Deer to Dream
Claire Parkes stands at the gate to the home paddock of her and husband Simon Vincent’s farm, her pet ewe and its quads coming to greet her. “I grew up on the neighbouring farm that’s been in our family for five generations,” she says. “But Simon and I always say we’re first-generation farmers.” Claire and Simon are also founding members of Silver Fern Farms’ Venison Global Retail Programme, and their stunning farm is a perfect showcase of New Zealand’s pasture-raised venison. To get to their 850-hectare property, drive 25km from Nelson to Wakefield, where you’ll find a beautiful string of coastal villages and lifestyle blocks. Their property is the last one you come to before the mountains, bush, rivers and coast of three national parks.
The road climbs, ever so gently, into the rolling hills where Simon and Claire raise deer, cattle and sheep for Silver Fern Farms. The wide open farm and endless emerald fields catches a gentle gust off the sea: this is the perfect spot for pasture-raised venison. Tidy and spruce, this well cared-for property is Castledown Farms – the place where Claire and Simon’s children, Matt and Lizzie, grew up, as well as being home to 1500 deer, 300 cattle, 2600 ewes and 800 replacement stock, plus lambs.
Everything you see here – all the fencing, just about every tree, every flower, the house – we did,
In pride of place is the home the couple built 10 years ago. Claire and Simon bought the farm in 1996, living in the original house further down the valley. She knew from day one where she wanted her home to be: on a bluff that looks over the farm and out to the ranges and pine forest that marks the boundaries to either side. “Everything you see here – all the fencing, just about every tree, every flower, the house – we did,” says Simon, with a quiet, deserved pride.
A Passion for Deer
In 1980, Claire had finished university in Christchurch and got her first job. “I had some money in my pocket for the first time,” she recalls. So she did what any young, single woman with cash would do: she invested in deer. The profit from that first herd began the investment that would, 16 years later, see Claire and Simon, a mediator working mainly with construction disputes, buy the farm and begin to work the land. Driving around the property with Simon and Claire, their passion for farming and strong ethics about sustainable land practices are obvious, covering everything from the water catchment and care to animal nutrition. “I won’t have any palm kernel products on the farm,” says Simon, firmly. He prefers local, natural products that promote good environmental practices. “So the deer feed on the grass in our paddocks, from our brassica crop, and we use the crushed apples from a grower nearby. They’d just go to landfill, and the apples provide nutrients the deer wouldn’t get, otherwise. Plus, we like to think it adds to the flavour of the meat.” Nelson cider diet, then? He grins. “Well, they stagger around a bit if they eat too much at one go.”
Farm manager Tom Curnow, deer farmers Jacqui and Andrew Conway (he is also a leading deer veterinarian), Ross “Rusty” Andrews and Silver Fern Farms’ local livestock rep George Hunt join the family for a lunch that includes venison, pear and walnuts from the farm. They’re all friends around the table – Curnow has worked here for three and a half years, the Conways live nearby and, says Simon, “Rusty and George are more like friends than reps.” It’s clear Simon and Claire view their connection with Silver Fern Farms as a partnership. The Silver Fern Farms’ Venison Global Retail Programme gives venison farmers access to overseas markets, guaranteeing them good prices for their venison year-round. This, says Simon, is also a win for Kiwi diners. “Because we have a strong, certain, high-value export market in Germany, more farmers are likely to invest in venison, and that will improve the supply for New Zealand consumers, too.”
The conversation turns to the future of the farm and whether the children are interested in taking over. Matt looked unlikely at first – he studied engineering in Auckland, and started a business hiring bouncy castles on the side. Then he sold the business and invested the profit in the farm, ensuring that the land he loves will stay productive for years to come. For a while he was based in the USA – working in Texas and sailing internationally with a professional team – and now he’s back at Castledown. Lizzie lives away from the farm, but remains in a similar sphere: she works in Feilding and Timaru for an agricultural insurance firm. There’s no pressure, but Claire has a sneaking suspicion both Lizzie and Matt will be involved. So they’ll be the second generation of farmers. Or will it be the sixth? Either way, they’ll continue the strong partnership that has evolved with Silver Fern Farms over the years.
Rusty and the Red Deer
“Venison,” says Ross Andrews, “is the lobster of red meat.”
He doesn’t mean that it’s expensive, he means that it’s a stylish, subtle, delicately flavoured dish that can be prepared, presented and paired with many accompaniments and beverages. And he should know: not only is Andrews – universally known as “Rusty” – the upper South Island deer manager for Silver Fern Farms, he has family ties to the Peel Forest Estate in Canterbury, one of the world’s premier red deer studs. There may be dozens of sheep and cattle breeds, but the Kiwi deer herd has only seven strains, with red deer and wapiti predominant in the South Island. Red deer, imported from Britain in 1861, were first released in Nelson, while wapiti (elk) were presented by the huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ US President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909.
I love helping farmers like Claire and Simon ensure the future of pasture-raised vension.
Wild deer meat, says Andrews, is completely different venison from Silver Fern Farms’ pasture-fed, farm-raised products that you’ll find in supermarket chillers today. The delicate and consistent flavour of Silver Fern Farms pasture-raised venison is a product of both the natural environment and the passion of farmers like Claire and Simon. “Venison fits in perfectly with the modern lifestyle – Silver Fern Farms venison medallions and steaks are made for fast cooking,” says Andrews, who has an infectious enthusiasm for all things relating to venison. “I love helping farmers like Claire and Simon ensure the future of pasture-raised vension.”
This article was brought to you by MiNDFOOD in partnership with Silver Fern Farms.