Farm profile: Omarama Station

Farm Trader showcases the successful relationship between a third-generation merino farm and icebreaker, both working together around regenerative agriculture and sustainability

Third-generation farmers Richard and Annabelle Subtil are no strangers to the roller coaster highs and lows of the sheep farming industry. Conscious of the legacy of the impressive 12,000-hectare Omarama Station that’s their home, the couple has committed to smart business decisions to ensure its future. The smartest of which may well have been nurturing a crucial relationship with the highly respected merino clothing brand icebreaker.

Established in 1920, Omarama Station has a rich history alongside merino wool and natural production systems. The historic property is where Annabelle Subtil grew up. Her family, the Wardells, have farmed the property for three generations.

Today, Annabelle and her husband Richard, and their two children Emma and Henry are committed to ensuring the future and heritage of this unique legacy.

Richard and Annabelle Subtil are mindful of the legacy of being the third generation at the helm of Omarama Station

“We have always had the mentality of farming in a way that means leaving the farm in a better condition for the next generation. The previous generations always had the welfare of the land, water, and animals at heart. We don’t pretend to know everything, but we’re trying to make sure we honour that legacy and make it possible for our children to continue it if they choose to,” says Annabelle.

“As an intergenerational property, if we can’t pass Omarama Station on to the next generation in a way that guarantees sustainability, then we have failed.”

While merino wool is at the heart of Omarama Station, the family also share their home and property with visitors from around the globe, offering the opportunity to experience this special lifestyle as part of the Omarama Station Farmstay.

The main homestead was built in the 1860s, boasting extensive verandas and large welcoming dining and sitting areas. A classic example of a high-country homestead, renovations have seen the addition of comforts such as heated floors and modern plumbing, while retaining the character and charm of the home’s history by including touches like a handcrafted wooden bar made from an old wool press.

The relevance of that wool press should not be underestimated, as it represents the beating heart of Omarama Station. The 12,000-hectare property is home to approximately 19,000 merino sheep and the successful partnership between the Subtils and icebreaker – as well as being part of ZQRX.

The Subtils use horses for transport to reduce their carbon footprint

“ZQRX gives us a framework within which to confidently operate and continually raise the bar. That’s hugely important to us,” says Richard.

The ZQRX regenerative agricultural programme helps growers work with nature to continuously improve human, animal, and environmental outcomes. ZQRX wool growers interact with the natural world each day at the grassroots level, with the goal of restoring waterways, protecting native species, offsetting carbon, and enhancing local communities.

For Annabelle and Richard, ZQRX aligns beautifully with their own attitude towards farming, and for icebreaker, being part of the ZQRX programme with its merino wool growers is part of the brand’s journey towards its aim of moving to regeneratively grown wool.

“Climate change is affecting everyone globally, and as farmers, we see the impacts it has on our environment with extreme weather events and unpredictable seasons.

“It is, therefore, very frustrating that most garments are made from finite carbon production, which continues to add to this problem.

“The more we learn, the more we’re certain that natural products are the way to go moving forward, and we will continue to do what we can to reduce our emissions and improve sequestration on-farm.”

The legacy continues

Merino sheep are fussier than regular sheep – they love blue skies, sunshine, and space

When Annabelle and Richard were given the opportunity to take over Annabelle’s family farm 25 years ago, they had already spent time abroad exploring other avenues and felt the call to return to farm life.

The couple chose to foray into merino wool farming at the inception of the long-term contract model. To them, it was less of the business opportunity that drew them in, and instead, the personal connection to icebreaker founder, Jeremy Moon.

Richard says up until that point, people were unaware of where their products were going. And the fact that they met Jeremy and had the opportunity to hear first-hand his big dreams for merino wool was a game-changer. Turns out that conversation led to creating a detailed plan around how they farm and who they chose to partner with. In fact, it was an easy choice for the couple, who felt that bringing the emotional connection between people and their clothes again was important.

Fast-forward to now, with expectations from society in knowing how our clothes are made, and it turns out that the couple were well ahead of the game. Richard speaks proudly of being part of the ZQRX programme – the initiative that helps farmers measure and improve how much they give back to the earth – and how this influences the way they farm.

“Aligning our vision with Jeremy’s 25 years ago was a game changer, as before icebreaker, most merino wool was sold anonymously through an auction system and went into traditional suiting fabric. There was no way to trace our fibre after it was sold. Selling at auction also meant huge price fluctuations that were beyond our control and made running our business challenging,” says Richard.

“A rewarding part of the relationship with icebreaker is the ability to connect directly with our consumers and open our gate to show how merino fibre is produced, often debunking any myths people might have about the processes involved.

“Omarama could be considered very isolated, but through relationships like this, we’re able to meet and connect with people from all around the world.

“We entered into a 10-year supply contract with icebreaker several years ago, which was, and still is, an industry first. It’s fair to say our bank manager and accountant love the certainty it provides.

“We were lucky that our return from overseas coincided with the birth of icebreaker and that their founding principles mirror our own beliefs. We were very keen to understand where our merino fibre went. Having worked outside of farming while overseas, we were keen to build relationships with brand partners and the people buying our wool.

“Something we value about this partnership aside from the business is the fact that we now have a long relationship and friendship with the people of icebreaker. Instead of the old buyer and seller mentality, we feel we’re now both on the same team. We get a real buzz from seeing icebreaker garments and knowing our wool is a small part of that.

“Partnering with icebreaker gives us clear direction when it comes to on-farm decisions such as breeding direction, genetics, and consumer expectations around ethical production.”

The business of farming

Merino wool makes up 89.7% of icebreaker’s total fabric consumption

With such a genuine love of their industry and dedication to finding the most beneficial ways to farm and nurture the history of Omarama Station while securing its future, Richard and Annabelle continue to evolve their business model to navigate the peaks and troughs.

The enforced pause of COVID gave the couple the opportunity to think about what was important and led to some physical changes on the property.

“Without being able to get extra staff in during busy periods throughout COVID, we relied on family and horses to do the jobs we had ahead of us. This was both enjoyable and effective and something we have continued in the consequent years,” says Annabelle.

“At the same time, the future-facing nature of the icebreaker philosophy made more and more sense. Pre-COVID, zoom hadn’t made it to Omarama yet, but one of our very first calls was from icebreaker to guarantee they would honour their contracts and provide a different perspective and insights during turbulent times. This meant a lot to us both emotionally and financially.”

A mob of merino at Omarama Station

One of the big factors in caring for their land is about caring for their sheep. Richard says merino sheep are fussier than regular sheep – they love blue skies, sunshine, and space. This is equally important for everyone on the farm, and valuing that landscape and its integrity is a daily reminder of how and why they farm.

Among the actions aimed at reducing Omarama Farm’s net carbon footprint are covering preserved grass with lime instead of plastic, spreading lime on the paddocks for good pH for the animals and land, using horses for transport more than previously, using hydro-turbines to generate their own hydroelectricity, and exporting three-quarters of the electricity produced to the grid.

“A lot of this is just going back to what our forebearers used to do. We got out of the habit because it was easy to just ‘fix’ it with a synthetic chemical or a fertiliser. We’re just rewinding the clock really.

“For example, understanding plants and herbs that can work to our benefit – for animal health, ground cover during winter, and companion planting.

“Even our grandparent’s generation would’ve known a lot more about these practices, and what plants are best to use, however, during our movement towards efficiency and maximum production, we’ve lost a lot of this knowledge along the way.

“We’ve got a wasted generation where everyone did anything to maximise things without considering the end effects. I think we’re starting to re-learn that wisdom that earlier generations had.”

Find new and used farm machinery for sale in NZ 

Photography: Photos supplied by the New Zealand Merino Company

Previous ArticleNext Article
Send this to a friend