We caught up with Lisa and Kurt Portas over Zoom, where they were sitting in Lisa’s office on Palliser Ridge, a sheep and beef farm located in New Zealand. Kurt first came to the farm in 2008 as a stock manager and quickly got promoted to farm manager. Lisa is the expansion manager at Palliser Ridge and has lived on the farm with Kurt since 2009. Their passion for the farm was palpable, and we left the conversation inspired by how they’ve dedicated their lives to farming while raising a family.
Tell us about Palliser Ridge.
Palliser Ridge is in South Wairarapa of New Zealand. We’re on the southernmost point of the North Island, so we can see the South Island, and there's not much between us and Antarctica. There are many wineries and farms around where we are, making it a pretty special place to live.
The farm we live on is 1300 hectares, made up of smaller blocks pieced back together. Rather than a traditional family farm, we have more of a corporate structure where an equity partnership was offered. We bought into the business through a private loan about a decade ago, and now this is our home and our future.
Kurt and I have clear roles within the business. It’s unsurprising to anyone who knows me that working on the farm is not where my skills lie. My background is in business, retail, sales, and some marketing, and Kurt has always looked after the farming operation with his team. We have quite a unique setup in that we have two businesses under one roof. The wool that the core Sheep and Beef farm produces is then purchased by the diversification arm that I look after. The 4 tonne of lambs wool is taken through traceable manufacturing processes here in New Zealand to become the end product sold under our Palliser Ridge brand. The remainder of our fiber, the ewe and hogget wool, feeds into our export sales. We have approximately 20 tonnes of wool coming off the sheep each time we shear.
My pathway into farming was school holiday work as a young kid, and then after high school, I completed a two-year apprenticeship where I learned all the basics of farming before I entered the workforce. I was here at Palliser Ridge for a year as a stock manager before at the age of 23 before I was offered the opportunity to become the farm manager. It can take years to get to that position, so I was lucky to fall into it at such a young age. Five years into managing the farm, Lisa and I became business partners.
We run about 10,000 sheep on an all-grass system until they are ready to go on to other finishing farms, or on to our local butchery and restaurants. Due to our winter-wet and summer-dry climate, the Romney breed is extremely well-suited to our conditions. This breed falls into the “strong wool” category, rather than the “finer wool” that you’ll see on say a Merino breed. We specialize in trying to fit in with the environment instead of trying to beat it. That was a big takeaway we gained from Land to Market, particularly the Allan Savory talks. The points he raised definitely made sense and fit with our values and what we had already begun to implement on the farm.
We place a huge focus on creating biodiversity, whether it's in the soil or the birds and the bees. My management style and the farm’s existing vision is that Palliser Ridge is the best farm it can be — and best has to be assessed over a range of areas, biodiversity and environment, animals, people, and the bottom line. The team and I want to create a farm that people want to buy products from and visit.
How did each of you initially get into farming?
Lisa: Mine's pretty easy: if you marry a farmer, they're not moving to the city. But seriously, it became a no-brainer for me once we started a family here. Once we had a bit of a stake in the business, we thought that some of the skills I'd had in the past life might be able to help diversify the business. It meant that we could all live on the farm and work here. It’s great because Kurt and I have our own lanes. Obviously, there's a lot of crossover and we live under the same roof — but it's good that there are two businesses within Palliser Ridge.
Kurt: My father used to be a farmer, but he was also a real estate agent. We lived rurally, and on the holidays, we would go and work on the neighbor's farm — so I got a taste of that. I love the diversity of farming in that you never get bored. You're always learning and trying different things. The Land to Market program helps us measure the benefits of the practices we’re implementing.
How did Palliser Ridge get involved with Land to Market?
Lisa: Kurt was already making a lot of positive changes here. For example, in the winter there can be flooding, and in summer, it can get very dry. So we have extremes here and we're coastal, which is why the Romney sheep work because they thrive in either extreme. Some of the changes Kurt already started to make were to reduce cropping and return to grasses. Even before Land to Market, he'd already found this movement towards working more with nature and what grows here naturally.
Kurt: I read a book by Walt Davis titled How to Not go Broke Ranching: Things I Learned the Hard Way in Fifty Years of Ranching, and it really resonated with me. I started making some changes in my philosophy and management practices, trying to work more with nature and biological processes. When I later heard the Allan Savory TED Talk, I knew that was exactly what we were trying to do. I started to understand why the changes I had made were working to improve the land — that there was reasoning and data around what I was doing, which was also good for us from a business standpoint. It was great to finally have science and facts around what my gut had been telling me to do for years.
Before we were involved with Land to Market, we were already planting native trees and doing rotational grazing. We were also big on fencing and water infrastructure, so we were already on the right path. In 2021, we became EOV certified — but we had been following the Savory movement for years before that.
What are the most significant benefits you’ve noticed since joining Land to Market and implementing EOV?
It might seem small, but measuring root depth has been huge, because if we can make the roots grow deeper, everything else benefits — water infiltration, biodiversity, and soil aeration. Through EOV, the roots are measured over time, and I can work to get them even deeper.