Archie Foley was around 18 months old when his parents, Will and Abbie, first noticed the signs of autism. “We couldn’t get an official diagnosis until he was four years old, but the cues were there. He wouldn’t talk, struggled with direct eye contact and would have quite bad tempers,” recalls Will.
Not satisfied with doing nothing, Will and Abbie started researching into what they could do to help their son. After learning about the importance of gut health and reading case studies about autistic children who had found improvements through dietary changes, they began implementing changes to Archie’s diet, cutting out gluten, dairy and a lot of processed foods.
“We saw massive results. Some things happened really quickly, like him calming down and being able to hold eye contact. Over time, he began developing speech and in general, was a lot more happy. It’s been a progression ever since.”
Now eight years old, Archie is enrolled in the local school and loves riding around on the family farm on his motorbike with his little brother, Teddy. “For a while, we thought we’d never get him to school. It’s been the biggest milestone.” The pride is evident in his father’s voice.
Will and Abbie both come from farming backgrounds, with Will now a fourth-generation Hawke’s Bay farmer. Today, they have four properties in their sheep and beef farming operation, including their 80-hectare home farm, situated on the edge of rolling hills just outside the town of Waipukurau, where they live with Archie and Teddy. On their home farm they manage 160 Hereford and Friesian cross steers, which they supply to Silver Fern Farms’ Prime Beef programme. At the same time the Foleys were going through this journey with young Archie, they began talking to friends about regenerative farming, and looking into ways they could transition their home farm into a regenerative one. “Archie was the biggest catalyst, because we learnt that you are what you eat, and the effect food can have on your overall health,” says Will. “It made us realise what we’ve done with Archie has been quite amazing and we are responsible ourselves for the food we produce, and the impacts on our end consumers. We wanted to go down the regenerative track and make it work as a viable way of farming.”
At its core, regenerative agriculture is built on the principles of working with nature. Soil health is at the centre of the regenerative practice. “I did a Bachelor of Agriculture at university and remember coming home thinking I knew it all. But when you start looking into regenerative agriculture, it tips everything on its head,” explains Will. “It all starts with soil health. Previously, I would have done a soil test and addressed nutrient deficiencies, which ultimately means pouring on more chemical or synthetic fertilisers. Regenerative is the opposite. There are actually tonnes of nutrients in the soil, it’s about trying to make it available via biological processes. It’s that biology that we’re suppressing with a lot of traditional practices.”
The importance of nurturing the soil
For farmers like the Foleys, how they manage their livestock plays a vital role in not only ensuring the animals get enough nutrients, but giving back to the soil itself. Think of it like a symbiotic relationship. Rich, nutrient-dense, and biodiverse soil feeds the grass that the cattle eat. The animal’s job is important, too. Not just to eat, but to feed the soil with their manure and squash down the grass to put carbon back into the ground and feed the bugs in the soil.
In order to do this, the Foleys have adapted the way they graze their animals, moving their mob of cattle much more frequently, from two to up to eight times a day. “The idea is that cattle should be only eating around a third of the grass, the rest of it should be squashed down to recycle all of the goodness. And it’s a quicker recovery period because you leave more grass on the ground,” says Abbie. Another key part of their regenerative transition was cutting out fertiliser, and focusing on natural ways to increase the biodiversity of the soil. Will completely cleared one paddock and replanted it with 10 different species of plants, including chicory, plantain, clover and five types of grasses. It was a big undertaking, but one that saw a positive improvement in the biodiversity of the land by cultivating nutrients naturally. When he digs up some dirt, the changes to the soil are obvious.
“You see many worms are in it and the colour of the soil. It’s a good indicator,” he says. “And all the bugs, the birds and wildlife. I remember not seeing frogs for about 30 years. Now, all of a sudden, frogs are back on the farm, living in every water trough.
”The changes are also clear when it comes to the overall nature of the animals. Because they are being shifted multiple times a day and interacting with people a lot, the cattle are incredibly friendly. Will says they’re always eager to move to the next paddock to munch on more fresh grass. “All of that combined, it’s mimicking Mother Nature. How grazing animals developed on the land.” Will says this way of farming not only makes sense from a health perspective, but for the Hawke’s Bay climate, which is becoming harsh and dry in the summer months.
“If you graze too hard and too low, which traditionally we have done as NZ farmers, you’re exposing the soil, which makes it dry out far more quickly than it would if you had kept it protected. That’s what you achieve by a high-dense mob, you’re protecting the soil from the sunlight and evaporation.”
Silver Fern Farms award winning meat
All this hard work comes through in the quality of their now award-winning meat, having been named the winner in their region in the Prime Beef category in the Silver Fern Farms 2021 Plate to Pasture awards, and finalists in the Lamb category. “We were really happy to be recognised for the work we’re doing in the regenerative space,” says Will.
Their Silver Fern Farms Representative, Richard Baines, who has worked with the Foleys for 18 years, has a special connection with the farm, having grown up on the exact same property when he was a kid. He has seen first-hand the way the Foleys have taken responsibility as custodians of the land, and their care shines through in the quality of the stock that meets Silver Fern Farms’ high standards of taste, tenderness and juiciness.“It’s impressive to see the way they’re going with regenerative farming, and still delivering quality results,” says Baines.“They’re thinking outside the square and also going the way the market is going.”
Will and Abbie experiment on their home farm, establishing practices they can then rollout on their other properties. Moving stock more frequently is more labour-intensive, and they are working at finding a balance that fits with their lifestyle. Innovative technologies and novel solutions may play a role in the future, as they are looking into auto-shifting devices, including a gate that could be released on a timer. There is even talk of a self-opening ‘chicken caravan’ – a mobile nesting and feeding unit with a water system and egg collecting conveyor belt that runs on solar power – to follow the cows and help improve the biodiversity. “The chickens produce really good nitrogen which feeds the biology,” says Abbie. Despite the challenges that come with their ambitious goals, the Foleys are confident regenerative farming is the way of the future, and their partnership with Silver Fern Farms and shared values around the importance of protecting the land play a key role in their long-term vision. “The question we often come up against is, ‘Is it commercially viable?’ With Silver Fern Farms leading the way, the market will then expect it and want it,” says Abbie.
“The relationship with Silver Fern Farms is as strong as ever,” says Will, recalling conversations he had with the Silver Fern Farms team when they started looking into regenerative farming years ago.
“We asked them, ‘What are the consumers asking for?’ I could see the regenerative movement coming and I wanted to be ahead of the game. I’m rapt with Silver Fern Farms. They’ve exceeded my expectations.”
Spreading the regenerative word
What they also share with Silver Fern Farms is the drive to do better, continuing to deepen their knowledge about regenerative farming and testing out new practices.“I think if you keep doing the same thing year after year, you’re probably going backwards,” says Will. “This is a big change in the way I approach farming and it’s exciting in that regard. It’s something totally new, but it also just feels right. Food production is a big part of it, but it’s also the environmental aspect, too. Not just sustaining the land, but actually regenerating it.”
Their regenerative farming journey has also found them a community of like-minded farmers. A few years ago, Will joined the Hawke’s Bay Future Farming Charitable Trust – set up as a way of showcasing the region’s farming expertise and creating a hub of knowledge for resilient farming. “We really want to portray to the wider farming public what regenerative farming is and how it can work. That momentum is slowly growing. We want to be part of that movement in any way we can,” says Will.“I think the biggest issue is that farmers don’t think they can make a profit without staying traditional,” adds Abbie.
“Our biggest ambition is to show that it can be profitable and sustainable, better for the animals and better for human health. It ticks every box.”
From the source
Will and Abbie Foley have four properties in their sheep and beef farming operation, including their home farm, situated on the edge of rolling hills just outside Waipukurau. Set on the banks of the picturesque trout-filled Tukituki River, the town is known for its idyllic country life as well as its quality produce such as dairy, fruit, vegetables and meat.
For more information on the Foleys and Silver Fern Farms, visit their website at silverfernfarms.co.nz