Lake Hawea Station sits among some of the most rugged and beautiful land in Aotearoa New Zealand. The 6,500-hectare station, which has close to 10,000 Merino sheep and 200 Angus cows, can be found on the eastern side of Lake Hawea in the Central Otago region.
Under the care of Geoff and Justine Ross, the station primarily operates as a sheep and beef farm, with Merino wool, Angus beef, and lamb as key products, but the farm also offers accommodation, an events space, eco and agriculture tours, honey, mountain biking, and e-bike tours — all under the Farm's 'Carbon Clear' brand.
Inside a carbon positive farm
Carbon positive (at Lake Hawea Station, they call it Carbon Clear) is the vision of Geoff and Justine. Along with their two sons, they're passionate about the environment, regenerative agriculture, and climate change — and set out to establish a farm that would give back to the earth. As a result of that vision and hard work, the farm has recently been certified Australasia's first carbon positive farm.
As part of their certification through the Toitu programme, the farm's emissions are calculated, reduced where possible, and the remainder are offset on farm through regenerating natives. The farm is certified as carbon positive, but the end goal is to get to 10x carbon positive.
A key part of that goal will be transitioning away from fossil fuels, which the farm is already working on. Right now, they're trialling electric farm bikes and are working on switching machinery to electric or hydrogen powered. They're also planning to get an electric tractor as soon as one is available.
Geoff and Justine have also invested in solar for their electric fencing, lighting, gates, and dog kennel compound. It's a large system, similar to the Tesla Powerwall, with a battery system that stores any excess power.
"From our perspective, we've got eight years left to meet our national climate targets, and we just want to do our bit and influence change in some way," says Justine. "To sequester more carbon from this world than we emit into it is the single biggest koha we can make to the world."
Given Lake Hawea Station is a farm, one of the first challenges the Ross's face is methane emissions. Almost 71% of CO2-equivalent emissions from Lake Hawea Station are due to methane, so reducing it is definitely part of their plan.
The Ross's eldest son is a big advocate for carbon reduction and mitigation and is currently studying a PHD on the carbon sequestering properties of seaweed, so that's one avenue the family is pursuing. They've found a company, Seaforest, in Australia that are exploring seaweed supplements and are talking to them about trials in New Zealand.
They're also looking into the potential for regenerative pastures to reduce emissions and including soil and tussock in the carbon calculations which would push them further towards their 10x carbon positive goal.
"Whilst we have calculated our position already as carbon positive, we would make huge leaps toward our ultimate 10x carbon positive goal if methane emissions could be measured and reduced," says Justine. "That's something we're actively looking at and exploring.
"We're aware of the smoke and mirrors that sometimes comes with corporate environmentalism. The farming sector has prioritised freshwater pollution in recent years. That's critical to address, but it is only part of any farm's environmental performance. Action on biodiversity and climate change need to be equally weighted."
Biodiversity and regenerative agriculture are a big focus. To date, the farm has fenced off all 7km of its lakefront and the main creek areas, and planted strips of native trees, which not only improves biodiversity, but also keeps stock away from waterways and provides shelter and shade.
The farm has just hired its first Head of Ecology and Soil, focused on the farm's nursery and planting programmes. A total of 14,000 trees have already been planted, but the goal is to plant 100,000. They have also remapped all their vegetation to make sure they're on track to reaching their 10x carbon positive goal. The Toitu certification found that the farm currently locked up well over 3,966 tonnes of carbon through extensive tree planting and areas of regenerating bush.
Regenerative agriculture does come with a higher upfront cost, says Justine, and that's largely because of the greater diversity of seeds being purchased. But that cost is offset by year three as the pastures require less fertiliser, retain more moisture, and deliver better animal growth rates.
"By presenting regenerative agriculture as both a way of improving financial and environmental performance on farm, we hope to be an example for others to look at and ideally follow. We welcome visits to go over our plans and see our pastures, and in discussion groups we hear more farmers starting to trial this system, which is really positive."
Both Geoff and Justine come from farming families and are passionate about agriculture and the power it can have for good. Since they started Lake Hawea Station, they’ve collaborated widely with other farmers, industry groups, and brands within the primary sector.
One partnership is with Sheep Inc, a UK-based clothing brand that provides transparency in the supply chain. Consumers pay a premium for the environmental credentials that come with the Merino product, and they also get to 'adopt' a sheep and follow its life on-farm through the Farm IQ software system. For Lake Hawea Station, it's an example of the added value that sustainability can bring to a farm.
Geoff and Justine are both passionate about knowledge sharing, so the farm open sources everything — inviting farming groups, community groups, and schools onto the land, sharing their carbon calculations and regenerative plans, or speaking at conferences.
"We've seen other farmers now move to calculate their carbon position," says Justine. "We don't consider ourselves to be exemplary farmers, but we'd like to think that we can share knowledge on getting premiums out of the farm that we all deserve. Farming is the most generous sector that we've experienced in terms of knowledge sharing.
"We will keep pushing to learn more, apply more, do better across environment, social, animal welfare, technology and community. Importantly, we will continue to share our learnings to elevate and inform a sector on which our country is heavily reliant and a sector which offers so much hope for our planet."