The mention of a serial entrepreneur who founded a highly successful vodka brand could call to mind images of your typical city slicker
Farming at iconic Southland station Mount Linton comes with many benefits, not least of which is the satisfaction of producing some of the best Silver Fern Farms beef in the land. MiNDFOOD talks to Ceri and Tori Lewis about how they have managed to climb to such impressive farming heights.
When Ceri Lewis was a mischievous young lad growing up in Wales, it’s likely he never imagined that one day he’d be running one of New Zealand’s iconic sheep and cattle stations in the heart of Southland. Lucky for him, his dad decided a bit of hard labour would sort out his wayward son and at 16 years old, Ceri was shipped off to New Zealand to work on a remote property on the Mahia Peninsula. It was a big eye-opener for the teenager, fresh from a Welsh boarding school, who found himself working with and living in a shearer’s quarter with 30 Fijian scrub cutters. But his dad was right. It proved to be a turning point for Ceri, who not only discovered his niche in life but also met his future wife, Tori.
It was on Tori’s aunt and uncle’s property that Ceri spent that formative year. On returning to Wales he set about getting the qualification he needed to make farming his future and back on New Zealand soil, a National Diploma in Agriculture in hand, he took a position at Tori’s parent’s farm where love flourished and so did his career, “I graduated to a Ford Falcon ute and a team of dogs and worked my way up the ladder,” he says.
It’s fair to say Ceri’s at the top of that ladder now. Mount Linton is one of New Zealand’s historically significant stations, covering 13,365ha of fertile rolling downs and tussock-clad high country. It is home to 3000 Angus cows and 45,000 Romney Texel sheep and under the Lewis’ careful management for the past 11 years, it’s performing high above the national average when it comes to producing premium quality beef for Silver Fern Farms.
The beef, which is graded using the Silver Fern Farms Eating Quality (EQ) System (a science-backed grading process that guarantees the taste, tenderness and juiciness every time) scores consistently high. “We had a line go through [the EQ programme] the other day that had a 92.5 per cent strike rate. The national average is 28 per cent so giving that feedback to the staff was a real buzz. It’s a real team effort. The stockmen on the station take a huge amount of pride in achieving those results. The EQ grading system is fantastic feedback to give to those guys.”
Prior to Ceri being shoulder-tapped for the job of Mount Linton Station general manager, the Lewis’s were farming in Hawke’s Bay. Tori didn’t accompany Ceri on that first visit to the Station because they were so happy in Hawke’s Bay that she thought nothing would come of it. “But he came back saying ‘it’s great, you’ll love it, it’s a fantastic property…” Tori says. He was right. “We love it down here. The people, the countryside, the opportunities here, the hunting and fishing. It’s a nice place to live – beautiful,” she says. The couple have three children, Geth, 22, Holly, 21 and Jack, 18 and Tori says Mount Linton has been a great place to bring them up. She’s always been very active on the farm and when the children went to high school she worked full-time. Up until 18 months ago, she was a block manager at Mount Linton, responsible for the pasture management, grazing and looking after the stock on 1200 hectares with her own team of dogs. She’s now halfway through completing a Bachelor of Commerce. “I decided to think of the long term and do something else as I’m getting older and you can’t work physically forever,” she says.
A strong team is an important component of running a station of this size and the Lewis’s make it a priority to create a sense of community. “We have a social club where all the families on the station are involved. “We work together and we play together as well. We have a really strong team and we have a lot of fun,” says Ceri. “Everyone takes a lot of pride in what they do and I guess that is reflected when your drive around having a look at things.”
It was eating a piece of grass-fed marble Angus beef in a Melbourne restaurant six years ago that proved a lightbulb moment for Ceri in his farming career. “It was a fantastic eating experience and I thought, ‘why are we producing a commodity when we can produce a niche product like this?’” he says. Since then Ceri and the team at Mount Linton, including Tori, have focused on ensuring its stock has the best genetics to thrive at the Station. “We’re looking for animals that perform consistently,” Ceri says, adding that the animal’s temperament is so important when selecting stock because of its correlation with high pH levels. “Animals that are highly strung have got high pH levels and that means they are never going to hit the EQ grading targets that we need them to, so all our animals are very quiet,” he says. “It’s about how you handle those animals, the experience those animals have. A lot of it is about management and we are just continually learning about that.” Ceri and Tori both know that respect for animals is essential to creating the best product possible.
The qualities of their pristine environment are also key to the success of the optimum health of the Station’s animals. “Even though the winters can be pretty tough, Southland probably has the best climate for farming in New Zealand,” says Ceri. “It’s a reliable farming country. It’s summer safe and grows a lot of grass because we get rainfall pretty consistently all through the summer. We never get droughts so we don’t have to irrigate.”
When it comes to dishing up their own beef on the plate when entertaining, the couple are proud because they know they have “a very special product” that always gets the guests’ thumbs up, says Tori. And while she wouldn’t describe herself as a passionate cook she still likes to make a nice meal and for that reason is a huge fan of Silver Fern Farms cuts. “They’re perfect for cooking because it’s very quick and easy, especially the medallions,” Tori says. “Because it’s mostly just Ceri and me at home now the portion sizes are great, there’s no wastage, and it’s always a great quality piece of meat. It’s always good, too, when you surprise yourself and plate up something that looks like it’s supposed to from the recipe book,” she says. That experience is what the Lewis’ want for all home cooks. “There are plenty of Angus-branded products out there but the Silver Fern Farms beef EQ system is by far and away the best in terms of the fact you can guarantee that product is going to be fantastic every time you buy it,” says Ceri.
This article was brought to you by MiNDFOOD in partnership with Silver Fern Farms. Words byCarolyn Enting, Photograhpy by James Jubb.