Hawke's Bay deer farmers Tim Aitken and Lucy Robertshawe have won the prestigious Marks & Spencer 2012 Farming for the Future Champion of Champions award.
The Tikokino farmers are members of the Firstlight Venison Producer Group, a Hawke's Bay-based co-operative that directly supplies customers all over the world.
Each year, upmarket supermarket chain Marks & Spencer selects a high-performing farmer from its five supply regions: England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and international - to promote and celebrate sustainability.
The judges were looking for entries that demonstrated a proactive approach to improving technical efficiency, environmental practice, innovation and product quality.
Steve McLean, Head of Agriculture & Fisheries Sourcing at Marks & Spencer, said the judges were "particularly impressed" with work done to enhance the natural environment and water quality on the farm, and their approach to animal welfare.
"They were also encouraged that Tim and Lucy were sharing their knowledge with the wider farming community, and had no hesitation in presenting them with the award. Their efforts clearly resonated with our customers as well, as they secured the majority of our public votes, so we are delighted to crown them Champion of Champions."
Mr Aitken said winning the award was "huge".
"Marks & Spencer is a globally recognised brand which epitomises quality and environmental sustainability," he said.
"Having been judged by the company and its customers as the most sustainable farm of five finalists is a huge endorsement of the farming systems and philosophies we have developed over the years.
"Our on-farm environmental activities started in 1995 when we fenced off and covenanted a seven-hectare block of native trees. Since then we have fenced off around 5 per cent of our farm, including protecting and enhancing three wetland areas, planting thousands of native plants and trees along the way.
"The judges were impressed with our animal-health management, which uses nutrition where possible to minimise drench and vaccine use."
The judges were keen on entries from farmers sharing best practice with the wider agricultural industry. The Aitken Weaning Technique, which put fawns in a familiar paddock when weaned, revolutionised the high-stress process.
"The Aitken Weaning Technique is a development we are especially proud of, which has been taken up throughout the deer industry," Mr Aitken said.
"This works with the animals' instincts to wait for their mother, allowing them to process the separation quietly rather than injuring themselves and cutting up pasture.
"Since we discovered this, the industry is estimated to have saved about $1.2 million a year in losses and damage at weaning time.
"Lucy and I were already very proud of what we have achieved on our farm, but receiving this level of recognition from British consumers is a huge confidence boost." Hawke's Bay and national Federated Farmers president Bruce Wills said the couple were an example of Kiwis leading the way on sustainable farming.
"Winning the overall award ahead of the four British finalists is a huge endorsement of Tim and Lucy's farming systems and of the esteem New Zealand agriculture is held in internationally," he said.
They had already won the title of Marks & Spencer's best international supplier against more than 50 entries. Having the technical aspects of their business being judged was one thing, but winning the champion of champions award showed they and their business had won the hearts and minds of a discerning British public who backed them in the popular vote, he said.
"Federated Farmers is proud to have this couple as members and we encourage all New Zealand farmers to follow their example, lead the world in innovative animal welfare and environmental management and to enter into awards to let the world see the great work we are doing."