The mention of a serial entrepreneur who founded a highly successful vodka brand could call to mind images of your typical city slicker
The light soils of Brae-Lynn, North Otago, have been transformed into a lush landscape for the Cleveland family to produce world-class Silver Fern Farms beef, lamb and venison.
A careful eye is kept on the skies at Brae-Lynn farm, tucked into the hills of North Otago, near Windsor. Thick, heavy raindrops are like gold, providing moisture to the light Ngapara soils and life to Brae-Lynn. It is a property owned by the Cleveland family, and until 10 years ago, it was drought-prone. Now it is a lush, fertile, tree-lined section owned by a passionate family supplying beef, venison and lamb to Silver Fern Farms – a rare trifecta of sheep, cows and deer farmed within one property. Innovation and investment in irrigation, led by a group that included Ross Cleveland, has secured the future of farmers in the area.
“All the years I farmed here, the thing that stressed me most was drought and not being able to feed stock,” Ross says, as he sits alongside his wife, Mary; their son Jeff; and Jeff’s wife, Diane. “We, and farmers before us, looked at different ways to irrigate this area,” he says. In 2006, the North Otago Irrigation Company scheme was built, allowing water to be taken from the Waitaki River and spread over 10,000 hectares of farmland. “It has made a huge difference to this property and to the area,” Ross says.
They came to Windsor in 1972. Ross’s parents, Eulaine and Ted, had owned a farm in Macraes Flat, south in Otago, but pitched in with Ross and Mary to buy the 1000-acre property. Eulaine named the property Brae-Lynn, a name that means hills and valleys, reflecting the landscape of a home that would surpass all their expectations.
“Dad was a tough taskmaster,” Ross says. “I had to go and prove myself before he decided he would sell up and move here. At the time we had just come out of the 1960s droughts and things were just starting to improve. Properties were hard to find but, we liked what we saw. We liked the feel of the place.”
We, and farmers before us, looked at different ways to irrigate this area. It has made a huge difference to this property.
Originally the property was a sheep and cattle farm but deer have been stocked at Brae-Lynn for about 14 years, with 250 or so breeding hinds now on the property. The family has a long, and great, relationship with Silver Fern Farms and has a consistent history of excellence – in 2015 they were recognised for this excellence and were named Plate to Pasture Regional Finalists for the Lower South Island, meaning they were among Silver Fern Farms top five farmers across the country.
It was a proud moment for the Clevelands – particularly for Jeff, who is now continuing his father’s legacy on the farm. Jeff, the firstborn of Ross and Mary’s three children, always believed he would take over the farm. He and his wife Diane, who met in Oamaru as teenagers, moved in immediately after they were married and took over the homestead.
Jeff initially managed the family’s direct drilling contracting business – a company started out of a desire to manage soil erosion and establish resilient pastures in a region prone to dry conditions. At the time, Ross was also on a steering committee put together by Otago Regional Council to look after the soils. “We were probably a little ahead of our time,” recalls Ross. “We produced a really solid environmental farm plan that could be audited. It made us aware of the soil, shelter and looking after our waterways. We did a lot of plantings to prevent soil erosion in areas that were prone to it.”
But it was irrigation that really helped insulate Brae-Lynn from the vagaries of the weather and Ross was heavily involved in implementing the system through his 14-year stint as a director of the North Otago Irrigation Company. Sprinklers now criss-cross most of the property creating lush, green pastures for the animals. Nowadays Jeff takes the lion’s share of running the farm, ably backed up by staff members Hann Matsinger, and Ross. Diane and Mary contribute significantly by keeping the books and running the two houses. Jeff and Diane’s daughters – Whitney, 16, and Mikayla, 18 – help out, too, “particularly if there is a monetary reward,” Diane jokes.
Diane still works two days a week in Oamaru, and she loves being on the farm – though it took some adjustment. “I remember on a Saturday saying I was popping out to get a couple of bottles of milk and Jeff said: ‘You can’t actually do that all the time from here, Di.’”
Focus on Quality
The Clevelands run 7000 stock units – a mix of beef, sheep and venison – on the property with Jeff keeping a careful eye on the animals and working to provide Silver Fern Farms with the best product possible. “We have got a focus on quality and what Silver Fern Farms are doing to create the best quality product aligns perfectly with that.”
Part of being successful is that you can never sit back and be satisfied with what you have achieved. You have always got to want to do better
He runs an artificial insemination programme for the deer to drive increased performance and uses FarmIQ software so farmers can track livestock performance. The Clevelands also supply beef to Silver Fern Farms’ Eating Quality (EQ) System, a scientific process that sees each beef carcass measured against strict criteria. If it passes – on average, only one in four animals do – it becomes reserve-grade meat that consumers can buy in supermarket packs. The Clevelands are achieving a much higher pass rate with many of the standards required being second nature. “You have got to be calm when you are handling the animals; they can sense if there is a problem,” Jeff says. “Everything we are doing is to try and create the best possible product. What Silver Fern Farms is doing aligns well with what we are trying to do on the farm.”
The family is a group of quiet achievers who have been proactive in managing the risk of drought on their property and increasing the quality of their product. “Part of being successful is that you can never sit back and be satisfied with what you have achieved. You have always got to want to do better,” Ross says. “It is not about numbers out the gate, it is about being proud of the quality you put out the gate.”