Date posted: 03/05/2023 5 min read

For farming, is net zero ambitious enough?

Lake Hāwea Station, a New Zealand sheep and beef farm, demonstrates how being carbon positive can also be profitable.

In Brief

  • New Zealand sheep and beef farm Lake Hāwea Station is not just carbon neutral: it’s carbon positive.
  • Farm owners Geoff and Justine Ross have planted native vegetation and reduced fossil fuel use to become carbon positive.
  • Selling carbon credits and investing in ‘Carbon Clear’ branding has made being carbon positive profitable for the farm.

With the world facing climate catastrophe, is it enough for businesses in well-off areas to be carbon neutral? Agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gases, producing around 18% of global emissions. As a proportion it’s lower in Australia, around 13%, dwarfed by energy production. But in New Zealand a massive 50% of emissions come from agriculture – most of this as methane, belched by grass-eating livestock.

The owners of Lake Hāwea Station, a large sheep and beef farm in New Zealand’s South Island, believe farming, rather than contributing to the climate crisis, can be part of the solution. Not only that, but the journey to being climate positive can bring financial benefits – as well as for nature, for future generations and for the planet.

Lake Hāwea Station owners Geoff and Justine RossPictured: Geoff and Justine Ross live the values of the Lake Hāwea Station: environment, people, innovation. Image credit: Lake Hāwea Station

Back to the land

Geoff and Justine Ross bought the property in 2018. Both grew up on a farm, and both had highly successful careers as entrepreneurs and brand builders. Together, they established 42 Below vodka, a project launched in a garage in Wellington that was eventually sold to Bacardi for an impressive sum.

But the passion always went beyond business success. They retained a love for farming and a commitment to protecting biodiversity and a safe climate. Geoff was a founding trustee of Pure Advantage, a business-led charity that promotes nature-friendly and socially just economic growth.

Sequestration measures

The 6500-hectare farm has around 10,000 Merino sheep and 240 Angus cattle. The first steps were to protect and plant native trees, cut fossil fuel use, diversify pastures and avoid synthetic fertilisers, then to measure emissions.

In 2021, Toitū Envirocare assessed the farm’s net carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions as follows:

Farm emissions: 2538 tonnes (71% from methane)
Less on-farm sequestration: 4958 tonnes
Climate positive balance: 2420 tonnes

This shows a climate positive position, with sequestration exceeding emissions by about 95%. The farm was certified as carboNZero in 2021, the first in Australasia. (For certification, only 80% of this sequestration was offset, which still allowed a comfortable positive margin.)

Geoff says the certification cost about NZ$5000, but he continues: “There were no material costs to achieve this status… in New Zealand a lot of our marginal land and gullies will naturally revegetate if allowed to. We planted 20,000 trees at significant cost, but that was mainly for biodiversity reasons – they’re still too small to contribute to sequestration.”

The benefits achieved are the real story, though, and some of these are financial.

From positive to profitable

Part of the farm’s positive sequestration balance was converted to emissions units (NZUs) or to voluntary carbon credits. Some credits were sold to CarbonZ, a company formed by the couple’s son, which links businesses needing to offset emissions to landowners with available credits. Importantly, some of the balance was applied to exported wool, supporting the farm’s ‘Carbon Clear’ branding. This attracts a premium on prices and helps the purchasers absorb some of their own manufacturing and supply chain emissions.

The result, Geoff says, has been “net positive financially”. He adds that stock numbers and production had increased in this period, balanced by tree planting and retiring marginal land. Regenerative farming methods were improving pasture, water retention and animal health.

Other benefits are less tangible, including the joy of seeing biodiversity return and thrive; around 300 species have been identified, including four that are “rare or endangered”.

New Zealand sheep and beef farm Lake Hāwea Station Pictured: The sheep are fed a nutrient-rich seaweed product and new animal welfare practices are used for shearing. Image credit: Lake Hāwea Station

Good enough?

Well done, but is it enough? Carbon neutrality, the family decided, is “insufficiently ambitious”; the goal is to be 10 times carbon positive. And there’s a plan to achieve this through protecting vegetation, planting 10,000 trees a year, electrification, reduction of methane emissions through use of seaweed, genetics and restoring soils.

“Soil is the unsung hero of farming,” Geoff says. “We’re already seeing the carbon gains from regenerative farming.”

A positive future

The hope is that other farms will do something similar. Geoff explains: “Over 40% of New Zealand’s land mass is in sheep and beef farms. To have that huge part of the country being carbon positive would be a big change in our country’s carbon footprint.”

“Over 40% of New Zealand’s land mass is in sheep and beef farms. To have that huge part of the country being carbon positive would be a big change in our country’s carbon footprint.”
Geoff Ross, Lake Hāwea Station

The Rosses want to be open about their projects and collaborations, and to share what they have learned.

Justine adds, “We’ve got eight years left to meet our national climate targets and we want to do our bit and influence change. To sequester more carbon than we emit is the single biggest koha [gift] we can make to the world.”

The farming sector faces some major challenges, including the risks of irreversible climate change and loss of biodiversity. It is heartening to know that a farm can be climate positive, can protect and enhance biodiversity, and succeed financially as well. This really might set an example – to other farmers in Aotearoa, Australia and further afield. And that would be positive for us all.