Business Hub: Geoff Ross on regenerative farming and his next chapter

Fifteen hundred kilometres away from Savor Group’s Auckland head office, outgoing chair Geoff Ross is mustering away at his lakeside farm, scoping out plans for his next venture.

The 53-year-old is retiring from the board of the hospitality group at the end of this month to focus on what he says has potential to become the next big thing: regenerative farming.

Ross and his wife Justine purchased a 6500ha farm on the fringe of Lake Hawea in Central Otago two years ago, and run a small agriculture operation that produces merino wool and premium meats, and doubles as an accommodation retreat for wealthy visitors.

The farm is no typical farm. It shears its sheep on demand, puts animal welfare front and centre and is focused on farming the old school way; using no chemicals, no regular stock feed and ensuring its animals live wholesome lives in their own right.

Ross has been beavering away at Lake Hawea Station while overseeing Savor Group’s transition and demerger from Moa Group, the unprofitable brewing company he bought and floated on the NZX in 2012.

He says now is the right time to step down to focus on his own passion project.

“This time last year it was a challenging place to be but I’ve got to say I’m really proud of the board and the executives. Hospitality was one of the toughest sectors through Covid but we stuck to our strategy and our people were fantastic.”

Ross is best known for founding vodka brand 42 Below, acquired in 2006 by global spirits giant Bacardi for $138 million eight years after its inception. But the passionate brand man says his vision for a portfolio of regenerative farms based around the country that proves “a more profitable business is a more sustainable and carbon-positive one” will within time become bigger.

Merino wool farming is Lake Hawea Station’s main source of income. It supplies its wool to Allbirds and London-based knitwear brand Sheep Inc, which it has since invested in. It has also recently signed a long-term supply partnership deal with an undisclosed, and one of the biggest, luxury French fashion houses in the world.

Ross’ farming station has been certified carbon-zero by Toitū Envirocare and is the first farm in New Zealand to have its carbon footprint certified. However, as Ross explains, the farm has gone further than that and is in fact “carbon-positive” – sequestering two times the amount of carbon that it emits.

Low carbon food and fibre is at the heart of Ross’ endeavours.

He says he has never been happier than he is now running the farm with his family, wife Justine, and their two sons Finn and Gabe in their spare time, along with their team of five.

The farm will soon begin ramping up efforts to produce premium meats.

The marketer, who started his career at Saatchi and Saatchi, sees Lake Hawea Station as a farm that can leverage its unique practices to become a brand in its own right.

“We’ve spent a lot of time in the last two years on wool, it’s time now to start looking at meat,” Ross tells the Herald, at the picturesque property.

The entrepreneur has just begun looking for other farms to acquire and transform into regenerative stations as part of a portfolio of carbon-positive farms.

In the next five years, he hopes to have five farms under his belt.

And within 10 years he hopes the wool from those farms is “the most valued merino wool in the world on a per kg basis” and supplying the world’s top brands.

Transitioning from executive chairman to essentially full-time farmer has been an adjustment, just like moving on to each new venture in the past had, Ross admits. “Every new business we have gone through whether it be advertising to 42 Below to Ecoya to Trilogy, we invested in technology company Hyper Factory as well, Turners is a large automotive company we’re significant stakeholders in. Every sector, just when you think you’re learning a lot, you realise there is a lot more to learn.

“It’s been the same here. It’s been in equal measures both more challenging than we thought and both more exciting than we thought.

“The scale of the opportunity is larger than we thought.”

When the Rosses purchased Lake Hawea Station in 2018 there was no vision for multiple regenerative farms. That quickly changed, and the drive to want to have a greater impact on the environment and pioneer better farming practices had become “contagious”.

Lake Hawea Station has set itself the lofty goal of being 10 times carbon-positive.

“I love the opportunity in the agricultural sector now in New Zealand. I think we’re at a unique juncture,” Ross says.

His business proposition is to have his hands on, and be involved in, all stages of the growing and production process. It is not washing the wool or spinning the yarn, but it is doing the first and very last parts – where the bulk value lies, says Ross.

He couldn’t just farm to the gate – he says he has always loved dealing with the end customer.

“You can go horizontally across a sector, which is what Ecoya did with [acquiring] Trilogy, or you can go vertical, which is what we did with Savor.

“With farming we’re going vertical, and we’re doing it, one because it’s what the consumers want: they want to join all the dots on the way through, they want to see the trail of breadcrumbs from source to store, and two, we’re doing it because it’s more enjoyable.

“I remember my most rewarding moments in 42 Below were when I’d walk into a bar in London and look on the top shelf and there it was. It was incredibly fulfilling and if you farm to the gate you can’t do that – you don’t know where your wool or food has gone.”

Within time, Ross sees Lake Hawea Station with its own brand in both wool and meat – a concept which he says did not exist in farming 10 years ago.

“It’s one of the interesting trends coming out of the US right now, and London,” he says. Daylesford Farms is one example, which has an upmarket cafe in Notting Hill.

The possibilities and how far the Rosses take their farm brand are endless. The hard part is choosing what avenues and ideas to pursue, says Ross.

He believes Lake Hawea Station’s plans for regenerative farming have the potential to become bigger than what 42 Below was. “I genuinely do, I’m not just saying that. There are so many positive ingredients and the timing is good – it could be bigger.”

Sheep spas and seaweed tonics

Lake Hawea Station is dreaming up plans for the world’s first “sheep spa”. To develop and construct a building “designed for the experience of the animal” for “wellness treatments” and “fibre extraction”.

It is two to three years away from making that a reality, but the Rosses envisage it to be built into the hillside – as sheep love walking uphill, offering treatments such as zinc foot baths and seaweed supplements and tonics.

The farm is home to almost 10,000 sheep and all of its animals are free-range. The property even has a five-star dog kennel facility to pamper its working dogs at the end of the day, and strives to let its animals roam free as much as they can.

Ross’ 21-year-old son Finn is undertaking a PhD looking into the carbon sequestering properties of seaweed, which he hopes will provide insights into developing seaweed tonics and supplements to improve animals’ efficiency.

Finn tells the Herald a seaweed supplement is already being worked on that can inhibit methane in a cow’s gut, essentially preserving energy for the cow and reducing the methane impact on the environment.

Farming comes full circle

Ross grew up in South Auckland on a deer and dairy farm, in a small rural community.

He describes his childhood as amazing and as a 19-year-old started university with the desire to become a farmer. It was in his last week at Lincoln University that he took a marketing class and went to visit ad agency Saatchi Christchurch that he found himself intrigued by the industry.

From there he decided he would work in advertising for two years and then go back to farming. However, 12 years passed and he was “still in love with advertising” – he never went back to his agricultural studies.

“I thought it was all well and good coming up with ideas for other people, but what about coming up with ideas for yourself. I had that thought and then 42 Below came along,” Ross recalls of the time just before he entered the world of business ownership.

“I’d seen an ad for an American vodka and thought that was weird, ‘vodka doesn’t come from America, bourbon comes from America’. I thought about where should vodka come from, obviously Russia, but anywhere else? Nordic countries; very clean, pristine countries.

“I’d just been at a New Zealand tourism research group where someone had described New Zealand as the Sweden of the South Pacific and I went ‘Ah, maybe New Zealand perceptually can create vodka’. As New Zealanders we’re quite interested in what the world thinks of us, our values and how the rest of the world sees us, which is why I thought it was a good opportunity.”

For most people, the success of 42 Below would have been enough. For Ross, he is driven by the fulfilment and gratification he gets from “building things”.

And like most entrepreneurs, he doesn’t see himself slowing down or retiring from business, ever: “There’s a Chinese saying; ‘house finished, man die’,” jokes Ross.

“If I look at my Dad who is turning 80 … he’s an inspiration [to me]; he’s always building stuff, he and my sister run a business … I think we’ll all, always, be busy.”

It is funny how the world works he says now, 33 years later a farmer after originally setting that as his career path. He says he always knew he would end up a farmer.

“I always wanted to go farming but I didn’t think farming would be [my] next big thing,” he says of the timing.

Ross says the country’s agriculture sector is on the cusp of “big change for the better” and while regenerative farming was in its infancy, it was just beginning to be considered seriously after long being thought of as hipster farming.

He hopes his efforts on the farm pave the way for other farmers to rethink their own farming practices. “There’s been a bit of debate and some resistance in some areas of farming and knowing your carbon number and moving to more regenerative-style pastures.

“Typically farmers are good entrepreneurs, typically we are early adopters – we certainly have been in the past with new technologies, so we can’t miss this one.”

Ross puts red tape and changes to regulations down to why so few farms operate regeneratively, paired with just being so busy day to day running operations with little time to consider or implement changes in practices.

When enough farmers demonstrate that you can monetise low-carbon, regeneratively sourced food and fibre and create a premium for that, with less expense, is when change will happen within the sector, says Ross.

It is a complete myth that it costs more to operate a farm like that, he says.

Ross predicts that New Zealand is – realistically – another three to 10 years away before the snowball of conversion starts gaining momentum. “It’s early days but we think we can produce more with less cost, and it’s better for the environment.”

He says his business contacts have been somewhat surprised by his next venture, but he understands why. “For some people, agriculture is not seen as scalable, not seen as an opportunity for high margins and not seen as a high growth prospect. But we’re seeing all of those things.

“We definitely want to build a legacy. A living example of a farm that is effectively producing food and fibre, and effectively healing the planet at the same time.”

A typical day on the farm for Ross involves getting down with nature. He will soon, however, start focusing on connecting with customers and getting new opportunities up and running. Patagonia is one brand Lake Hawea Station would love to work with.

The Rosses have purchased an office in Lake Hayes because Ross loves farming and being on the tools a little too much, jokes his wife Justine; “it will enable him to get off the tractor and on the phone”.Another of his passion projects on the farm has been turning old scrubland into a salad of pastures for his animals.

But, being the brand man he is, he would love nothing more than to get on a plane to London to sit down with Lake Hawea’s biggest client right now, Sheep Inc, to better understand their needs. Then pop over to Europe to catch up with the major fashion house on its books.

• Aimee Shaw travelled to Queenstown courtesy of Lake Hawea Station.

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