Mark Warren, a farmer from Central Hawke’s Bay, has become a top-selling author on his first attempt. Mark has written about how he took over Waipari Station when the impacts of Rogernomics were about to be deeply felt. Not only did he survive but he’s thrived and has been entrepreneurial in his approach to working the land. He’s sold bottled water, operated a successful four-wheel drive training and adventure business, and recently launched a campaign to set a goal of the $1,500 super lamb by 2028.
Tell us a bit about your farming enterprise?
Over the last 34 years Waipari Station has developed into a diverse agribusiness, from a traditional extensive low-input store sheep and cattle station with a big focus on strong wool production, to a breeding and finishing property with a major focus on producing out-of-season fully-spec’ed 24 kg GAP 4 lambs for Atkins ranch to supply Whole Foods Market in USA with 100 per cent natural grass fed lamb.
A large part of the income now comes from forestry, with the average return almost double the wool cheque (carbon sequestion values are around half the value of the wool cheque). Bottled spring water, 4WD training and adventure have all made a substantial contribution to the bottom line.
What are some highlights of your farming career?
When I took over management of Waipari in July 1984, I made a goal to clear the current account short-term debt within three years, I did it with three days to spare.
Winning Hawke’s Bay Farmer of the Year in 1992 was a milestone. Selling bottled water for more per litre than petrol was very satisfying. Harvesting the A grade logs I planted 25 years before it was worthy of an ice cream. Being the first sheep farm in the world to gain the GAP 4 sheep accreditation. Having my book Many a muddy morning go to Number 2 in New Zealand’s bestselling non-fiction list in the first week after publication was a very pleasant surprise.
Have you always been interested in writing?
I never imagined I would write a book. Being dyslexic, the written word does not come easily, but computers with spell check and Google speak all help to get the written word into a format others can understand. I have in the past, in conjunction with Mazda, written a 4WD technique and safety book.
How long did it take?
It took about a year to write, having set a goal to write 1,000 words before 7 am most mornings, but it took a further three years to get it into a format that anyone else could understand!
Did you set aside specific hours each day?
I function best in the mornings!
Is the 4WD operation a business for you?
The 4WD business, Hillseekers 4WD NZ Ltd, was an important income stream when the interest bill for buying big chunks of shares in the farming company was greater than the income. Despite generating good profitability from the farming business, it couldn’t always pay the interest bill and my grocery bill at the same time. I now just service my loyal clients and focus on quality, not quantity, of business.
How many people have you taught to drive?
I don’t teach people to drive so much as show them how to use counter-intuitive techniques to drive in off-road and slippery situations. Hillseekers have trained approximate- ly 4,500 people over the last 25 years. All those enrolled on a Hillseekers or Freeze- drive course must already be able to drive and hold a current NZ driver’s license.
What’s your view on the state of the primary sector today?
There are new opportunities becoming attractive every day but being average in the traditional sense is no longer a sustainable business practice. Opportunities tend to come in overalls, not in a suit.
There are three types of farmers: those who make things happen; those who watch things happen; and those who wonder what happened.
Case in point, I recently launched a campaign to set a goal of the ‘$1,500 super lamb by 2028’ (check it out on Facebook). Many people just laugh at those involved, some can’t quite count the noughts correctly, and some just come up with reasons it can’t be done. Meanwhile a small group of forward and lateral-thinking industry leaders are developing and testing ideas that are on track to reach the target.
What’s the biggest challenges the primary sector faces?
One of the biggest challenges to the primary sector is that a large portion of the population seems to have forgotten, or just don’t understand, that farmers provide their food each day. Yet they seem to be determined to make farmers look the villains in society, making the cost of production via compliance, etc., go up, then they complain about the high cost of healthy natural food.
Would the modern farmer cope with what happened to you in the mid 1980s?
The modern farmer should run a stress test on their business where interest rates suddenly increase to over 20 per cent and income halves at the same time. If they can’t calculate that, the answer I think is very obvious to me.
What are the opportunities within the primary sector?
With threats such as artificial meat/ protein and oil-based synthetic clothing and carpet being accepted as normal and healthy by the more ignorant sectors of society, there is emerging a golden opportunity for our pure natural grass-fed vegetarian lamb and beef, to satisfy the more intelligent sector of the population. We need to emulate the success of the wine industry in telling our provenance story. As an industry, we have over focused on a ‘production push not market pull’ business strategy.
An easy way to understand that is to look at the wine aisle in the supermarket. Compare the price per litre of the box wine, and the bottles on the top shelf with a great provenance story, then think of our top natural vegetarian grass-fed lamb being produced to perfectly match the $90 bottle of pinot noir, not the $18.99 3 L cask of ‘smooth red’ at $4.74 per 750 ml equivalent. But the cask wine will pair nicely with an artificial meat burger!!
The Taste Pure Nature brand of NZ should be levered to focus on supplying the .001 per cent of the wise people in the protein and fiber market.
They seem to understand the concept of safe, quality, healthy food. Their next product excitement will come when they learn to appreciate the huge value and performance of wool as a sustainable, naturally replacing fiber to keep warm and healthy.
The fine wool sector is leading the way in this at present. So it must surely only be a matter of time until the most quality conscious sector of society realises the performance of strong wool for more rigorous demands of work wear and flooring.
Who have been some of your role models during your career?
Neil Kittow over the back gully was a great mentor and farming coach. Pita Alexander, my accountant, has and is a quality advisor and sounding board. Peter Nancarrow taught me a lot about some of the tricks of the wool trade.
Bay deLatour never let me rest on my laurels. I was very fortunate to have meet Charlie Upham, VC and Bar. A great example of a man who realised and proved that rules are made for the guidance of the wise and regulation of the full hardy. He ignored a lot of rules and got praised for it. He also learnt how to manage risk!
Mental health has had an impact on the rural community. You’ve faced adversity before, any advice for fellow farmers?
Seek a mature and calm, experienced, successful mentor who may not be a close friend but who understands your business and can tell you (gently) what you need to hear rather than what you may like to hear. Have open dialogue with wise friends in different businesses from faming and compare notes with them.
What’s the target of the book – any aspirations on book sales?
There are three main themes.
1) The original intent of the book was to record for agricultural history some of the coal face facts and challenges faced when dealing with Rogernomics. I started writing the book 30 years after Rogernomics kicked in. To make the book more appealing to a wider reader market, the editor suggested that the crashing bulldozer stories added some light entertainment.
2) It looks at the practical aspects of successful personal and business risk management. All reward requires risk. If you plant a lettuce seed in the ground it carries a risk that it may not germinate. In the current over-regulated OSH environment, the OSH bureaucrats seem to be determined to try to eliminate risk by, in some cases, not allowing the person to self-manage risk using prior experience.
This is very much leading to produce a work force that is not allowed to develop the decision-making skills and the capability to get a job done in the first case.
3) I also hope it will be an inspiration to overseas farmers facing the reduction or abolition of subsidies, and how they may learn to adapt to change, which might allow them to thrive. The current situation regarding Brexit and the reduction of farming subsidies may be a case in point.
Pita Alexander’s forward tells it better than I can!
Writing a book is a great way to see the country – what are looking forward to most?
I am very much enjoying meeting people with similar stories about how they managed during Rogernomics and those who have learnt to manage dyslexia positively.