International Velvet

Matching their land use to their land class is a philosophy that has won Central Hawke’s Bay farmers Evan and Linda Potter national accolades and global customers.

The couple turned their deer farming hobby into a prosperous farming enterprise about 15 years ago and are now supplying niche export markets with venison and velvet.

The Potters’ focus is on feeding, breeding and target marketing and they have also picked up a top award for their environmental contribution. Farm ownership was always a goal and when the couple bought the Elsthorpe property in 1997, their immediate focus was to ensure their farming actions were sustainable and matched the land type and climate.

Trusting their instinct
Heralding from farming families, the Potters found they were competing against forestry purchasers in the area. A lull in forestry at the time allowed them to step in when Waipapa Station came up. The property was the last of the lease blocks owned by the Williams Trust, which was established at the turn of the century to honour the memory of Henry and William Williams who were early missionaries of the Anglican Church.

The Trust had owned a significant amount of land in the area and the tenant at the time had decided not to renew their lease. Over its lifetime three tenants had farmed the property, with Waipapa the last of the land to be sold – the rest had been dispersed over the previous 100 years. Evan says the 580ha steep-to-medium hill country farm had a beautiful home and woolshed and lots of scope and character but needed a great deal of work. “It certainly was a project and a property that responded to significant capital input.”

The Potters expanded the farm, buying two 80ha neighbouring blocks, which brought their land total to 740ha. In the early days, they ran a traditional system carrying 2,500 ewes, 150 cows and 30 deer as a hobby herd. Previously there had been a small fallow deer block on the farm with about 35 acres deer fenced.

Evan had grown up on his family’s sheep and beef farm in Weber, near Dannevirke and was introduced to deer through his Dad, who began farming them in the mid-80s. Evan went on to gain a Bachelor of Agriculture with deer farming a focus of his degree and the properties he subsequently worked on all farmed deer.

“I’d always had an interest in deer, both farming and hunting. In the beginning, there wasn’t a lot of infrastructure on the property and price-wise deer fencing was comparable to conventional fencing, so we put up deer fences. “For us, the focus right from the start was to match the land use to the land class.

“The physical nature of the farm, which is divided by a gorge system, lent itself to have a 200ha deer block on one side and sheep and beef on the other.

“There is a cross over with sheep and beef floating in and out of the deer unit.” Three years on, the deer had grown to a 150- head, predominantly venison-fattening herd.

Lucrative offshore markets
In the early 2000s it was a question from a friend, around whether deer farming was a hobby or a business, that was the catalyst for change.

“The deer industry was in a bit of boom, so we sold our venison herd and bought in a velvet-based herd, as we saw that as being potentially more lucrative and velvet production interested us.

“It was pretty much a straight swap dollar wise but was a huge genetic jump and we were fortunate to buy stock from a breeder who was selling up and wanted the hinds to go to a farm where they would be appreciated. “We now have a predominantly velvet herd of 750 deer – 320 females and the rest are stags.”

The Potters cut 1.2 tonne of velvet a year which is sold to C.K. Import Export, which has a processing factory in Hamilton and exports directly to Korea and China. “Over the mixed-age herd, including the three-year-olds, we aim to cut an average of 5kg of velvet on the first cut, around October and 1.1kg for the second regrowth cut in December.

“In the last few years there have been a lot of gains in genetics and feed, which increase the wealth of the herd and there are herds out there producing well in excess of my 5kg. “C.K. Import Export involves a short supply chain which suits us and the demand for velvet has been absolutely off the Richter scale over the last few years.

“The biggest buyer of deer velvet is Korean women aged 23-27. That is the target market. They are buying it to give to their husbands or as gifts.” Evan says velvet can be dried and sliced for traditional medicine, used in fusion cooking and selected grades can be sprinkled over food.

Research into the benefits of velvet and the western science behind the high-performance claims from Asia is ongoing. It is said that deer velvet boosts strength and endurance, improves the immune system, counters the effects of stress and promotes rapid recovery from illness.

As well as a traditional Chinese medicine, the use of velvet in the US pharmaceutical market is growing rapidly.

Everyone gets a cut
“Velvet is a food product, so there are strict protocols around handling, cold store and documentation,” Evan says. “From a farm point of view, critical cuts are what the market needs. If the velvet grows too far, the level of goodness is viewed to be diminished, so you get paid less.

“We need to minimise damage by cutting correctly and presenting the product hygienically.” Waipapa produces about 10,000kg of venison a year which is mainly sold to the United Kingdom, the United States and the United Arab Emirates.

Their venison is marketed through innovative Hastings meat company First Light’s subsidiary, Cerco Supplier Group. First Light was founded in 2003 and has developed as a niche exporter of beef and venison, not a commodity trader. The Potters have been with Cerco since its inception.

“Our strategy is similar to theirs and we are likeminded individuals. It’s about keeping a very short link in the supply chain to the consumer. “First Light found a market for a certain type of animal then found a product to match. “We are rewarded individually and collectively for adhering to quality assurance standards, volumes and commitment.”

Evan says they are part of a supplier group of deer farmers in the lower North Island who have committed to supply a certain amount of venison every month. “We have a large geographical spread which gives us a mix in variety of venison, finishing and breeding so we can supply animals at all different times of the year.

“Most product goes offshore and we supply to a select consumer base where our cornerstones are sustainability and the ethical treatment of animals.

“At the peak, farmers were being paid $11-12 per kilo which was $3-4 above lamb at its own record prices.

“Even the offal and bones are being exported to the US and developed into high-end pet food. “Although everybody has been on the bandwagon and the heat is just starting to come off, venison is still expected to settle at around $10 a kilo this year.”

Evan says while the supplier group’s focus is on highquality venison production, some of the most valuable parts of a deer (per cents/per kilo) is its tail, followed by its pizzle – with both products used in Chinese medicine.

Deer to their hearts
“Deer are my passion. They are a very different animaland they certainly keep life interesting,” Evan enthuses.

“They have a different nature to sheep and beef. They suit our climate and the labour demand fits into our system as the time when they become labour intensive is when we are not so busy with the sheep and beef. “It’s either a love or hate relationship with deer – there is no inbetween. If you are unsure of yourself, they will sense it and feed off it, they’re like a horse in that regard.

Deer farming was legalised domestically 50 years ago with New Zealand now boasting one of the largest domesticated deer herds in the world. “That is part of our point of difference. We are consistently supplying taste, flavour and tenderness, which is an entirely different product to the gamey flavoured wild deer shot in the bush. “Considering domesticated deer is relatively new to the market, it is doing well to be targeted as a premium food.” Evan says quality meat is all about the inputs.

“Some people say deer run on the smell of an oily rag – and that is true. But to perform they need to be well fed. Deer are browsers, they pick and naturally raised venison farmers are always working on feeding.”

Deer also suit the Potters’ summer dry/winter wet block with an average annual rainfall of 1,020mm.

The Waipapa livestock operation is split evenly between deer, sheep and beef across 600 productive hectares. The beef side is all herd trading (Friesian/Angus of mixed ages) with no capital stock. The 1,500 Romney ewe flock go to a South Suffolk or Southdown terminal sire.

“We lamb early, at the beginning of August, which enables us to have good saleable or killable lambs for the early market. We aim to supply 33kg lambs by late October/early November so we can cull our surplus ewes, which suits our dry summer climate.”

Sustainability gets stamp of approval
In May the Potters won the premier environmental award at the biennial Deer Industry Environment Awards. They received the Elworthy Environmental Award for their vision of a sustainable farming system, ensuring long-term protection of the environment and sustainable production.

The environmental award was a big pat on the back for the venison supply side of their business. “Farming in a clean, green, sustainable and ethical way is a point of difference for First Light and helps them get the prices they want for their products.

“We have got to be compliant all the time and it was great also to pick up the NZ Landcare Trust Award for Excellence in sustainable deer farming through action on the ground.”

Judges said Waipapa Station had demonstrated a strong level of leadership through the identification of risk areas on the property, implementation of mitigation tools and adoption of farming systems to ensure long-term sustainability. “We are doing no more than any other farmer wants to do. We have four daughters and want to leave the farm as a better place for the next generation,” Evan says.

The Potters never set out to win anything and were surprised to have their work enhancing the environmental performance of their property recognised.

The judges were impressed with their vision for the property 22 years ago when they started off by fencing at the back of the property. A bush-clad gully on the farm was recognised as one of the most visible and attractive aspects. It was put into a QEII covenant, which is a partnership between landowners and the National Trust aimed at protecting special places on private land for the benefit of future generations.

Their carefully planned nutrient management, waterway protection and extensive use of willows and poplars to help prevent soil erosion were highlighted.

The 20-year transformation has included retiring some land and matching the rest to its most suitable use. Waipapa now has 130ha under QEII covenant after retiring a fifth of the original 580ha over a 7-year project. The Potters were also praised for their excellent long-term protection of and commitment to fencing waterways and other areas with biodiversity values. They aim to create more wetlands in the future.

Having utilised the 1999 Soil Conservation Plan and also a Land Use Capability Soil map, developed in 2005, the judges said these have helped with development and building a thorough knowledge of soils on the property. They said this had resulted in an excellent fit of stock to land class.

First Light
Founded in 2003 by Gerard Hickey, Jason Ross, and Greg Evans, First Light is a New Zealand-based company specialising in grass-fed Wagyu and it is disrupting food industries around the world via its transparent business model and a simple goal of eliminating the layers involved in pasture to plate. Gerard says, “There’s far too many middle men in this business. If you don’t add any value then we don’t need you.”

Stripping the supply chain has helped give First Light farmers the power to develop closer, more direct relationships with their consumers.

“We even promote our farmers on our website, so they feel like they’re part of a family,” Gerard explains.

Because First Light is structured as a co-operative, the farmers also serve as part owners – they own 50% of the company. This distributes the risk and the reward.

Grass-fed Wagyu and farm-raised venison are the main products exported. First Light prides itself on the quality and healthiness of their meat. They have a raft of certifications including non-GMO and they were the first New Zealand company to earn the internationally recognised Certified Humane® status. Their sales and distribution offices are based in Hastings, London and Los Angeles. For more information visit www.firstlight.farm