If you wanted to see up close the pressures that farming is under – and then see how to respond with flair – a visit to Oakland’s Farm in Stoke is in order. Whether it’s dealing with recent floods, climate action, urbanisation, falling milk prices, crop diversification or soil health, Oakland’s has seen it all and still dealing with it all.
“We’ve been here since 1844 so we’re coming up to 180 years,” says Julian Raine, the outspoken and energetic entrepreneur who runs the 500 ha family farm of dairy, berries and trees.
A few things have changed in that time. Oaklands was just one of many farms in Stoke but, as the city has grown, milking has largely been swapped for housing and lifestyle blocks, and the cash crops in the area are more likely to be vegetables or grapes. “Now there are nearly 60,000 people within a 15km radius of the farm, which is highly unusual. It’s nearly an urban farm,” Raine says.
The urban sprawl onto fertile land has certainly riled Raine but he’s also turned the problem to his advantage. In 2012, Fonterra cancelled the farm’s winter contract, turning the farm to a seasonal supplier. But the returns weren’t sustainable, so Oakland’s switched to A2 cows and “turned back the clock” to come up with a new business model.
“Under he Fonterra contract, you’d see the tanker go and that was it. For 12-13 years we didn’t have any interaction with customers, so we said we need to be part of the community again and do what our customers want us to do, which is what we’ve done.”
Raine says those interactions led to some major insights – and some big changes – from the decision to use glass bottles to quickly stopping the importation of palm kernel to the creation of its popular home delivery service. “There’s nothing like talking to your customers to tell you what they really want … And when people hear that we’re the local ones, they say ‘we’re here to support you’.”
Raine says the company now does 3000 home deliveries, twice a week across the top of the south, from Seddon to Riwaka. And it has milk that’s picked up by another distributor who takes it down the coast and does bottle swaps. It also offers bottle swaps in Wellington with another supplier and it operates five fresh milk vending machines.
Aunt Jeans is Oakland Milk’s national supermarket brand, and Raine says he has ambitions to franchise it, in part to cut down on freight. “It’s a matter of ensuring the supply is good enough and it will roughly follow our model of using glass bottles and ensuring high animal welfare standards. All of those things that we believe in and we know the customers want.”
He says the company now sees itself as a high-end food business rather than a dairy farmer. qw“It’s more about saying ‘what can we put alongside it and how can we develop our brands?’ People trust our brands now, and we’re seen as a really strong positive local brand.”
Raine says he still focuses on “the grass to the vat”, and his son and daughter-in-law take it from the vat to the customer. “They’re doing a great job and we fully support what they’re doing … The dairy industry is interesting because even if you’re small you’re treated as if you’re Fonterra in terms of compliance and rules. It’s a lot more costly to be small. But we’re in the game for the long-term.”
He says the various regulations mean “you need to write big cheques”. But it also makes you look for efficiencies and Oaklands shows that limiting your impact on the environment and saving money are not mutually exclusive. “I think we all have a responsibility in terms of our impact. Whether it’s reducing energy use or making sure our streams and rivers are healthy, it’s very important for us.”
The factory has 176 solar panels on the roof, which provides one third of the energy required for the processing, chilling and bottling. “It certainly helps lower the paid energy bill. We also get carbon credits and offsets so it’s really good.”
The company recently bought its first hybrid delivery truck and it’s trialling that to see what fuel and emissions savings it can get (it currently has a fleet of 12 trucks). “We go above and beyond the regulation. The big one is our glass bottles. We’re trying to minimise plastic use and we get in excess of 200 turns on each bottle. We’re recycling water so very little goes down the drain and anything that goes down the drain gets spread onto pastures.”
Not only that, but the glass bottles allow for a slight premium, too, which helps to pay for the more expensive materials and process.
As for the cows, all feed is either grown on the farm, contract grown or waste products from other processes (for example, it uses spent brewer’s grain from Spring & Fern and leftovers from the juicing process from Raine’s orchards). The company reduced its dairy herd and increased the number of trees to address methane concerns.
“It’s great when you can say ‘here’s something we used to throw out and now it’s worth something,’” he says. “I don’t think we’ll get to zero impact, but we’re doing as much as we can for climate change and ensuring we waste as little as possible.”
Outside the farm, he says there’s a real commitment among the community to protect the region’s biodiversity and that’s often led by volunteers who want to do their bit to restore and protect the environment. Raine is involved in a number of those groups and he also uses the farm to “introduce people to where their food comes from” and how responsible dairying is done. “Prior to Covid we hit 750 farm visitors per year and 80% of those were school visits, including teachers and parents.”
When Raine left university the main thing he wanted to do was live in Nelson. Initially, he worked in horticulture and he is a director and founding shareholder at Wai-West, a very successful 40 year old business that grows apples, kiwifruit and boysenberries. He feels there is a sense of solidarity between other Nelson food companies and a real willingness from those who have found success to share their wisdom.
A good example of that is the Food Factory, a $2 million facility and collaborative working space for up-and-coming food companies that is located at Pic’s Peanut Butter World. Raine is on the board of the trust and, like the other experienced campaigners he works alongside, he says he’s “always there to help with people who want to talk to me. I’ve got plenty of war stories”.
“You tend to be attracted to your home-town people and we’re all supportive of each other. We all have similar issues, like being competitive in mainstream grocery when there’s a lot of overseas competition on the shelf, so you need to stick together.”
That parochialism also flows into who it does business with. It supplies milk to local cheese makers like Little River, Veno Vida and Cranky Goat, which created a new brand called Moody Cow using Oaklands’ A2 milk. It also supplies to local ice creameries Gelato Roma, Penguinos and Appleby Farms. “We’re exploring plant-based juices – I’m not sure I want to call them milks – and we have ambitions of producing an oat-based alternative that we’re about to trial in cafes. In metro areas, up to 30% of the people at some of the food shows we attend want something non-dairy.”
For Raine, Nelson will always be home. And he’s hopeful that the iwi-led 500 year regional intergenerational strategy will ensure that his home is kept in good condition.
“Nelson is the right size for me. It’s got a great climate, three national parks, and stunning beaches and seas. We can be many things to many people. But there is so much more that could happen.”
This article was produced with the assistance of the Nelson Regional Development Agency