The mention of a serial entrepreneur who founded a highly successful vodka brand could call to mind images of your typical city slicker
Nothing quite prepares you for the dramatic views that unfold from the highest point of Silver Fern Farmers Dan and Tam Jex-Blake’s Gisborne property, their lush home base for supplying Silver Fern Farms with its award-winning lamb.
The view from the highest point of Mangapoike Farm in Gisborne is like looking out over a 3D map of the north island. On a clear day, the eye can see down the East Coast as far as the Wairarapa, north up to Mt Hikurangi and out west over the mountain peaks of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro.
“It’s just a breathtaking view. It’s a very special place for our family,” says Tam Jex-Blake, part of the husband-and-wife team managing the land. “We call it ‘The Mountain’ – it’s our mountain.”
The 2840-hectare farm is as challenging as it is picturesque, with just 2260 hectares of “effective land” available to farm due to its steep terrain, bluffs, native bush and “lots of water”. The Mangapoike River (which means Swarming Stream) runs through the front of the property and is the source of Gisborne’s domestic water supply. This part of the world also gets a lot of rain. All features combined, the land is surprisingly well suited to sheep farming, which the Jex-Blake family have done here for four generations.
At the height of the season, the farm is home to 30,000 sheep and lambs that forage lush pastures rich with plantain, chicory and red and white clover. The area’s high rainfall ensures ample plant renewal year-round, which in turn aids the growth of the lambs.
ON THE PLATE
Lamb eating quality is something the Jex-Blakes are passionate about and their meat is as good as it gets – in 2013 the couple won the Glammies for the country’s best-tasting lamb.
Farmer Dan believes the rich and nutritious diet of their animals is one of the reasons the meat tastes so tender and delicious.
“If you’re after eating quality, the quicker the lambs grow the more succulent and juicy and tender the meat will be,” Dan says. “If you feed them really well on the right forage – that is, a diet of herbs, legumes and high-quality grass – you will generally find you have a great eating experience.”
Needless to say, the couple is proud of the lamb they produce on the farm. When they are invited to dinner parties, Tam will buy a pack of Silver Fern Farms Lamb from the supermarket and take that instead of a bottle of wine.
“People love it. Especially as we grow the lamb and that’s the final product. It’s just a really great thing to be able to take to someone in the same way someone who owns a vineyard would take their own bottle of wine. I do it because I’m proud of what we produce,” Tam says. “We are committed sheep farmers. We love what we do here and we love where we live … As farmers, we need to do more to tell our story because it’s a really great one.”
When entertaining at home, Tam loves to dish up Silver Fern Farms Lamb Medallions. “The medallions are hard to beat, especially Silver Fern Farms lamb because it’s a really consistent product. You can put them all in the pan at the same time, give them three minutes on each side, then let it rest while you make a salad and in 10 to 15 minutes you’ve got a restaurant-quality meal on the table.”
And it’s healthy, too. Silver Fern Farms’ new packaging for its lamb range, with all new recipes, has the Heart Foundation Two Ticks – meaning it is a core food for a healthy diet. It gets Tam’s tick too. “It’s lean, quick and easy to prepare, and a fantastic eating experience. Putting lamb on the table ticks all these boxes.”
DEPTH OF EXPERIENCE
As a fourth-generation farmer, Dan considers himself to be incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunity to farm Mangapoike through the hard work and endeavours of his forebears. Growing up at Mangapoike he developed a strong interest in farming, horses and dog handling.
Today, the land still requires those traditional farming skills, though the Jex-Blakes have also invested in technology to enhance their business. “To farm this country you do need a high level of traditional skills of stockmanship, dogmanship and horsemanship because of the topography, and you need a good team of dogs, otherwise you can spend a long time out in a paddock achieving nothing,” Dan says. “But we also use Farmax, a software-based feed budgeting programme, and we’ve just got involved with FarmIQ so that we can electronically identify our sheep with a view in the future, as well as now, to managing large numbers of sheep more precisely.”
The future of the land is something they’ve thought a lot about. There are QEII covenants protecting areas of bush on the property. The Jex-Blakes also actively encourage regeneration in steep areas, won’t cut scrub out and plant poles each year in the gullies to assist with erosion prevention.
“We’ve grown the business to include other land but for the land to be inter-generational each generation needs to look after it and grow,” Dan says.
The Jex-Blakes have no intention of selling their property; instead, they have plans to grow their land base, even if their three daughters – Vita, 20, Imogen, 18, and Myah, 16 – decide not to follow the family farming tradition. The farm’s company model, which leases the land from a family trust, is not only great for succession but has also enabled them to give one of their key employees, Pat Sherriff, an equity stake in the business.
“It means at the end of the day, if we are no longer here, we’ll have someone here who’s farming it who feels as committed as we do,” says Dan. “And our children can still be involved.”
Sheep farming has another advantage in that its environmental impact on the land is low as well as producing two very sustainable products. “It not only produces great meat but also a wonderful fibre called wool,” Dan says. “As farmers, we get the benefit of the fibre side of farming sheep and wool is a sustainable product. “And as for the meat, we’re 100 per cent confident that we are giving consumers a product that is not only good for them but tastes really nice. When you wrap all that around the story of lamb, it’s a great one to tell.”