Farming kōura with John Hollows

John Hollows is the Aquaculture Manager for Earnslaw One – a forestry softwood plantation company operating throughout New Zealand.

John Hollows is the Aquaculture Manager for Earnslaw One – a softwood plantation company operating throughout New Zealand. You may be wondering, why would a forestry company need an aquaculture manager? Well, John has been part of Earnslaw One’s journey into farming kōura, also known as freshwater crayfish, in areas of forestry land that would traditionally be non-productive to the business. The catalyst for this enterprise was to find sources of revenue between tree harvests, such as the 40-45 years between planting and harvest of Douglas Fir trees. The journey of farming kōura has been one that had no blueprint, no plan, guide nor methodology. It all started with a blank piece of paper but has grown to be an industry that Earnslaw One have developed and grown over the last 10 years throughout their production forests in Otago and Southland. These kōura are harvested and marketed locally to restaurants in Central Otago under the KEEWAI brand, providing the revenue between crop harvests, but the benefits from kōura farming to the environment have also been significant. 

Sustainability is key for all businesses in the primary production sector going forward 

For John, sustainability is a key component of the primary production industry and will continue to be into the future. Through kōura farming, John and Earnslaw One are seeking to increase production of kōura, but also have no environmental impacts, and in fact improve the environment as they go along. Increased production and improved environment is something that their operations are achieving, with kōura having such a positive impact on aquatic environments where they reside, as well as other flora and fauna in the surrounding terrestrial environment. 

“As a consequence of digging our ponds and the riparian areas we’ve created, you know, 20/30/40 hectares of wetland which have environmental benefits because it stops any sediment and run off from the road going into the creek. So, you’ve got that benefit. It’s also good for the native species and the exotics as well. Some nights in the forest, you can’t hear yourself think with the amount of frogs. We’ve got a lot of bird life and invertebrates, so these wetlands are actually they’ve got conservation and environmental benefits as well, which sort of just adds to the story. You know, we’re farming a product that’s got no chemical use, no artificial feeding, no water takes, no discharge, and it’s almost benefit to forestry too, because crayfish are quite susceptible to sediment and chemical use. So, if you can farm them in your forestry, you’re sort of on the right side of the ledger environmentally and we’ve actually got an award from Environment Southland for what we’re doing and not too many other forestry companies get environmental awards. So, it just ticks all the boxes and something quite proud of too because you know environmental awards don’t come along from councils very often.” 

It’s clear that John and Earnslaw One have approached finding additional revenue in a way that really harmonises economic and environmental outcomes, which is clear through the positive impact that the enterprise has had on flora and fauna, and the aquatic environment in the non-productive areas of their forests. While they are the only kōura farming enterprise in the country so far, building an enterprise that is built off continued regeneration of a native species, as well as the positive benefits that this has to the environment is something quite unique about this operation. As John rightly points out, there is a commonly held perception that forestry is an industry that is all about vandalism, with the loss of productive land and impacts of post-harvest material such as slash, but the kōura farming enterprise shows a real effort by the forestry industry to be custodians for native flora and fauna, as well as their exotic species on which the industry is built. 

Getting to know kōura

Kōura, or freshwater crayfish, may not be a species that many New Zealanders are familiar with, let alone know about farming them so let’s dive into that a little bit further. 

John has found that kōura reside in any freshwater types, provided there is not a lot of sediment or chemical use, and that there is enough refuge. They love to hide to make them feel comfortable and protect them from predators. Carex species on the banks of ponds are a particularly favoured habitat for kōura, as the plant roots soften the banks and allow the kōura to burrow in and face their nippers outwards. The plant roots also provide food for them – so they are protected and well fed – win-win! When it comes to diet, kōura aren’t fussy and will eat everything. They have gastric mills which allow them to filter algae, shred plants, rip each other to bits and so on. The feed at all trophic levels, and John has even witnessed a pig’s carcass in a pond that did not have too much left on it after the kōura had had a good feed off it. 

The observation that kōura like to reside in any freshwater types provided there isn’t a lot of sediment or chemical use, points to kōura being a good biological indicator of water quality and environment health. If kōura are present in your waterways, then you know you’re doing something right! Kōura not only reside in these areas but their presence and activity lead to further environmental improvements through filtering of water. The ability of this species to improve the environment rather than degrade it is such a unique value proposition, and one in which John and Earnslaw One have been able to focus in on as they build their kōura farming enterprises. 

Kōura are of course a native species in New Zealand, and therefore have also held great importance for Māori as a mahinga kai species. For this reason, harvesting of kōura by Earnslaw One is done through sustainable harvest rules that are guided by Te Ao Māori around the timing and individuals that are suitable for harvest, ensuring that cultural heritage and sustainability guides their practices. Of course, with the introduction of humans, the natural populations of kōura in the wild have decreased, but they are still found in areas around Central Otago today. 

“If you go back a wee while, Central Otago was an absolute gold mine for kōura. They were everywhere and you’ve got the traditional iwi trails where they left the coast to come inland for the tuna or the greenstone and they used to drop kōura in the creeks on the way through, so they had a food source coming home. But before mining and water extraction, things like that, there’d be very few water bodies in Central Otago where there weren’t kōura and there are quite a few populations out the back of farms where there’s really strong strong populations, which is good to see.” 

Harvesting kōura is something that John never gets sick of and he is always happy to get out of bed to do this work. Harvest is typically done using nets, particularly hand nets while wading around in the ponds, but you can also set net like a fyke net to catch them. John has had a large variation in harvesting conditions from freezing in the snow to passing out from heat exhaustion, but the love for kōura keeps him going back. 

You may be thinking, what is the market like for kōura? 

“The market is absolutely massive. It’s one of those products that chefs just love the story behind them. It’s unbelievable. It’s a native species, tastes good, it looks good, the story’s good and it tastes a bit like a rock lobster, but the meats sweeter. It’s just like a premium product. The market’s massive, and we just can’t fill the market with what we’re producing so we are working with other groups, mainly iwi, to encourage them to get into kōura farming and share the technology because it’s pretty hard to develop a market fully if you haven’t got supplies so at the moment, we’re pretty much just sending everything into the Central Otago area. That’s just a good story about the food miles, a locally grown product, some of the ponds straight line are only about 80 or 90 km from the restaurant.”

While Earnslaw One are the only kōura farming operation in New Zealand currently, they are hoping to get some more players in the industry, particularly iwi so tangata whenua can utilise the kōura farming enterprise and its benefits (both environmental and economic) on iwi-owned land throughout the country. 

“I think what’s exciting is we’re sort of really the only player in the industry at the moment, but it would be really great to get some other players in the business and getting a decent industry going, get decent supply and really enjoying working with iwi because they have a different sort of perspective on time and how to treat environment and that, but I guess most excited about we’ve got potential for developing industry here, which just has no environmental effects. It’s all positive and it considers existing land use production and actually adds value and also create an environmental checklist, I guess too from a conservation perspective, the crayfish show locally or threaten all over the show, but within our forest’s populations are secure in strong going forward. So, from a conservation point of view or genetic diversity point of view, we’re actually doing it.”

The need to adapt, but also to reflect

The only constant of life is change, says John, which means you have to be adaptable. While the kōura industry flies a little bit under the radar when it comes to regulation, the forestry industry certainly has not and has been under plenty of scrutiny. However, in order to face the challenges ahead, John stresses the importance of looking back. 

“Some days it can get you down and something to be aware of to try and think about the positive stuff because there is a lot of positive stuff in what we’re doing. I guess the statement there is take time to sit down and reflect you know on your achievements because in today’s society everyone’s rush, rush, rush, and looking forward, but you need to take your breath and look at what you have actually achieved because it might surprise you just how far you’ve come.”

When it comes to a take home sustainability tip, John sums it up very eloquently. 

“I guess don’t be afraid to think out-of-the-box. There’s no such thing as a really bad idea. It’s just an idea and I think that will help us adapt in a changing world, particularly in this primary sector, because food production and the future of foresting in the future is going to be vastly different waters today. So, embrace change and don’t be afraid to lead the charge on it.”

John’s and Earnslaw One’s kōura farming business and the Sustainable Development Goals 

When looking at how the SDGs are integrated through John and Earnslaw One’s kōura farming operation from the full podcast conversation, there are a clear top five: 

Goal #6: Clean Water and Sanitation 

  • We were fascinated by the kōura ability to filter water, so being able to improve the water quality in the forestry block, but also potentially in other areas in the wider agricultural sector. We are also excited about the opportunity to utilise kōura as a biological water quality marker as they are very sensitive to water quality and chemical runoff… so if there are kōura present, you must be doing something right, and having them there will only continue to improve the water quality further. 

Goal #9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

  • Earnslaw One have been really innovative in their approach to dealing with traditionally non-productive land and filling the revenue gap in the forestry farm system. To build an industry from scratch is no mean feat and now to reach a point where they are looking to scale, it is super exciting. 

Goal #12: Responsible Consumption and Production

  • This goal gives a nod to the sustainable harvest of the kōura, informed by Te Ao Māori culture and knowledge. Kōura are a valued mahinga kai species deposited by travellers on the local iwi trails to ensure sustainability of the ongoing harvests. The ethical harvest rules include no harvest of soft shell kōura or those with berries (eggs). It is this responsible harvest that builds mana within the kōura industry and makes it an industry with a uniquely Aotearoa New Zealand heritage. 

Goal #15: Life on Land 

  • Kōura farming plays a multi-faceted rile in working towards SDG 15. Not only are the kōura themselves a threatened species, so farming them is boosting numbers, but the habitats created for them are enhancing the biodiversity within the forestry blocks. The other benefit that this industry has had is inadvertently having a positive impact on conservation efforts over in the UK where this pond design has helped address the needs to endangered native newt species. 

Goal #8: Decent Work and Economic Growth 

  • In Beck’s opinion, agricultural enterprise stacking is the only way we are going to be able to produce enough food globally to feed a growing population and maintain it within our ecological boundaries. The opportunity to turn what was traditionally non-productive land within a forestry block into a revenue generating enterprise for the business with a net positive environmental impact is one that we all should be looking for within our own businesses. 

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