Stunning Cambridge farm wins Waikato Ballance Farm Environment Awards


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Charlie and Helen Lea of Cambridge have won six of the 10 category awards on their way to being named the supreme winner of the Waikato Ballance Farm Environment Awards.

The win was announced at a gala dinner at the Sir Don Rowlands Centre, Lake Karapiro, on Thursday night (March 23). They will host a field day on Thursday April 20.

Entering under Ratanui Partnership, the couple won the Ballance Agri-Nutrients Soil Management Award, Hill Laboratories Harvest Award, Massey University Innovation Award, Waterforce Integrated Management Award, Waikato Regional Council Water Protection Award and the Farm Stewardship Award in partnership with QEll National Trust and the New Zealand Farm Environment Trust.

Ratanui is a 225ha (190ha effective) property with a stunning outlook in the hills just east of Cambridge. The livestock operation is closed beef and sheep breeding and finishing, wintering 2600 stock units with a 60:40 beef to sheep ratio.

The farm has been home to Charlie and Helen since 2004 when it was purchased in a land partnership with Helen’s parents, Richard and Pam Bailey. The Leas have three daughters, Chelsea, 8, Sophie, 6, and Georgia, 3.

The award judges were impressed with Ratanui and described the property and business as a model farm with strong production performance. They highlighted a wide range of innovations and innovative practices 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 judges commented.

The farm contour is one third easy, rolling and medium hill. Fertiliser, contour fencing and cropping steeper areas previously never cropped have been keys to a significant production lift on the farm. Charlie believes the choice to crop is a “no brainer” given the per hectare comparisons of 8-9 tonne of dry matter yielded from their old grass and 16 tonne and 12 tonne respectively from swede and forage rape.

The sheep flock on Ratanui is high fertility, facial eczema-tolerant Coopworth. They have a breeding herd of 130 Hereford cows with bloodlines tracing to the Bailey stud Momona and Clements’ Matapouri stud. Cows are wintered on swedes. In the past five years the Leas have established their own successful on-farm yearling bull sale each September.

A weed-spraying business Charlie began just under 20 years ago, Cambrilea, is based on the farm. A native planting and nursery operation has also been established in the past seven years.

The awards 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 agrees there is 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 feel good factor,” he says with a grin. The business covers the Greater Waikato with some work also in the Bay of Plenty and Central Plateau. They use a spot-spraying method, which Charlie says uses 5-10 per cent a hectare of chemical compared to blanket spraying.

The native nursery on Ratanui arose out of Cambrilea’s winter planting contracts with Waikato Regional Council.

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

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.

Charlie points out Helen’s knowledge, experience and passion for natives and planting is crucial to the operation. She is committed to environmental education through the ‘Trees for Survival’ programme.

A former head landscape architect for the Hamilton City Council, Helen follows up Charlie’s planting of pioneer species on the farm with seedlings ecosourced from their own native hardwood conifer forest.

There is 25ha of 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 enhancement of 6ha of wetlands and 14ha of bush.

In the past two years Charlie and Helen and their girls have together gone to each of the farm’s 50 paddocks and planted an oak or plane tree “so they can sit under it when they are our age and know how important all this is”.

Ratanui will host a field day on Thursday April 20 from 10am at 1358 Buckland Road, Cambridge.

Award winners

As well as the Lea’s six awards, four other category awards were announced at the dinner.

The Beef + Lamb New Zealand Livestock Award and the CB Norwood Distributors Agri-Business Management Award were won by the Carter Farming Partnership – John and Judy Carter and Shaun and Kate Carter, Pio Pio.

The LIC Dairy Farm Award was won by Peter and Karen West, Ngatea.

Rukuhia Farm Limited, Bob and Val Rigter, won the Waikato River Authority Catchment Improvement Award.

For more information please contact Waikato regional coordinator Liz Stolwyk on or 027 571 6206.

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