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A winner in the lottery of life

Barrhill, Mid Canterbury, cropping farmer Malcolm Cairns grows seed potatoes on 50ha of leased land.

Malcolm Cairns thanks his lucky stars his grandfather decided to buy a farm in Barrhill on the south side of Rakaia River, where the locals will tell you they have some of the world's best soils and where he can grow a great range of profitable crops.

"My grandad had the foresight in 1930 to come out and buy this place when he lived near Ashburton – I mean, how lucky was that? There are people who would give their eye teeth to have the opportunity that I've got just because I happen to be born to a farmer who lived in Barrhill,"  he says.

"You can't take that for granted, you've got to push things on, you owe it to yourself and the farming community to have a good go, not just do more of the same, that's how I see it.

"The soils are just fantastic.  They have good water-holding capacity yet don't turn into a clay bog in winter so you can always get on and work them. You don't have a period of six months over winter where you can't do anything because it's too wet. They're just very versatile with good natural fertility."

Cairns grows ryegrass, white clover, wheat, barley, mustard and pak choi, peas and seed potatoes, as well as finishing winter lambs on green feed rape.  The home farm is 187ha and Cairns also owns another 50ha up the road and leases 40ha to grow potatoes.

After growing up on the farm, Cairns went to Lincoln University and then worked for Wrightson, as it was then, as grain and seed agent before joining Eurogrow potatoes. He says his experience at a grain agent inspired him to go back to farming and he also picked up valuable knowledge about potatoes. 

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"When I came home I looked at some of my neighbours I thought were doing a pretty good job and a lot of them had potatoes. This is traditionally a seed potato area and it seemed that had been used by a number of different neighbours to grow their business and get ahead," he says.

"It's a way of expanding the business without having to go and buy a heap more land, because you're able to pay a guy enough to lease a paddock for a year and make a profit from that paddock.  It allows you to do more with less rather than having to go and buy more land to do more of the same.

"I'm lucky to be working with landowners with clean land and good irrigation management."

Cairns came back home 10 years ago and since then has worked hard to increase production and make the best of his quality soils. "There was an opportunity to push things along a bit, put a few more inputs in and hopefully get the crop out the other end."

When water from Stage 1 of the Barrhill Chertsey irrigation scheme became available for his 50ha  block in 2010, Cairns signed up, having seen what a difference irrigation made on ground he leased to grow potatoes.  And when Stage 2 came on stream, the home farm had irrigation put on too.

"It was a pretty easy decision. With irrigation you can get a payback pretty quick if you get your management right," he says, pointing to the difference between a ryegrass crop last year grown without irrigation and this year's harvest with water, even though it wasn't available until December, probably a month later than optimal. 

"Last year we had crops doing 1200kg/ha, this year some of them, not all, would have done 2200/kg. That's a tonne of grass seed difference;  at $2.20, that's a $2200/ha plus difference.

"If irrigation's costing say $1000/ha for your annual charge and to service debt on your farm infrastructure, there's quite a gain there."

While farms all over Canterbury Plain have been converted to dairying, because until the payout crashed that was the best way to pay for irrigation, Cairns hasn't felt pressured to make that change.

"I've been through the exercise and probably at a $6 payout, which seems a long way away at the moment, your revenue is higher per hectare, your net profit is higher per hectare – just - but debt-servicing, because you've got to build a shed and houses and  buy cows, just kind of kills it.

"So your bottom-line profit is better doing what you're doing and you enjoy that better anyway so why would you convert?"

As part of its consent from Environment Canterbury, Barrhill Chertsey Irrigation has a nitrate allocation for the whole scheme and all shareholders have to have farm environment plans.  Cairns is on the board of the irrigation company.

"Part of managing that is trying to push our shareholders towards good management practices on farm to reduce their nitrate levels."

While he was worried about the FEP process, Cairns says it turned out to be valuable and steered him towards better farming practices.  The first step was having a nutrient budget done by a Ravensdown consultant, using Overseer.

"That spits out a number and alongside that sits your farm environment plan which covers all the key environmental issues like fertiliser use, the way you use fertiliser, the way you use water, what sort of kit you've got to apply it, how you decide when to apply it, all those sort of things."

The FEP is filled in online and if the answers given are not recognised as good management practice, that prompts fresh questions. "Automatically a red line comes up and it says, 'What actions to you intend to take to rectify this?'" 

The responses Cairns got started him thinking, particularly about how he measured soil moisture.

"Just answering that section made me think, 'I do need to improve things here or get a better handle on it', partly because I was pretty green as an irrigator, so I bought some soil moisture probes.

"So, doing the process made me think, 'OK this is important environmentally, it's also an area that's going to be beneficial to me because I'll use less water and get charged for less water'," Cairns says.

He was also prompted to improve his recording of fertiliser and spray use, and now uses Production Wise, an online tool developed by the Foundation for Arable Research, to back up his paper records and get everything in one place.

"Nobody gets excited about doing compliance stuff but it was a positive experience – it made me think and that's important, it triggered a thought process and I just took action from some of that.

"You wouldn't want people to be scared off because they're not computer-literate because it's not about that – you don't have to drive Overseer, you just sit down for a half-day and go through it with a consultant."

Cairns is happy his farm is becoming more productive and also pleased to be taking action to reduce his environmental footprint – and all the while he's grateful his grandfather decided to make Barrhill home.

"He made the call to come out and buy this place and, leaving that aside, we live in the South Island of New Zealand – we're 1 million out of 7 billion people, I mean we've won the lottery already." 

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