Teenage orchard owner now successful dairy farmer

The vision Corrie and Donna Smit of Edgecumbe formulated 23 years ago has more than been realised in the highly successful enterprise which is today Corona Farms Limited.


Donna and Corrie Smit began their farming business 23 years ago with a vision which still holds true today.

“When we drew up the vision it was big picture stuff,” says Donna.

That big picture aimed to “maximise growth with quality assets; careful timing, superior relationships, sustainable profitability, with a balanced lifestyle of family and fun”.

And while those goals have been realised, it’s an enduring vision which continues to guide the couple’s enterprises.

Individually and together, Corrie and Donna are visionaries. Farm ownership was Corrie’s goal from the time he began milking cows as a college student.

However, the route he took was unconventional. In 1980, at age 18, Corrie bought a seven hectare bare block of land in Westbank Rd, Whakatane, and began developing it into a kiwifruit orchard with a packhouse and two coolstores.  

He was so young he had to have government approval to own the land and Corrie relief-milked to pay for the orchard development – on one occasion milking three herds in the morning and two that afternoon.

The orchard became the financial stepping stone to farm ownership, enabling Corrie and Donna to shortcut the usual sharemilking route, buying their family farm in the heart of Edgecumbe village in 1989.

Company accountant
Donna (nee Pratt) grew up at Thornton, not far from Corrie and after leaving college, completed her accountancy degree by correspondence while working for a Whakatane firm of chartered accountants.

She joined the kiwifruit post-harvest company Rangitaiki Fruitpackers, today known as EastPack, in a part time position as company accountant and her role rapidly grew to an executive accounting and administrative role.

After 23 years Donna left EastPack full-time in August 2013 and led an information systems project for the company on a part-time basis.

Alongside raising their family, Steven, Corrinne, Tania and Peter, the couple continued to build their farming business and today Corona Farms Ltd owns five farms in Whakatane and Oamaru, milking a total of 2300 cows.

The Edgecumbe farm is entered in the 2015 Ballance Farm Environment Awards and it has a uniquely urban address – right in the heart of the village.

“It’s been a great farm for our children to grow up on because they’ve been able to earn money doing paper rounds, and enjoy playing sports without having to travel,” says Donna.

Acutely aware they have more neighbours than most, the Smits have concreted their long driveway-tanker track to eliminate dust, planted an avenue of plum trees and scheduled tanker visits for late evening – “before bedtime”.

Animals and the farm are managed in ways which are respectful to neighbours and customers.

The farm has a number of mature trees and each year a further 30 deciduous trees are planted for animal shelter and to enhance the landscape.

Still confident
The 160ha, totally flat farm is made up of several smaller blocks, bought over time by the couple, and amalgamated into a dairy unit with two sheds, milking a total of 540 cows.

The two units are managed by Sam Stewart and Andrew Blair. Corrie is in charge, looks after the young stock and relief milks.

Donna looks after the books for the company’s five farms and assists with calves at Edgecumbe.

Farm safety is a priority for the Smits, who incorporate Hazardco Health & Safety Systems into the day-to-day running of their farms and for staff training.

The recent drop in Fonterra’s forecast payout hasn’t shaken their confidence in the dairy industry.

“It’s a wake-up call for many. If New Zealand is to retain its low-cost dairy production advantage we need to watch expenditure. Any downturn like this offers opportunities,” says Corrie.

Increasing production across all five farms by 10 per cent, to achieve their goal of harvesting one million milk solids this season, is one of those opportunities.

Budget
Despite tightening up on spending Corrie and Donna believe their managers will reach that target, with production already up by 14 per cent at the halfway point.

Operating a low-cost, simple system has always been the aim for the Smits.

The farm’s loamy soils grow good grass year-round, but the land can flood if the Onepu Canal on its boundary overflows.

Cows are kept off the pasture during wet periods and all waterways were fenced off 20 years ago and all canals are bridged.

To protect the soils, there is no pasture tillage, with paddocks under-sown with perennial rye grass in autumn.

Corrie and Donna are very conscious of nutrient leeching and strive to reduce this to the lowest levels possible, applying just 86 units of N, and bringing in below-average feeds of 171kg per cow.


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