Trailblazing a new era of sustainable farming

In an era of “dirty dairying” and animal welfare discussions, New Zealand-based limited partnership fund Southern Pastures is turning stereotypes on their heads. Not only is it a poster child of how farming ought to be done, but it’s been named on the shortlist for the World Sustainability Awards in Germany next Friday (NZ time).

Time to read: 6 mins

Southern Pastures, which owns Lewis Road Creamery and New Zealand Grass Fed Products Limited Partnership, is a long-term Baker Tilly Staples Rodway Waikato client, and our team has watched it go from strength to strength.

The tale began with astronaut Neil Armstrong in 1969. A young Prem Maan, now executive chairman of Southern Pastures, saw how excited adults were when the American became the first man to walk on the moon. It sparked Prem’s lifelong interest in science and now he ponders what time-lapse photos of Earth might look like if taken from space at that pivotal moment through to 2022.     

“You would see two things: Firstly, how beautiful Earth is and how lonely it is – it’s a shining planet. But you’d also see the atmosphere is thickening due to the greenhouse gas effect, and the other disturbing picture is that the topsoil is thinning and disappearing, and the two are related.”

He’s spent a long time thinking about this – long enough to create a powerhouse agricultural business with several talented and knowledgeable cohorts. 

You might have heard of one of them. Former All Blacks captain Graham Mourie is one of the four founders – not that Prem or the investors care about his rugby heritage. They value Graham for his five-generation dairy farming expertise. The other two founders are Taari Nicholas and “Forensics” Phillip Wight (named for his laser-like focus). In 2009 they set about building a principles-led model of dairy farming.

In their own small way, they’re trying to save the world. Prem, who has a background in economics, investment banking and agriculture, feels “sustainability” represents sameness, so they have a loftier ambition: Resilience and increased production in the face of climate volatility.

He refers to this goal as “antifragility” and says the term comes from former option trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb – he of the phrase “Black Swan”. It denotes the capability to thrive and grow in times of volatility, randomness, disorder and stress. “That’s something we’ve taken to heart," says Prem. "Each time there’s a crisis we take the view that we should use it to try and make our business stronger.”

That means looking after their people, their land and the cows that graze it. In the past decade, Southern Pastures has bought 20 dairy farms across Waikato and Canterbury. Its endeavours include a collaboration with Fonterra at Morrinsville to produce Lewis Road Creamery’s 10 Star butter – the product that’s seen Southern Pastures and Lewis Road Creamery shortlisted for the Sustainability Excellence Award category in Germany.

They export the butter to the US and Singapore, and it landed on Kiwi supermarket shelves in March when it won a Gold Medal at the 2022 Outstanding NZ Food Producer Awards.

The butter embodies Southern Pastures’ “10 Star” values, which span the environment, treatment of animals, human wellbeing and climate change initiatives. Government organisation AsureQuality independently audits the values, so that consumers can trust in what Prem calls a “genuinely pasture-to-plate audited process”.

“We can hand-on-heart certify that this butter comes exclusively from Southern Pasture farms, and we know what the cows were fed and how they were treated. We set out to create the best butter in the world and believe we have. It’s not just the taste, but its nutritional value. We put it on our cheese board and it disappears faster than the cheese.”       

The partnership with Baker Tilly Staples Rodway Waikato

Prem says they chose Baker Tilly Staples Rodway Waikato in 2012 for its combination of rural expertise and personal service, and international network that would be recognised by their investors – everyday Europeans who are putting their money into pension funds.

In 2014, BTSR Waikato accountant Hayden Bartz was seconded to Southern Pastures as their in-house CFO, and he’s backed up by a host of other BTSR Waikato staff who look after the fund’s accounting and business advisory needs. “That partnership has worked really well,” says Prem. “We have the luxury of a CFO sitting in our office with a full backup. It’s allowed us to buy more farms and purchase Lewis Road Creamery without having to expand our accounting team.”         

BTSR Waikato business advisory and specialist services associate Merryn Telfer has seen Southern Pastures repeatedly invest in “doing the right thing”.

That includes the creation of “good practice” bobby calf pens, retiring and planting out steep areas, creating GMO-free calf feed, improving effluent practices, soil sequestering to capture more carbon, creating native-tree boundaries to buffer their Canterbury herds against Mycoplasma bovis and promote biodiversity, and providing Employee Assistance Programme services.

“They look after their people and animals,” says Merryn. “They’re showing you can balance the needs of the environment and do the right thing with farming. It’s neat to see they’re getting recognised for what they do.”

A force for good

Prem is proud of what they’ve achieved thus far. He’s excited that they’ve retained their core team – the founders, his wife Lynette (who serves as marketing director) and associate director Mark Bridges, along with other valued players. 

He is also pleased that their farms are starting to show resilience, with production levels remaining steady or dropping little during two droughts.

Dialogue across the world has become increasingly anti pastural and dairy farming. However Prem says a lot of plant alternatives rely on monoculture and believes loss of biodiversity is an even bigger existential threat than climate change. “People aren’t looking at it holistically… I guess that’s why I’m going back to my childhood, trying to go back into space. What concerns and motivates me is the bigger picture of the planet as a whole, and as farmers we have the ability to be a force for good.

“Soil can hold three times the amount of carbon than the atmosphere and all the plants combined. As farmers we have a view to mitigating climate change by building topsoil while preserving the carbon in the soil. We’re setting a baseline on our farms this year for our soil carbon and we’ll measure that in three years’ time to see what difference we’ve made. We’re also having studies done on our farms to see how much biodiversity we’re increasing every year.”

He’s rapt about acknowledgement of their efforts, including being used as a case study for animal welfare by global organisation FAIRR, which helps drive change in the animal agriculture sector. 

“We’re quite proud that people outside of Southern Pastures hold us up as good examples of how to do things – and it is genuinely an honour to be shortlisted for the World Sustainability Awards.”  

In the case of Southern Pastures, the cream has indeed risen to the top.

Footnote: The Sustainability Excellence Award was won by Vancouver-based telecommunications company TELUS. Heineken CPO Hervé La Faou, one of the judges, thought the World Sustainability Awards 2022 submissions were the most inspiring so far, from a quality and relevance perspective.

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