‘We are custodians of the land’: The Silver Fern Farmers carrying on a legacy of regeneration

By MiNDFOOD

silver fern farms regenerative planting
Planting new trees supports native biodiversity.
Fourth-generation farmers Allen and Jo Johnstone understand better than anyone how farming has changed since the days Allen's great-grandfather, Wilfred Johnstone, worked the land. Now they have been recognised as winners of the prestigious Silver Fern Farms Plate to Pasture award for their superior beef and lamb, as well as their outstanding commitment to environmental sustainability and the future of farming in New Zealand.

In 2026, the Johnstone family will be celebrating a major milestone, marking 100 years of family farming at ‘Puketutu’, their Te Kuiti property. Now a fourth-generation farmer, Allen Johnstone, who runs the 2,200-hectare sheep and beef farm with his wife Jo, is carrying on a family legacy that is centred on caring for the land, the animals and the people. Their work around regenerative practices, workplace culture and consumer interests saw them take home the Silver Fern Farms 2021 Plate to Pasture title.

“Allen and Jo epitomise what we’re looking for in a Silver Fern Farms Plate to Pasture Award winner,” said head judge Melissa Sowden. “Their systems, processes and policies on this farm were next level, and their future focus on environmental sustainability was clear. They just understand what it is that consumers are demanding now and into the future, and they’re gearing their business to match and exceed these market expectations.”

silver fern farms
‘Puketutu’, Allen and Jo Johnstone’s Te Kuiti property.

While terms like ‘regeneration’ and ‘biodiversity’ can get thrown around like buzzwords these days, for the Johnstones, they represent real, practical aspects of their farming business – and a passion that has been passed down through generations. It was Allen’s late father Peter and mother Margaret who began fencing off outcrops of native bush on the property decades ago, planting new trees to regenerate the native biodiversity.

Custodians of the land

Taking over the farm in the early 2000s, Allen and Jo, along with their two kids Harry and Lily, were passionate about carrying on this tradition. “We are custodians of the land. And at the end of the day, if we don’t look after our land, then it doesn’t look after us,” says Jo.

silver fern farms allen jo johnstone
Jo and Allen Johnstone.

Today, they have 210 hectares of lush, regenerating bush, home to natives like towering kahikatea trees, and birdlife like tūī, kererū, fantail and morepork. Chris Keech, the Silver Fern Farms Representative who has worked with the Johnstones for over eight years, says: “They’ve put a lot of work throughout the farm to regenerate its natural habitat, not only because the consumer is interested in it, but because they’re passionate about it.” Along with the regeneration projects, their farming practices are centred around caring for the land, with a focus on rotational grazing, multiple species pastures and soil health. They’ve also developed a reticulated water system to ensure there’s adequate water supply in every paddock. In the flat, low-lying land, they use a gravity feed system, which doesn’t require any power, and in the harder hill country, water is sourced from a deep well, which they are able to monitor from an app on their phones. “It tells us straight away if there are leaks or something unusual is happening,” explains Allen. One of their more recent environmental projects has been the establishment of a natural wetland. “It was an area that had always been a swamp and we’d spent years trying to drain it, just because that’s what you did in the old days,” Allen explains. Deciding instead to work with the natural environment, they built a dam to flood the area and have been planting natives all around the banks to turn it into another regenerating block.

silver fern farms bushland
The property includes 210 hectares of lush bushland.

Maintaining the environmental projects is a full-time job in itself but despite the challenges involved, they are forging ahead, with plans to plant 8,000 more trees over the next year. More than just a duty to the land, their environmental approach reflects a broader philosophy around the cyclical nature of farming. “You’ve got to look after the soil to produce good grass to produce good animals,” says Allen. While carrying on the legacy of the generations before him, Allen has been able to take this sustainable approach a step further by working in partnership with Silver Fern Farms to map the entire farm’s woody vegetation to support the company’s Farming With Native Biodiversity and Net Carbon Zero projects. The data is a vital part of their future environmental plans. “It gives us an idea of where we sit so we know our number, which is really important,” says Allen. “Five years ago, nobody knew what carbon neutrality was. It’s changing fast. Most farmers I know are trying really hard to have the best environmental footprint they can.”

A climate-positive future

The Johnstones’ work around regeneration and biodiversity has seen them chosen as one of the first farms to be considered for Silver Fern Farms’ Net Carbon Zero pilot programme. Unlike other carbon offsetting programmes which purchase carbon credits from a third party, Silver Fern Farms’ approach is unique. It utilises ‘insetting’, whereby the carbon credits that are needed to offset the emissions of the beef are found on the farm where the animals are raised, making it much more of closed-loop system. It means the carbon sequestration from the Johnstones’ 210 hectares of regenerating native bush plays a vital role in Silver Fern Farms’ vision of a climate positive future.

silver fern farms bush and bird
The farm is home to native birdlife like the fantail.

“We are not outsourcing our emissions, rather we are recognising and incentivising our farmers for their efforts to create farm environments that are better able to capture carbon, increase biodiversity and support nature positive food production,” says Silver Fern Farms CEO Simon Limmer. Farmers like the Johnstones are demonstrating a strong commitment to whole-of-farm accountability. “In New Zealand we have a deep connection to nature and caring for the environment is part of who we are. With our Net Carbon Zero range we want to show we can produce great tasting red meat in a way that is better for the planet,” says Limmer.

Allen says Silver Fern Farms is demonstrating leadership in this sustainability space, and as a farmer, it’s exciting to be part of such a pioneering company. “We see Silver Fern Farms doing that extra bit in terms of the environment and the work they’re doing around working towards carbon zero. They’re going that extra mile, whereas a lot of others aren’t doing that work.”

Along with their care for the land and animals, the Johnstones have put in a lot of work around building a strong workplace culture through development of their team members and health and safety policies. “The important thing for us is that we get the best people we can because they are the ones that drive our visions and values,” says Jo, who manages the human resources side of the business. “We try and pick people based on their attitude,” adds Allen. “You can teach skills, but you can’t teach a good attitude.”

silver fern farms cattle and sheep
The Johnstones’ Angus beef cattle and sheep.

This effort is evident in their robust health and safety policies, which include first aid courses, vehicle training and monthly safety meetings. “At the end of the day, we need to get our people home safe. That’s built into our culture,” says Jo. Helping their team members – many of which are under 30 – develop in their career is also important to the Johnstones. Along with a full orientation programme, they have regular catch-ups with each team member to see how they are progressing and fitting into the team. “We like them to stay for at least two years, but after that, we actually encourage them to go out and try something else because that’s the best way for them to grow,” says Jo. “If we want to keep people interested in the sector, we have a responsibility as farm owners to really work on that team culture.”

Next-generation farmers

For the past few years, they’ve been involved in Growing Future Farmers, a charitable trust created by farmers that seeks to train and develop the next generation of farmers throughout New Zealand. The two-year course sees students matched with farms to get practical on-farm experience and training, while also completing NZQA Level 3 qualifications. Farmers like Jo and Allen invest a lot in the programme, providing housing, power, internet, food, and two farm dogs. Seventeen-year-old Alex West, who grew up on a dairy farm but dreamed of being a shepherd, says the programme is an incredible opportunity to get a start in his chosen career. Since joining the Johnstones in February, he’s learnt valuable farming skills including how to dag sheep, operate a chainsaw, ride a quad bike safely and train sheep dogs. “Jo and Al have been amazing. They give me all the advice I need. After the two years, I’ll be looking for shepherding jobs.”

silver fern farms team
From left (back): Stock manager Paul Kearins, shepherd Cole Price, stock manager Nick Anselmi, Jo, Allen and (at front) Growing Future Farmers student Alex West and shepherd Sarah Bevege.

Jo, who is also on the board of Growing Future Farmers, says the programme not only offers a practical career pathway for the next generation of sheep and beef farmers, but helps raise the standard of farming skills for the entire industry. As well as practical training, there’s a focus on soft skills such as communication, nutrition and self- management to better prepare young farmers for the real-life working environment. “Everything they learn, whether it’s shearing, fencing or quad bike training, is done by industry specialists. We as farmers have to make sure we continue to teach and support them to put the new skills into practice.” Since Growing Future Farmers is a charitable trust, it relies heavily on funding. Major sponsor Silver Fern Farms has contributed $150,000 over three years to the programme, and Jo says having the backing of the industry is a crucial part of ensuring the programme’s longevity.

As Silver Fern Farmers, and especially as winners of the esteemed Plate to Pasture Award, the Johnstones demonstrate a keen awareness of the consumer, reflected in their farming practices and in the premium quality of meat that they supply to Silver Fern Farms’ 100% Angus and Grass-fed Lamb programmes.

Premium-quality meat

Silver Fern Farms Representative Chris Keech who has worked with the Johnstones for over eight years, says they consistently deliver an exceptional product and have built a strong relationship with Silver Fern Farms based on shared values. “They’re one hundred per cent behind the company and are farming for a consumer-led product.” “Over the years, we’ve always made a point of being involved and going to the supplier meetings,” says Allen. Through their involvement with Silver Fern Farms, they’ve had the opportunity to travel to China to learn about global consumer interests and farming practices overseas. “It’s great to have that insight when you are farming and understand that the consumer does have different desires,” says Allen. “Our relationship with Silver Fern Farms is very important to us.” As farmers who put an immense amount of work and care into the land, animals and people, it’s reassuring to know Silver Fern Farms shares that same vision. Says Allen: “There’s nothing more satisfying than going into a supermarket, seeing the Silver Fern Farms brand in there and knowing that we’ve contributed to it.”

To learn more, visit silverfernfarms.com

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