Cambridge partnership named Waikato's top environmental farmers

24 March 2017

Charlie and Helen Lea of Cambridge have been named this year's Waikato's top environmental farmers.

The sheep and beef farmers were named the supreme winners of the Waikato Ballance Farm Environment Awards, with judges describing their farm as a model farm with a strong production performance.

Entering under the name 'Ratanui Partnership', the Leas won six of the 10 category awards on offer including awards for soil management, harvesting, innovation, integrated management, water protection and farm stewardship. The win was announced at a dinner at the Don Rowlands Centre, Lake Karapiro.

The Leas farm is a 225 hectare (190ha effective) property east of Cambridge that breeds and finishes sheep and beef with a 60:40 beef to sheep ratio. The farm has been home to the Leas since 2004 when it was bought in a land partnership with Helen's parents, Richard and Pam Bailey. The Leas have three daughters, Chelsea, 8, Sophie, 6, and Georgia, 3.

Judges were impressed with the wide range of innovations being used on the farm and in their plant nursery.

"An impressive amount of planning and effort has gone into the farm infrastructure and the protection and enhancement of the environment. Extensive riparian plantings, soil erosion control measures on cultivated and pastoral lands and sound knowledge of nutrient management practices have mitigated environmental risks."

The Leas' sheep flock has high fertility, facial eczema-tolerant coopworths. They also have a breeding herd of 130 hereford cows with bloodlines tracing to the Bailey stud Momona and Clements' Matapouri stud.

There is 25ha of native bush mostly fenced from stock on Ratanui, much of it pockets of mature bush growing in nutrient-rich red clay. So far, the Leas have planted 17,000 natives and erected four kilometres of fencing including 2.5km of waterways.

There is a three year project underway with Waikato Regional Council, Waikato River Authority and Ratanui funding for 6km of fencing and 17,000 plants for improving 6ha of wetlands and 14ha of bush.

The Leas also established Cambrilea, a weed spraying business based on the farm which grew into a native planting and nursery operation after they secured planting contracts with the Waikato Regional Council.

"We wanted to guarantee that winter work for our staff so growing the plants and planting them was the solution," Charlie said.

A former head landscape architect for the Hamilton City Council, Helen's knowledge, experience and passion for natives and planting is crucial to the operation.

Helen followed up Charlie's planting of pioneer species on the farm with seedlings, sourced from their own native hardwood conifer forest.

Clients receive 45,000 plants from the nursery with 5000 planted annually on Ratanui. They grow 16 native species, intentionally targeting "Trees for Bees" with more than half of them flowering from June to March.

Judges said the Leas had gone to great lengths to provide consistent incomes for their staff, which, along with a great work environment, has resulted in outstanding staff retention.

Charlie said there was a real sense of satisfaction in hitting upon an out-of-season match for the spraying, which also ensures a variety of consistent work year round for up 12 to 16 staff.

"There is definitely a good feel factor."

The Leas will host a field day on their farm on April 20..

- Stuff

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