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Canterbury farmers earn top award for community involvement and long-term environmental planning

Geoff and Rochelle

Geoff and Rochelle Spark, Torlesse Farm Owners & Managers

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Torlesse Farm

North-Canterbury couple Geoff and Rochelle Spark who own and manage Torlesse Farm in Eyrewell, Waimakariri – won the People in Primary Sector title at this year’s Canterbury Ballance Farm Environment Awards. The People in Primary Sector category was sponsored by Bayleys Canterbury.

Torlesse Farm runs about 1,700 dairy cows across some 450-hectares, with a further 400 hectares split between dairy support and beef grazing. The farm sells approximately 80 prime grade cattle each year, and the Sparks have diversified the business to include grazing and grass sales, in addition to operating a commercial weigh bridge and a purpose-built function venue.

The couple moved onto the family owned Torlesse Farm in 1995, eventually buying it from Geoff’s parents in 2005.

Geoff and Rochelle Spark entered the Ballance Farm Environment Awards because they believed they had a positive business story to share – understanding that in order for their rural commercial activity to be sustainable, it needed to perform at a high standard, not only from a production perspective, but also including environmental stewardship.

With a strong family connection to the land, the Sparks are on a journey of continuous business improvement so that Torlesse Farm can thrive as a sustainable and profitable business.

Good infrastructure and management programmes on the farm provide the foundations for that long term sustainability, and are enhanced by activities such as regenerating native bush, trapping possums, and fencing off feral deer on the hill country portion of the beef farm.

Within Torlesse Farm is a 5.5-hectare irrigation storage lake which has been enhanced around its banks with native plants to provide a clean and totally swimmable amenity for a range of community events.

The lake is the centrepiece for Torlesse Farm when hosting visitors for viewings and community events such as the Canterbury Primary School Triathlon which attracts between 800–1,000 competitors, and the OxMan multi-sports event for all ages and abilities, with around 400 participants swimming, cycling, and running.

With a purpose-built function venue overlooking the lake, the Sparks also host multiple charity and community organisations on the property - involving members of the public from across Canterbury’s towns, and even Christchurch city. The chic function rooms double up as staff accommodation quarters as required during busy periods on the farm.

“These events help foster a connection between town and country. Our philosophy in farming is long term. We go by the motto ‘plant a tree you never see’, We have planted more than 1,000 native plants around our irrigation storage lake,” says Geoff.

The Sparks, their long-term sharemilkers of 12-years, and all their staff, operate with a positive ‘solutions-focussed’ approach – meaning production at the property has returned to previous output levels after sustaining a substantial challenge from the Mycoplasma bovis outbreak in 2017 which saw 2,500 cattle on the property killed.

Geoff is also a dedicated advocate for the Farm Strong wellbeing programme – an initiative which helps farmers and primary producers to cope with the pressures of farming, ranging from drought and flood weather conditions through to evolving Government legislation on the rural sector, and the unpredictability of commodity prices.

Geoff became involved with the charity after the OxMan sporting event organisers insisted on paying a venue hire for hosting their triathlon. Rather than accept the payment, Geoff researched various rural support organisations – and subsequently found Farm Strong as a worthy recipient. Geoff is also an area representative for the Rural Support Trust, which helped him and his farm team through the tough times resulting from the Mbovis period.

In assessing the Spark’s entry into the Ballance Farm Environment Awards, the judges commended the couple on actively building connections between “town and country,” along with sharing their property with the wider community for farm visits, and generously supporting rural health and wellbeing organisations such as Farm Strong and the Rural Support Trust.

In addition to developing a strong community involvement programme across the region, Geoff and Rochelle Spark have invested substantially in Torlesse Farm’s infrastructure – such as pivot irrigation, the storage dam, soil temperature and moisture monitoring, irrigation scheduling, and effluent storage. The judges also commended Torlesse Farm’s winter grazing management – using catch crops such as oats after winter grazing crops to extract as much nitrogen as possible from the soil profile.

“We need to protect the future productivity of the land. The replacement of k-lines and individual sprinklers in corners for more environmentally friendly and efficient set sprinklers, help reduce nitrate losses. This focus on continuous improvement does however require a significant investment that farmers will need time to digest,” says Geoff.

In addition to sponsoring the People in Primary Sector category at the Canterbury Ballance Farm Environment Awards, Bayleys Canterbury also supports The New Zealand Agricultural Show, The New Zealand Rural Support Trust, Surfing for Farmers, and Meat The Need. The company also proudly supports the Crusaders, and the South Island women’s rugby team the Matatu.

Bayleys Canterbury rural manager Kevin Jenkins said the real estate agency was proud to be involved with the Ballance Farm Environment Awards, and in particular the People in Primary Sector category, which aligned perfectly with the company’s philosophies.

“After all, Bayleys people are very much people in the primary sector,” Kevin Jenkins said.

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