grass-fed, and content. We left the MacFarlane farm up to our ears in freshly baked cookies, a loaf of sourdough bread, cheese, and a full tank of gas, still in disbelief at our own good luck. We will never forget the time we stumbled upon a magical oasis in the vast green desert of the North Island.

-Ashley

INFORMATION FOR DIABETICS

As a diabetic or any health-conscious person, one of the best things you can do for yourself is clearly define your relationship with food. Pay attention to what you eat, where it comes from, and how it affects you. And pay close attention, because there is a world of information and misinformation out there. If you’re not sure where to begin, we like Michael Pollan’s food rules. If you don’t get too excited about what you eat, try to surround yourself with people who do – it will rub off! We also suggest having a local farmer over for dinner in order to learn more about what happens on the other side of our food chain. We certainly found our experience rewarding.

IS GRASS-FED BEEF BETTER THAN FEEDLOT BEEF?

It depends on who you ask. Research has shown that grass-fed beef contains more beneficial fatty acids, more vitamins, higher beta-carotene content, higher CLA (a potential cancer fighter), and a healthier ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids. Yet when it comes to flavor, the average consumer tends to favor feedlot beef.

From an environmental perspective, arguments can be made for both sides. Grass-fed beef cattle fertilize their own pastures and are therefore less polluting but due to their longer lifespans (it takes longer to fatten a cow on grass than it does on grain), they’re releasing a lot more methane and other greenhouse gases into the air.

However, there is also an enormous amount of fossil fuel energy invested into the grain used for feedlot cattle. We’re actually getting less food from the cow compared to the amount of food and money we put into it. On the other hand, a grass-fed cow takes a plant that grows naturally with fuel from the sun and turns it into something that we can eat – a much more sustainable process.

Yet even here, there are reality checks. Given the scale of the world population, it wouldn’t be feasible to turn the Earth into a pasture either. There would be serious environmental consequences and there wouldn’t be enough food to go around. In New Zealand, the system works precisely because of their abundance of grass and small population size.

So if you ask us, the answer is: go vegetarian. But if you are going to eat meat, do so sparingly and with reverence. Be willing to pay a premium price for that New Zealand grass-fed beef steak to ensure that Kiwi farmers continue to exist and thrive. Because they might be our best proof yet that there is more than one way of doing things.

 

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