The power of making a start and capturing your data with Jo Hay

Jo Hay and her husband, Ross, run a sheep and beef farm at Herbert, just south of Oamaru, with an additional lease farm at Moeraki. It isn’t an uncommon sight to see three generations of Hay’s working on the farm together, with Ross’s father who is in his eighties, and their three children all really involved in the farming life. Jo was also born into an intergenerational sheep and beef farming family, of which she is now a fourth-generation farmer. Initially Jo started her career by training to be a teacher and moving back to Oamaru to work at the local intermediate school, but all her weekends and spare time was spent being a part time farm assistant.  When Jo and Ross took over the lease block in 2017, their farming business had grown to a point where it was big enough that Jo needed to dedicate her time to working full time on farm, but that has also allowed her to explore other areas of interest within the community and industry. Jo wears many hats and is on the Central South Island Beef and Lamb Farmer Council, part of her local catchment groups steering committee, an elected Director of the North Otago Irrigation Company and has recently joined the Board of Meat the Need charity. This combination of getting out on farm, as well as the ability to connect with people and make a difference, keeps Jo centered in her happy place. 

Sustainability as a three-legged stool 

When it comes to sustainability, Jo likens it to a three-legged stool. 

“If a leg of the stool is removed, it becomes unbalanced. It can’t sit in a balanced way. The stool will tip over. I guess everything is interconnected and we can’t have one thing without having another. If we don’t look after the economics of our farming businesses, we don’t have a farming business and it can’t sustain ourselves, it can’t sustain a business and then it can’t sustain the community that it’s in. If we don’t look after the people in our business, there is no one to look after the land and if we don’t look after the land, we actually don’t have a business, it’s our biggest asset. So, it’s also interconnected. I don’t think you can ever operate in isolation, and when you do, invariably something will tip over.”

Another view to sustainability that deeply resonates with Jo is the idea that the decisions we make today are for us today, they’re for our children tomorrow, and for our grandchildren not yet born. She mentions that while farming decisions are based on the land and water, these decisions ultimately affect people, therefore we must make decisions that enable the people and communities of which these resources belong to, so that all can thrive.

“I think there’s really strong links between the Māori world view and the world view of an intergenerational farmer and that we’re not doing this for ourselves right now. We’re doing this for our children and their children after us. It’s just, it’s how we roll. We don’t plant a tree thinking that we’re going to sit under it, we plant a tree knowing that our children will, and their children will too.”

Targeting the low-hanging sustainability fruit 

Jo and Ross took over the family farm in 2006 and from then they saw the benefit of starting the journey of fencing off their waterways. She notes that while sheep don’t like to go in the water, when they do go in the water it is usually when you don’t want them to, and they aren’t very good at getting out again. Their farm has a high proportion of creeks that are ephemeral waterways, meaning that they don’t constantly flow. 

“So, I guess we just started this journey of looking at our farm, where are the fastest wins we could make in excluding the stock from the waterways. Obviously with that comes the fact that you’ve got reticulated water, which is great for animal health as well, and tidying that up, but it was looking at the farm and realigning all the paddocks and it’s taken us years, but we’ve gone pretty much around now, we’ve gone right around the whole farm and the paddocks are all realigned to go with the contour of the ground, which goes with the contour of the creeks because we’re sheep and beef but for a long time we were predominantly sheep, you’ve got to have 7-wire fences and we do have netting fences as well, that you can’t put those close to a creek because in a flood they become a bit of a sieve and they take a bit to clean and tidy up again. So, we watched where the water would go and took note of it and we’ve made sure those buffers are reasonably wide so that in a rain event the water will just flow and it’s not very often that things will get caught in the fence. It’s just something that we’ve done over the years and now we’ve got these lovely fenced off waterways, the paddocks are all kind of in the right contours. 

I think we’re getting the best out of it now, which is really cool and now of course we’re into the planting journey, which was a little bit frightening at the start when you use the Dairy NZ riparian planning tool and it tells you how much money you’re going to need to spend on your plants so instead of me doing that, being a tight sheep and beef farmer like we are, and I like to grow things, so I started my own native nursery which is pretty cool. I’m finding I don’t have as much time as I think I do for it, however, but it’s pretty cool watching the plants grow and then planting them in the ground. Yeah, so it’s a slow and steady race but we’re on the journey.”

Jo’s best piece of farming advice she’s received, and how she puts herself in best stead to continue to face the challenges ahead

The thought of the best advice she has received makes Jo smile. It came from her father-in-law, who lives around the corner, is in his eighties and still comes to work on farm every day. 

North Otago is drought prone, and he has always said: 

‘Every day, Jo; every day is another day closer to the rain’. “it’s such wise words but it brings a whole lot of other messages with it, you know, like the sun always comes up in the morning. It doesn’t matter what situation, you know, it could be the tough financial times that people are experiencing right now. Every day we get through this it’s another day closer to things coming right, we’re in a cycle. You know the same with the weather, every day of tough weather we’re another day closer to the sun coming out, to the rain coming when we need it, to the rain stopping for those who do need it to stop, you know, I guess it’s kind of a mindset thing, isn’t it? And I just love that piece of advice.”

The mindset piece is something that is very evident in Jo’s approach to facing challenges and change. 

“But I think as farmers, we need to remind ourselves, firstly, it doesn’t matter what facet of life you’re in, it doesn’t matter what sector or industry you work in, change is the constant. It’s always happening. Nothing will ever be the same. And in farming, it’s just no different at all. Yes, the pace of change at the moment is vast and it can be overwhelming at times, right? But complaining about the rate of change, it won’t slow it down. It will probably continue to speed up and I heard a wise man say lately, he said, you know ‘Change is hard, but changing is harder’. And I think we just have to focus on what we can control. You can control your mindset and we have a saying on the fridge essentially, ‘your attitude determines the altitude’ and you can focus on everything that’s going wrong, but when you focus on everything that’s going wrong, things go wrong. Or you can choose to focus on all the stuff that’s going right.

Yeah, things might be hard. There’s a whole lot of regulation coming that we don’t really know where it’s going to land, but we still know how to look after our stock really well. We still know how to look after our land really well. So, let’s just do what we do and do it well, but I also think it’s important to not put your head in the sand and pretend it’s not coming, keep widely read and look into the future and see the trends that you can see coming. We probably wouldn’t have fenced all our waterways off all those years ago had we not been thinking about the future and thinking about what it looks like. I don’t want to be the dooms-dayer, but we know that we won’t be able to tail our lambs forever. We know that we won’t be able to have our dogs in the yards forever. We know that we’re going to have to have a whole lot of biodiversity stuff and work on going on. We know that we’re going to have to be reporting our emissions. We know all these things are coming. Wherever the regulation lands I guess is one thing, but we have to remember what the market is requiring of us. So, we need to keep our eyes on the horizon around what’s coming. I think when you can see things coming over time, no, they’re not gonna come and they’re not gonna start happening tomorrow. But we need to have it in our minds that this could happen and what might I do in the meantime to make that transition easier? We don’t farm now, like our grandparents farmed when they farmed, and our children’s children won’t farm when they farm like we do now, land use change will evolve. Farming will evolve our practices or evolve as our knowledge grows, so let’s just embrace the change.” 

For Jo, an essential for facing change is having an open mind, and she chooses to look at things in a positive way, with a quote that resonates with her being:

Positive thinking doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ignoring the stresses in life. It just means that you’re approaching it in a productive way’.

“And that’s the way I choose to think about it. You know, yes, we can see these things coming, but hey, let’s embrace it. Let’s jump on it before maybe it is the regulations. Do these things a bit early and you never know what that might get you or where that might put you. Ultimately, linked back to that sustainability piece, if you can see things that are going to make your business more sustainable in the long term, why wait for regulation to do that for you?  Why not do it before?”

Jo’s take home sustainability tip 

For Jo, the key message to others is “whatever you’re doing, just make a start. And along with making that start, record it.”

“Because recording is key, right? Like we’re moving into this world where we can claim that we’re the best farmers in the world. We can claim all these claims, but unless they have validated by something, they’re meaningless. And I’m sorry to say it, yes, you’re doing great work, but how can you prove you’re doing great work? That’s the key. So, record it. Record it in your cloud-based software, take photos. It’s just like your winter grazing. We know that we need to take photos beginning, middle and end. With all of your projects. You know when you go to fence off that waterway, take a photo of what it looked like first. Fence that, take another photo. Go back every year as the plants grow from the same points and measure the increase in the biodiversity that’s there. Just measure the stuff you’re doing great things on farm already, so just record it. What it does is it shows the journey over time and it gives the people that want to buy your product the assurance that you are doing what you say you’re doing… 

I guess that’s probably why I’m such an advocate of FAP+ and why when we did this and I was so keen to do it was actually, yeah, we do all this stuff, and I’ve got no doubt that the bulk farmers do all that stuff, but we just have to prove that we do it all. “ 

When looking at how the SDGs are integrated through Jo’s farming business from the full podcast conversation, there are a clear top five: 

Goal #3: Good Health and Well-being

  • This is evident in Jo’s importance of mindset to find opportunities, and to navigate change and challenges.

Goal #6: Clean Water and Sanitation

  • A commitment to clean water is evident through the investment, time, money, and resources that Jo and Ross have put into their extensive waterway fencing and riparian planting efforts on farm, long before it was required by regulation.

Goal #11: Sustainable Communities 

  • Jo has several volunteer roles that help in her local community and the wider food and fibre industry, which shows the efforts that people like Jo have in ensuring the sustainability of rural communities going forward. 

Goal #15: Life on Land 

  • This goal is reflected through Jo’s efforts to create her own on-farm native plant nursery to further invest in creating riparian ecosystems and enhancing biodiversity on-farm, which also fulfils her love of growing things. 

Goal #2: Zero Hunger

  • Jo is a Board Member of Meat the Need, a charity that enables farmers to donate high quality protein in the form of mince and milk to food banks nationwide, helping New Zealand farmers to feed New Zealand families that are in need. 

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