The fully electric Otago orchard taking the fossil fuels out of farming

The founders of the world's first fully electric orchard are using their knowledge to help climate-conscious farmers ditch fossil fuels and embrace the cost savings that come with renewable technology.

Mike and Rebecca Casey – the owners of Forest Lodge Orchard in Central Otago – have only been in agriculture for four years, but already they're shaking up the way we farm in Aotearoa and earning a tractor-load of admirers in the process.

Contact Energy wants to profile those who share a similar vision and are using long-lasting innovation to make New Zealand a better place to live for now and for future generations. Thanks to Contact and the Home Guardians initiative, Forest Lodge Orchard will be rewarded with $5,000 so they can keep making a measurable difference to our shared home.

The Casey's never planned to own a cherry orchard, but when Mike sold his tech company and they moved back to New Zealand after 14 years in Australia, everything fell into place.

"I'd fallen in love with that particular region of New Zealand. We found a place 30 minutes south of Wānaka with a four-bedroom house, and it came with nine hectares of spare land," Mike explained.

"This was literally the first farm I'd ever set foot on in my life. I'm a technology enthusiast from Wellington, not a farmer; I'd never really even been in a rural setting before. And here my wife and I were with a farm."

Despite their inexperience, the couple decided to convert their spare land into a cherry orchard, planting 9,300 trees. And as Mike had always wanted to launch a business in the climate change space, they opted to use sustainable technology wherever possible.

Everything on the orchard is totally fossil fuel-free – from their frost-fighting fans and irrigation pumps to their lawn mower, forklift and golf carts. Even their tractor, a self-driving Monarch MK-V that's the first of its kind in New Zealand, runs fully on electricity.

"I would always look for the electric product if it was available, and over the next three years we electrified over 20 machines on the farm and within our household to ultimately become the first fully electric food producer in the world," Mike said.

For Mike, the climate benefits of eliminating fossil fuels from our farming industry are obvious.

"We grow food for people who live overseas, so it's therefore very important to focus on our trade emissions and how to bring them down. The low hanging fruit – or, as I say, the low hanging cherry – is the energy emissions in our domestic economy."

But Mike is just as enthusiastic about the financial case for going electric, saying the cost savings are enough to make even the hardiest traditional farmers rethink their reliance on fossil fuels.

"By electrifying everything on the farm, we have saved a very significant amount of money on our energy costs, and created what is a far more profitable operation than if we ran on diesel.

"On our cherry farm, we increased our profit margin by about 16% through energy savings. It's about the same as planting another hectare of cherries – it works out to be just over $50,000 a year in energy costs that we save across the farm and the household.

"So even though the carbon reduction is fantastic, I don't actually talk about that nearly as much as I talk about just the economics of electrification and getting off fossil fuels."

The Caseys' dream is to use their story of running a commercially viable and environmentally sustainable cherry orchard as a catalyst to inspire other farms to follow suit.

Already, the interest in their orchard has been astronomical, giving Mike hope New Zealand could become the first zero fossil fuel economy in the world.

"In the last three years, we estimate at least 10,000 people have come to visit our farm, mainly to see the electrification in action – to see all the machines, understand the economics of it.

"Obviously we're a cherry orchard and we make our money from selling cherries, but the real life's work is to get the rest of the New Zealand primary industry to become more productive using this technology and, of course, to drive down emissions at the same time."  

Article created in partnership with Contact Energy.