Building the Pyramid

 Building the PyramidChris Dawkins has been landscape farming for most of his life. His golden rule has been to match land use to land capability which has resulted in a varied spread of industries across the drylands farm. He says growing opportunities is all part of the succession plan.

Chris is a third-generation Marlborough farmer. His parents bought the drylands farm in 1954. Chris took over the family farm from his father, Jack (J.A.) Dawkins in 1978 after a three-year father/son partnership.

The Pyramid sits in the Avon Valley alongside the Avon, Tummil and Waihopai rivers, 17km south-west of Renwick. It was in poor condition when Jack Dawkins purchased it but by the time Chris took over it had been turned around with the weeds tackled, new fences and healthy animals.

With stone walls still visible, the property is one of the remaining stock farms in Marlborough as vineyards now cover much of the region.

Chris married Julia (nee Maher), who grew up on a farm at Kaituna in Marlborough that had been tended by four previous gerations, starting with Julia’s great-great-grandparents Michael and Nancy Maher in 1849.

With four sons – David, Tim, Patrick and Richard – as well as five grandchildren and one on the way, Chris and Julia have always had a focus on succession planning. While the two younger boys are back home, the couple want all their boys to have an involvement with the property in the future.

Their oldest son David is a sporting goods wholesaler in the Waikato and Tim is dairy farming in Southland. “They are doing their own thing but have a strong attachment to the property, hence the need to get the succession planning right,” says Chris.


 Enterprise and Experimentation

SpChris’s father was one of a group of enterprising farmers who were instrumental in establishing the Marlborough Farm Trading Society in the 1960s. This co-operative, following a series of mergers, developed into Farmlands.

It is that experimental nature that led Chris, after witnessing Julia have an ultrasound when she was pregnant with one of their sons, to consider that ewes would benefit from the same procedure.

In 1992, the Dawkins’ sheep were the first in Marlborough to have an ultrasound. It is now a regular practice. Ewes that are not in-lamb are sold off and any carrying multiple lambs are managed accordingly.

The backbone of the farm is 1,400 composite ewes with a scanning rate of 190 percent and 163 percent lambing. The target is a 75 percent lamb clearance at weaning with a 19kg carcass weight.

Chris and Richard are in year three of a Beef + Lamb New Zealand innovation project ‘Maximising Triplet Lamb Survival Through Indoor Lambing’. As part of this, they have set up an indoor lambing system in a covered sheep yard in a bid to realise the potential offered by triplet and quad-bearing ewes.

The benefits have been far-reaching – the outdoor death rate of triplet lambs has halved and farm-wide lamb deaths have dropped from the long-term average of 24 percent to 15 percent. Spare orphans are fed cow’s milk and grass, prompting growth rates of up to 350gms/day. The lambs are weaned onto lucerne after approximately six weeks at liveweights of between 15–18kg.


Nurturing a natural fit

The Dawkins family is a walking sales board for diversificationVineyard
and maximising every opportunity. Chris says his policy has been not to modify the environment but to work with what does best naturally, while factoring in the climate and topography. “It’s got to be a natural fit. Best land use for the land type,” he advocates.

In line with the different classes of stock run on different land types, the Dawkin’s also farm cattle, based on a dairy support system.
Chris says they carry around 100 R1 Friesian/Jersey bulls for the dairy industry along with 70 R2 bulls and 40 R3s. They also have about 100 carry-over cows where they buy in empty dairy cows, graze them for a year, get them in calf and sell them back to the dairy industry.

The Pyramid receives around 780mm annual rainfall, evenly spread, with roughly seven months in a soil moisture deficit and a reticulated water system used.
Around a quarter of the property is river flat planted in lucerne, half clay downs (ryegrass) and a quarter steep hill.

About 70 hectares of The Pyramid is retired for native and production forestry planted in pine, gums and poplars. Trees are a big part of the family farm, with stock often grazing among plantings.
“For us, it’s about planting trees on the land that is better off out of grazing,” he says.

The waste wood is utilised through Richard’s Flaming Firewood business, again maximising the availability.These activities saw the family labelled “leaders in farm forestry” by judges in the 2019 Cawthron Marlborough Environment Awards, which recognised the farm with the supreme award.

In 2016, the team developed 50ha of Sauvignon Blanc vineyard which is leased out to an independent party. A further 50ha is currently being developed.

Profits from the vineyard allowed the family to purchase the 187ha neighbouring Tummil Hill property which has increased The Pyramid’s scope. A focus has been the extensive development of the new block which has involved clearing and fencing, setting up the water supply, planting trees and building access tracks.


Replicating a winning model 

Lumber WorkRichard and his wife Jess returned to The Pyramid around three years ago. He says he is very appreciative of the hard work by the previous two generations which has always focused on planning for the future while remaining profitable.

“The firewood fits well. It started as a way of utilising the few hundred Old Man pines that were on the Tummil Hill block. We’ve been doing firewood for a couple of years and process around 750 tonnes each season, both from the farm and other waste wood logs we buy in,” says Richard.

He is always open to new opportunities but says that with the continuing development at the Tummil block and the vineyard extension, right now it is about consolidation and ensuring they are upholding their livestock standards and the overall business performance.

While the Tummil development is absorbing time and resources the results make it worthwhile. “Before we bought the block it had been extensively farmed with native pastures, big paddocks and no reticulated water.

“We are trying to replicate what has been done over 60 years at The Pyramid to make the new block an extension of the existing farm. It is rewarding to watch the land go from head-high weeds and unproductive pasture to our new lamb finishing block,” he says.

Richard, like his parents, is already thinking about the next generation.

“We have an 18-month old daughter, Ellie and a baby due in January. Ellie is already involved in farming and loves jumping in the pens with the lambs, so planning for the future is always on our minds.”


Diversification sees queens reign

Beekeeping was introduced to The Pyramid in 2016Beehives
when Patrick and his wife Laura launched Pyramid Apiaries. They have between 300–400 hives, mainly on the family farm and neighbouring properties.

As well as honey production, they provide commercial pollination services to local fruit and seed growers, while also selling mated queens, virgin queens, queen cells and nucleus hives to fellow beekeepers.

Patrick and Laura both have commercial beekeeping experience. Laura was trained as a queen breeder and completed Lincoln University’s Certificate in Apiculture, while Patrick’s training concentrated on honey production.\Queen rearing and pollination is a major focus of the business.

Patrick describes it as diversification upon diversification.

“All beekeepers make honey but the location of The Pyramid, and being an intensive sheep and dairy support farm, doesn’t lend itself to high-value honey. The beekeeping operation has to fit around the farm operation which lends itself to queen bee rearing, so we have tailored our business to suit the farm,” says Patrick.

The pair started off buying four hives and, rather than purchasing additional hives, built their own business utilising Laura’s queen bee breeding skills.

“Mum and Dad’s generosity meant we had plenty of sites to get started with so we were able to get the beekeeping business up and running quickly,” he says.

While coming home was always at the back of Patrick’s mind, it was not until he got into the beekeeping industry that he saw the opportunity.

“Dad has always had hives on the farm and has been receptive to what we have wanted to do.”

Having worked as a sports reporter in a previous life, in true Dawkins-style Patrick has further diversified his beekeeping by producing the online beekeeping e-magazine – the Apiarist’s Advocate. The free, monthly publication enjoys a

ubscriber base of over 600 and growing.

“I learnt from Mum and Dad to use your skills and what you’ve been given for your benefit– and your industry’s benefit. The e-magazine has allowed me to do that.”

“Beekeepers are not renowned for working together, so the Apiarist’s Advocate is about informing and advocating for New Zealand beekeepers. It serves them by telling their stories, providing industry news as well as a platform in which opinions can be voiced and promotions disseminated.”

Patrick says as one of four brothers on a farm that is a certain size, there is a need to diversify and ensure the property is economical for multiple family units.

The couple has a one-year-old daughter, Gemma, so while they are currently consolidating, there is always room in the future to expand.

“Beekeeping is flexible, it’s not reliant on owning land and can be expanded through hive numbers to accommodate future generations.”


Farming to the conditions wins acclaim

Front GateFarming sustainably has always been a family cornerstone.

This year these actions were recognised when The Pyramid was named the 2019 Winner of the Supreme Award at the Cawthron Marlborough Environment Awards. The biennial regional environmental award is open to all industries; notably The Pyramid is only the second farm to win the award since its inception in 1997.

Judges said the Dawkins’ family farm was a “great example” of apt land use.

Initiatives that were recognised as part of the award included: creating a QEII covenant of native replantings along the Avon River, experimenting with pastures, planting trees for erosion control, drought-proofing, drainage and runoff, diligent stock management and the indoor lambing project.

Over his career, Chris has constantly looked at new ways to maintain profitability and has not been afraid to take risks. The Cawthron judges acknowledged the science trials the family have conducted over the years with trees, pasture and clover types.

They also applauded the way Chris and the team seek out technical advice and put such expertise into practice. Their investment is paying off for the farm and the environment, the awards committee said.

“You can see the work that’s gone in for decades to get the farm to a point where we’re reaping the benefits ... we want to maintain the principles but really grow on them to push new boundaries and achieve new milestones,” says Richard.

Unsurprisingly given their collective philosophies, community involvement is high on the Dawkins’ agenda. Chris is currently Chairman of the Marlborough Farmer of the Year competition and Richard is part of the Marlborough Farming for Profit group.

Julia is a breast cancer survivor and now competes with the Blenheim dragon boating team.

It was clear to the award judges that the family’s next generation has inherited Chris and Julia’s strong values and will carry on the tradition of sound environmental and farming management. We hope that Ellie, Gemma and the other grandkids will continue building on The Pyramid’s foundations.