Patoa Farms may not be a familiar name to many Kiwis, but many will have enjoyed the pork from this family-owned farm in North Canterbury.
More than 20 years ago, Steve Sterne, Jens Ravn and their families joined forces with a vision to farm pigs outdoors and as close to their natural habitat as possible.
For the sows, this means roaming free range with small straw-based shelters in large paddocks for farrowing. For pigs being finished for bacon, it means large eco-barns with deep litter straw, the perfect blend for producing pork in the most eco-friendly sustainable way possible.
The farm on the south bank of the stunning Hurunui River is now run by Steve and his daughter Holly.
Their delicious pork, which has an SPCA Blue Tick and is accredited under NZPork’s PigCare™ certification programme, is a popular product at Countdown, Harris Meats in nearby Cheviot and from wholesalers who supply independent butchers.
Steve and Jens’ vision was to farm pigs in a natural and sustainable way, says Holly.
“From the outset, Steve and Jen were focused on identifying a suitable location for Patoa Farms. They were both committed to being good stewards of the environment and that philosophy remains the same today.”
The focus at Patoa Farms, now New Zealand’s largest pig farm, is to create a circular economy of inputs and outputs, in terms of the cycle of nutrients through its eco-system – all supported by the latest technology.
The farm has its own weather station and centre pivot irrigation and moisture probes are used for planning irrigation.
“There’s a lot of technology we interface with, but it’s the people behind the technology that makes it effective,” says Holly.
“We consult with an agronomist for our composting and cropping enterprises and we use an expert to help us with the OverseerFM modelling and nutrient budgeting tool.”
The free-farming system, which sees the farm produce about100,000 pigs a year, allows for all the manure and used straw to be recycled and reused in the most effective ways.
Soiled straw for composting goes back to the company that provides the straw -- in the same trucks the fresh load has been delivered in --part of Patoa Farms’ approach to maximising the efficiency of all vehicles that come on farm. Composted manure is also sold to other farmers or used on cropping land.
“For us, the main reason we farm the way we do is because it is easy to pull the compostable materials out of our system this way,” says Holly.
“We work with agronomists and conduct soil tests to ensure it goes only where it is needed, at the prescribed rate for the requirements of the land.”
Holly firmly believes that while 80 per cent of pork quality can be attributed to genetics, and high quality feed, care and good stockmanship is critical.
“Good stockmanship and good welfare all through the life of the pigs is a significant factor in the quality of the product. Calm happy pigs in a good environment cared for by understanding staff is so important to us at Patoa Farms.
“I also love the resilience of pigs. They are incredibly intelligent animals and impressive in the way they interact with and respond differently to different stock people.”
The farm employs 55 people – contributing around $2 million in wages to the local economy and is an approved provider of the Primary ITO New Zealand Certificate in Pork Production qualification for levels 3 and 4.
“We can offer that on farm due to our economy of scale,” says Holly. “It means staff don’t have to go off site to do block courses and it makes it much easier for them to work around families, children and other commitments.
“However, in our industry, a lot of training happens on the job too. We also aim to recognise the different skills people bring to the workplace. For instance, someone might not be the highest contributor to productivity but they may bring a great deal to our workplace culture in terms of personality and attitude.”
The Sterne family clearly have a strong focus on community. When the local Hawarden Hotel was faced with closure, they bought it and reopened it as the Hogget bar and restaurant, providing a social hub as well as accommodation for farm staff moving into the area.
In her spare time, Holly’s ‘hobby’ is helping with the development of a sheep flock that has potential as milking sheep.
“Our pride is not just in our product but in our organisation as a whole. What we do is so much about bringing a whole variety of people together who produce something very special.
“We are focused on the wellbeing of the local community and the role our organisation can play in that. It’s about how we run the business, having the right staff, suppliers and customers. We are always trying to look forward to deliver a better outcome for our people, the environment, the community and our animals.”