Interview: Rob Buddo of Kinburn Farms

‍We called up Rob Buddo, who owns and manages Kinburn, which comprises five farms, all suppliers for Atkins Ranch. He had much to say about regenerative agriculture, continuous improvement, and how people play a huge role. 

Where do you live? 

I'm on the North Island of New Zealand, about halfway up on the eastern side. The northern island is warm and has distinct biodiversity with our native forests. It's also got this main divide that runs through it, which is a really steep country. So you get these beautiful plains and then steep mountainous areas. 

Tell us about the land you’re managing now. 

We've got five farms. We supply lamb to Atkins Ranch wagyu to First Light. It’s about 1000 acres, and we process about 14,000 lambs a year. Even though we sell them to Atkins, we basically take them to market ourselves because we're part of the cooperative. That's a whole lot better situation, because the farmers are more involved and invested in taking their product to the marketplace. 

We also have a native plant nursery because we want to be an enabler to add biodiversity on farms. So we got together with somebody who's really good in that sector, and we've grown that business so that we can then be the enabler for planting a lot more native biodiversity through all our properties and farms. They're all native plants indigenous to New Zealand. It takes time; you can't just plant a few, so you need to fence it off bits of sensitive areas. And it's all about adding to that sustainability and enhancing our landscape throughout New Zealand. It's all part of the big picture. 

The biodiversity in the landscape of those native plants has been lost from grazing land. It was all cleared from grasslands, even though we know their presence would better serve the country and better serve reversing climate change. Rather than put a monoculture in there, which is what’s been done in the past, we've put these native forests back into play, and they become part of the landscape forever. About 96% of the wetlands in New Zealand have been drained, so we need to start there. Our waterways are our lungs and our filters, so we need to start caring for them and putting this biodiversity back.

It’s important that us livestock producers look at our farms like a small landscape. There’s 10-20% of each farm there we can change that landscape to make just as much money out of beef and lamb on those good areas. In the past, we've focused on using every last little inch of our farms. Instead, we need to think more holistically and enhance biodiversity across the landscape — and what better place to start than within the niche of each and every individual farm. 

Tell us about your involvement with Atkins Ranch.

I used to be the Chairman of the Board of Atkins Ranch for about six years, from about 2013 to about 2019. I was in charge of the governance of the whole program. Atkins Ranch is very much represented by the farmers’ interest; it’s partly owned by farmers. 

I look at it this way: we're selling into probably the most sophisticated market in the world. Why should people buy our land over anyone else’s land? Because we have a verified point of difference that connects with the consumer . Our points of difference are around animal welfare standards, regenerative, and non-GMO. All of those tell the story about what you're getting by buying products from Atkins Ranch.

I've got three daughters, and so I need to have a sustainable and resilient farming operation so it’s a place for them in the future. Those are pillars we bring into our business and then those values give us something to take out into the marketplace. I think that's just going to get stronger — that in the future, we are going to struggle to have a place in the world unless we meet those ethos in philosophies going forward. We've got a great product that's produced in the right way. We need to go above and beyond to take that to the rest of the world. 

This farm has been in the family since 1912. My great grandfather bought it, and my grandfather In farther have both run the farm. So it's been through quite a lot of change, but it's a very adaptable farm. Change is just part of the journey that will lead to a resilient and sustainable future.

What else are you doing to improve your land? 

We've made a commitment as a group to have a carbon neutral farm by 2030, and there's several layers that we need to go through to get there. There is the elimination of fossil fuels, agroforestry — and then the biggie is sequestering carbon into the soil. If we manage the soils in a certain way, and manage our farm in a certain way, we will add to the carbon sink. Our soils will give us a whole lot more enhancement around the mineral cycle and the water cycle. All of these things are interconnected. If we can improve our landscape as well, we add a whole lot of resilience. 

We've just been through a horrendous cyclone in New Zealand, and it reminds us about where climate change is going — we're going to get more of these, and they are going to be more intense. So we need to have these layers of resilience built into our properties. For me, regenerative agriculture is all about us having incremental improvement, each and every season should be better than the last. I think of that about four distinct areas.. The first one is carbon. We've got a climate crisis, so we need to be part of the solution of the problem on our farm. We also talk about reforestation and biodiversity, but the big thing around regenerative agriculture is growing carbon in the soils. That adds to the water cycling and mineral cycling. 

The great thing about EOV is that it's an outcome-based program. It doesn't try to be prescriptive and say what exactly we need to do, but we know what outcomes we're looking for. We’re tinkering all the time to try and improve where we're going. So that's number one. 

Number two is biodiversity. Let's look at where we should be farming. Let's look at these other critical areas that we can enhance our landscape by putting back biodiversity in wetlands. And we're doing that on one of our properties we've got so the one that we started the pilot, and we're now four years into Savory. We've got seven heat days that we've put right period planting in and you know it's starting to work. These plants are starting to grow, and we've got these filtration areas for water coming into the end of the waterways. Already we're seeing measures of bird life and aquatic life coming back into those areas. So biodiversity is a big one, and we need to understand what we've got on the farm. 

Number three is the people in the business. It's having an enjoyable workplace for our employees where everybody is respected, and they bring something to the community, and we work as a team. It’s highly valuable to have them invested in what we’re trying to do. They are incredible, and we can't do this on our own. We need people that have a like-minded attitude and enjoy the work there that we've got in the business. 

We’re also trying to reduce and recycle waste. We have a composting trial going on this property, and one of the byproducts is land pelts. If there's no market for them, they can end up going to landfill. There’s protein and nutrients in it, so why aren't we composting there and putting it back on the land? So we’ve got a pilot going on there so that we get the circular waste program going back into farms, which is helpful. 

EOV has relevance in the marketplace, and especially in the most sophisticated markets in the world, like Whole Foods in the US. It’s awesome that it gives more meaning to properties like ours.