Taking a stroll across the fields of Phil Varley and Catie (Cat) Campbell’s farm is a fascinating education. The first thing that strikes you is the beautiful array of colours across the pasture. Purples, yellows and reds intermingle with lush greens.
“Just by adding animals and time we’ve quadrupled the amount of species growing here and doubled infiltration rates,” Phil tells me. “Having control is such a human trait. Mother Nature has been doing this much longer than anyone else on the planet.” It is quickly becoming obvious that this pair are not your average farmers.
“We’ve become so disconnected from ourselves and nature,” Cat explains. “You can see that with how land is traditionally used and food is grown. The wisdom is already there in nature. We have to work with it instead of fighting against it.”
THE MOVE TO CANTERBURY
Cat, originally from New Zealand’s North Island, met Phil when living in the UK. They both come to live in New Zealand in 2012, eventually settling in New Brighton, renting a house a stones throw from the beach that they would eventually buy while looking around for land.
“We came into this with zero experience, to be honest,” smiles Phil. “We’ve always been keen to grow our own food, lead a low impact life. I started with organics, then did a permaculture course, coming to it from an environmentalist, conservation perspective. Along with researching I was working on other people’s farms, seeing what they were doing. If you’re prepared to learn and observe it just becomes fun.”
Cat has her own online health coaching business, supporting women making changes in their wellbeing.
“Last year there was a big shift [due to covid] with people looking for changes to their lifestyles and how they want to live,” Cat says. “It’s a good crossover with what we’re doing with the land here and helping reconnect people back to their food.”
FINDING THEIR IDEAL SPOT
Phil and Cat spent a long time finding the perfect piece of land, finally settling on 50 acres near Manuka Bay, with access to a forestry block next door.
“It was pretty run down,” says Phil, “with a rough landscape that had gone through six years of drought. But just down the road from here is one of the few abattoirs in the country that do private processing for small scale farmers. That was what made it work. Those final hours of an animals life have such a big effect on the quality of the meat. This was really important to us. And being close to a beach is a bonus.”
The farm runs cows, sheep and goats and Phil focuses on traits of the animals rather than breeds.
“We want to fit the animal to the landscape, not forcing the landscape into having something on it that is not appropriate. Some parts of the property are quite steep and rugged so having tall, heavy framed animals wouldn’t work. We’ve gone for a breed of cows with shorter legs and a stockier frame so they can handle the hills better. They are generally a bit smaller so they’re not so hard on the landscape. I like experimenting and currently we’ve got Lowline Angus and Belted Galloways."
“Then with the sheep we’ve gone for quite a blocky frame and short legs so they can get about the hills. They’re majority shedding types – Dorpers and Wiltshires, with some other breeds just to compare – Suftex, Coopworths and Romneys.”
Last year they only had two cows and a dozen sheep to process. This year they will be processing one cow a month and have up to 100 sheep. Their goats are mainly Boer, bred for meat but since their local processor, Harris’ stopped private processing of goat meat, the goats now take on other functions.
“What we’re trying to create ultimately is a really resilient system. Resilience in farms, the farmers and our community. The root of resilience is diversity. By having another animal in the mix, their microbiome, their gut, their excretions are going to be different and have an impact on biological life on the farm and I think there’s value in that. Our landscape hums and we believe that’s due to the diversity, so the more the better."
A LOW STRESS LIFE
The animals intermingle together in one mob with temporary electric fencing and are regularly moved. Phil calls to them as we approach and if I didn’t know better, I’d say they were pleased to see us. A young, white goat breaks free from this eclectic group and runs towards us, full pelt and leaps into Cat’s arms. Quite a welcome! This is Goaty – the only animal on the farm with its own name. One of triplets, the mother was unable to raise all three, so he was taken home and bottle fed.
Goaty has proved his worth when moving stock as, along with one or two other rather friendly cows, they will follow Phil, as he calls and gently coaxes them along. The others will then follow along behind. No barking dogs, no shouting or waving of arms.
“It’s all about low stress management,” says Phil. “They actually enjoy being moved. These aren’t lazy animals. They are our version of athletes, agile on the hills. These are really strong, muscular animals. If you’re consuming one of these, used to exercise, used to being relaxed, used to having a little run around when they want to, then I think you’re consuming that energy too. We want these animals for the time they are with us to be as happy, healthy and content as possible. It’s better for us and it’s better for them.”
SLOW AND PATIENT MONITORING
Phil is passionate about what the animals eat. He will often sit for hours monitoring their favourites, examining the effect of the animals interaction with the pasture.
“When the animals take the first pass, they’ll take the tips off their favourites first, then they’ll gradually eat down further. Those tips are higher in sugar and minerals. If they’re left in a paddock for days or months the quality of what they’re eating gradually declines along with their condition and health. I usually shift them anything from several times a day up to once every three days if I’m away from the farm.
“If we get the soil system working the grasses are super healthy. Buzzing. Whatever’s eating them is going to be really buzzing too. You can see that in the animals. They’re shiny and healthy. I use the word vitality a lot because you really feel it from what you are eating. You’re positive, you’ve got heaps of energy.”
THE ABUNDANCE OF LOCAL FOOD PRODUCTION
Cat tells me how unique the Canterbury food scene is. “We’ve got nuts, grains, fruits, vegetables, meat, fish – one of the few places where you can eat almost everything you need seasonally. So many people around here are interested in seasonal, local, good energy food and care about building relationships with the land and consumers.”
Keeping it local is key. Phil aims to keep the distribution area as tight as possible, concentrating mainly on Christchurch to avoid excessive food transportation.
They lead me on a tour of their vegetable patch, stopping to pick and offer me tastes of this and that. I am amazed at the punchy flavours of some of these unfamiliar plants. Everything is planted very densely. This is a high intensity garden.
Garlic is a favourite crop taking about a third of their production space, with about 10 – 12 other speciality vegetables in total, including yacon, three varieties of maori potatoes, globe artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, tomatillos and an array of beautiful salad greens.
Darrin Dougherty from Australia has been a big influence with his philosophies on regenerative agriculture and design of production landscapes. As too has ‘lean farming’ principles.
Positioning and size of vegetable beds, tools, everything involved in the production of vegetables is carefully thought out for maximum efficiency and production. Favourite tool of the moment is a broadfork from Crafty Gatherer for preparing the beds. Looking like a rake on steroids, it gets down deep aerating the soil. It sounds like hard work, and it can be, but Phil loves it and takes pleasure from being outside.
“We collect washed up bull kelp from Manuka Bay and Gore Bay, lay it down on the beds and compost over the top. We make liquid brews from seaweed and manure for fertiliser,” says Phil. “That’s about all we add to the soil here. It’s really difficult to get good compost though. We collect what other people would see as waste; horse bedding, animal manure, wood chip and eventually we hope to be able to produce enough compost ourselves.”
When New Zealand went into lockdown during Covid, Phil and Cat’s life didn’t change much. It hit home for them just how important their own food resilient lifestyle was.
“We don’t really go to the supermarket much anyway,” says Cat, “other than to buy a few items like toilet paper. We had dry goods in the pantry, meat in the freezer and vegetables in the garden so we just didn’t have the need to go out anywhere.”
The farm is not organically certified. They prefer to call themselves customer certified and are way beyond organic in terms of their approach.
Phil explains, “I pretty much know everyone I’m selling to and I’m happy for anyone to come out and talk to us and see what we’re doing. The organic standards are a ‘how to’ not about outcomes. We’re all about outcomes here. For us, our supply chain is from our hands, to a person and then they’re eating it. It’s a super short supply chain.”
“Regulation leads to lack of responsibility,” adds Cat. “There’s a disconnect. What we’re trying to do is recreate that connection between food and farmers and the environment. That’s why we actively encourage people to come out and see what we do. Self-certification.”
SALES AND MARKETING
With the increase in production Phil has been learning about marketing by social media.
“I hadn’t been on Facebook for 10 years or so, never even heard of Instagram so I’ve been working on that now we’re scaling up. We’ve always been able to sell what we had by word of mouth, it hadn’t been a problem.”
“We generally work with smaller scale restaurants who are looking for locally grown, niche products and that have menus changing weekly if not daily. I love working with chefs, they really appreciate the different vegetables and flavours and how to complement them.”
“People visiting our farm feel the energy and excitement of what we’re doing,” says Cat. “They form a relationship with Phil and know who they’re supporting. It’s not just about consumption, it’s an experience. Chefs in restaurants are selling that experience too and we’re all about enhancing that.”
Phil and Cat’s future plans include building a home here one day. They currently split their time between their house in New Brighton and a very cosy on-site caravan. They are working towards creating multiple income streams in the future, including accommodation for tourists who might be looking for a workshop type experience or just to enjoy the landscape and stunning views.
“Something I’m really passionate about is just talking to people”, says Phil. “I’ve been so fortunate in the people I’ve learnt from. I consider them some of the best in the world and now believe I’ve got something to share.
“There’s a heap of experience out there and I’ve picked up a lot. If you want to be good at something you have to go out there and find the best people there are and learn from them. We stand on the shoulders of giants.