Chain of Care

Erin Wilson is 20 and ambitious. Having decided early on that farming was her future, her goal is to work her way up from shepherd general to head shepherd and eventually she wants to run a farm herself. 

Lucky for Wilson she’s in one of the best places in the world to perfect her craft: the fertile, pastoral lands of South Otago. More Silver Fern Farms, with their plate to pasture strategy, Tesco and Landcorp farming all work together in a partnership. With their support, and the guidance of farm manager, Dave Vaughan, Wilson is the next generation of farmer who will continue the values of this partnership. specifically, Waipori Station – 12,000ha of rolling country, with tussock shelter and paddocks full of lush, green grass. A lamb’s dream, you could say, and a source of pride to animal-lover Wilson who gets a kick out of seeing the stock she’s responsible for, “frolicking around looking nice and healthy”. 

For now, though, it’s Vaughan who is in charge of making sure Waipori adheres to the highest possible standards. It’s a job he loves. “It’s just a challenge, a constant challenge. I like the practical side of things – I don’t like sitting in an office all day. You’re out problem-solving and using your brain. And this sort of natural environment is pretty special. This is strong farming country and on a good day the views are magic,” he says.

Magic is a pretty good word to describe the landscape that Vaughan, Wilson and other farm staff get to see and work on every day. Breathtaking and spectacular also spring to mind. Standing on a hill, gazing out across a vista bathed in sunshine and fresh air, all of it Waipori as far as the eye can see, it’s hard to convey just how vast and beautiful the countryside is. There’s more land here than the sheep know what to do with.

It’s dedicated people who go above and beyond who make it all happen and who all share pride in the knowledge their dedication is reflected in the gourmet standard of the produce on the plate; people just like Wilson, who will spend extra hours with her flocks come lambing time. And Vaughan, who has known his calling from age five: “There was no question I’d do anything else. It’s always been my number one passion. I talked to one of my primary school teachers a while ago and she said ‘You were always going to be a farmer’,” he says.

Support Network

The support given to farmers is something Vaughan can’t praise highly enough, from the development of the finest breeds to expert pastoral knowledge and care of staff.

What is also a high priority for everyone involved in the chain of care is the strong emphasis on animal health and welfare. “It’s the whole attitude to why we’re farming. We’re all working towards the same goal, and that’s to get the best out of the land and the stock,” Vaughan says.

Vaughan is also a strong advocate of good environmental practice, “It’s all about treating land and stock properly – sustainable farming. Looking after things, appropriate use of chemicals, monitoring and planning. “The first guy I ever worked for as a shepherd, his saying was that he wanted to leave the farm 10 per cent better than when he took it on and I’ve always thought about that. When I was a kid I was drinking water out of the creeks and swimming in them and we want our kids to do the same.”

He and wife Hayley have two young children under five, Becky and Ollie, and live on the Station in a home overlooking spectacular Lake Mahinerangi. Hayley says it’s a view she doesn’t take for granted. “It’s gorgeous, and a great place for the kids to grow up. We can go fishing and they love being out on the farm, getting amongst it.” Adds Vaughan: “They love it. When I get home every night, Becky runs out to meet me and wants to help feed the dogs.”

Livestock Rep Know-How

Planning is a major operation of a station this size. A big part of that involves Mike Reid, a Silver Fern Farms Livestock Representative. “Mike and I, we plan ahead quite a lot,” says Vaughan. “Farming’s pretty variable so if there’s circumstances that change we’ve got a relationship in place and we both understand what’s going on and what needs to be done.”

It’s Reid’s job to communicate with Vaughan about productivity and quality and evaluate the lambs according to select criteria. He uses “pasture”; an innovative online booking system which matches customer orders with farmers’ livestock. It’s a job that requires skill, honesty and “going the extra mile,” says Reid. He’s well-known to muck in with the rest of the team come lambing time. It’s hard work sometimes but, Reid says, “I’m doing what I want, I’ve looked at other things and I’ve always come back and thought ‘this is what I like’. You return from holiday, too, and you think ‘oh yeah, good to be back’. I’m here for a reason. I’ve found my wee niche.”

The fact that Waipori Station lambs qualify for such a premium product, both here in our supermarkets and overseas, is a source of great pride to everyone involved. Says Vaughan: “It’s a great thing for us. If we can supply lambs that fit that market, I think that’s pretty special. It means you’re doing something right. It also means you’re being rewarded for the work you put in a little bit too. The guys get a buzz out of it.”

But the hard work doesn’t stop with Vaughan and Reid. They know their skills and hard graft are carried all the way through the chain of care. It’s something that matters a lot to both of them.

“We’re farmers because we love working with stock. That’s number one. We try to treat our stock to the best of our ability, to get the best out of them, and it’s important that carries on,” says Vaughan.

Reid is a welcome and familiar face at the local processing plant, often popping in after sorting the plan with Vaughan just to double check that everything’s on target. “Everyone’s got a part to play to get it from A to B and make sure it’s what the consumer wants as well. At the end of the day we are all aiming for the optimum end result,” he says.

The Whole Package

Phil Shuker is the manager of Silver Fern Farms Finegand plant, a short drive from Waipori. His role extends beyond managing what happens at the factory. He’s as invested in the process as the farmer and the livestock rep and likes to visit the farm for a catch-up and to see for himself the care taken before his integral role. He talks with great enthusiasm and admiration about the level of investment that has gone into ensuring their plants are cutting edge and in line with New Zealand’s clean, green image. “It’s not only the plant,” he says. “It’s an investment in people. Health and safety is of utmost importance to the company. There’s a lot of initiatives and a lot of money invested in it.” Part of that is the groundbreaking robotics and X-ray technology Silver Fern Farms use to minimise staff’s use of dangerous equipment. But it’s also about traceability and precision. Shuker explains: “RFID tags and EID tags in the animals’ ears mean that we can trace where the animal is from, it’s then X-rayed and the X-ray determines the proportion of the lamb and the ideal cutting for best yield.

“The actual RFID then comes out and is tied to the X-ray and the machine is set to the parameters for optimal cutting. Lambs are all different shapes and sizes so what it does is it’ll perfect the cutting so you get it correct every single time,” he says.

Lamb production supervisor Fiona Ward is in charge of the lamb cuts from the arrival of stock to the packaging. And she knows better than most what it takes to create such a premium product for discerning customers here and around the world: “There’ll be a number of checks and balances along the way. As the lambs come in for Tesco Finest [a UK supermarket’s premium brand], there’ll be lots of criteria they have to meet throughout processing.” Everybody at the plant is fully aware and skilled in continuing that chain of care, from animal welfare training to scientific know-how: “There’s a lot of technical expertise involved in the processing of meat – the mindset we’re trying to change is that we’re not a freezer works, we’re actually a food producer,” says Shuker. “We supply to Tesco and the standards are high. It’s about a partnership. They’ve got to have the confidence what we’re doing is correct.”

Shuker knows that the backing of Landcorp is integral to what is achievable: “It’s the bigger picture. Silver Fern Farms and Landcorp are working together to breed and grow select lambs particularly suited to UK consumers’ tastes – and that’s taken years to develop. “It’s not just about the right amount of stock and the right quality – it’s the right care, the right conditions, the right selection of animals, the right processing treatment, the right selection of cuts, the right packaging … it all has to come together and it’s a common goal that goes beyond commercial imperatives.” The result, of course, is a fantastic eating experience of consistently high quality. Wilson reckons she knows why – gesturing at those beautiful, green hills she says, “I’d much rather be eating something that I know has been running around in a place like this”.

Words by Nikki Birrell Photography by Andrew Coffey. This article was brought to you by MiNDFOOD in partnership with Silver Fern Farms.