A Festive Celebration.

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The mention of a serial entrepreneur who founded a highly successful vodka brand could call to mind images of your typical city slicker

Christmas Day is on the horizon, and award-winning Silver Fern Farmers Maurice and Renee Judson have already planned a wonderful feast that the whole family is sure to enjoy together.

On Christmas Day, three very excited children, Kate, Ben and Lachlan Judson wake up and open the smaller presents in homemade patchwork Christmas stockings at the end of their beds, then head under the Christmas tree in the lounge. Mum Renee says: “There’s lots of paper, noise and fun.”

Organised by nature, Renee says she likes to have everything bought by November, even if the children often don’t start thinking about Christmas until December. “I end up having to buy more things so they are not disappointed that Santa hasn’t brought at least one thing on their list.” She likes to support local businesses. “I try to buy local … whatever I can’t buy I go to Dunedin for.”
For Christmas Day, it’s always breakfast with extended family, followed by a late lunch and leftovers for dinner, with fresh homemade bread.

Family is important to the Judsons. “I’ve got a large extended family, up to 30 people. Sometimes we have them here,” says Renee.

For lunch it’s much like most Kiwi families around the country ... lamb, ham, chicken (“I don’t like turkey,” says Renee), salads, potatoes and lots of desserts including – you guessed it – trifle and pavlova. “If I’m doing lunch at my house, I nominate what I’m doing and then people bring other things. Normally Maurice is the chief potato supplier and I grow our summer lettuce in the tunnel house. For nine months of the year, we produce a lot of our own veggies.” This year they are having Christmas with Maurice’s family.

Christmas is also a time for celebration and the Judsons have much to celebrate this year, as they are the very proud winners of the Silver Fern Farms Plate to Pasture Award. They took out the Venison category for the Lower South Island and then were the overall winners for 2019.

The farm the Judsons manage is in Balclutha, South Otago. Large for the area, it comprises 1,700 hectares running 13,000 sheep, 1,500 deer and 250 cattle. Over the past 12 years that the Judsons have been farming in Balclutha, both the deer and sheep numbers have increased, as the owner of the property is keen on diversification.

“The sole focus has been on breeding better venison genetics, where we are targeting the European consumer who wants the product late October for the European game season,” says Maurice. “Deer is not suited to an intensive farming environment as it’s not their natural environment.

“What we have tried to do over the past few years is really try and let them live like deer, so less fencing to give them more room. Deer are browsers rather than grazers; they want to wander here and there.”

The farm is spectacular, with lush-looking rolling paddocks that seem to reach up into the sky. Over the years the property has become compliant with the regional council for keeping deer, making sure the stock is out of waterways, and water testing the waterways. “We’re planting native areas, and making it a more sustainable environment, which is also helping with our pastures and soils,” says Maurice.

What type of natives? “I like the bellbirds, so kowhai trees, but there are different types of planting, as we plant shelter belts and ornamental trees like oaks and maples for beautification.”

It seems like an idyllic life. Renee says, “Some days when you are under pressure, Maurice is busy and you don’t get to stop and appreciate where you live. Sometimes you have crappy weather, like 10 days of snow in spring during the lambing season. But literally and figuratively, you often feel on top of the world.” Even though it’s not their farm, Renee says she likes to treat it like it is. “We have four staff who live here so it’s their home too.”

She says both she and Maurice are “real readers and nerds” who like to learn more about farming in what little spare time they have. “You get market signals as to what the overseas expectations are. We need to stay up to date; we can’t afford to not be doing the right thing. We take pride in what we do.”

“As a farmer who is always striving to improve our business, I want to know as much about our consumers as possible and make sure what leaves our farm gate is going to meet their requirements,” says Maurice. “I know my consumer places great importance on what they are eating, and wants to know where the product has come from and whether it has been farmed in an ethical, sustainable and environmentally friendly way.

“We’ve moved on from being a commodity supplier to someone who supplies highly nutritious food with a story behind it that I’m confident will meet my consumers’ requirements. As a farmer, I’m constantly asking myself, ‘If a customer walked onto the farm today, would they be happy with what they see?’ This question influences my management decisions.
“An example is moving away from intensive break feeding in the winter,” he says.

“My stock don’t deserve to sleep on a wet, cold strip of mud. We now split paddocks into thirds or halves so there is very little mud created. This is a lot better for stock and it is better for our soils and pastures. There is less sediment run-off into our waterways and they’re tested regularly to make sure they are not exceeding the limits put in place.”

Stock is monitored seven days a week to make sure feed requirements are met and that there are no health issues. “We have a close relationship with Clutha Vets who assist in setting animal health programmes to ensure our stock is performing at a high standard,” says Maurice.

Much consideration has gone into the running of this farm over the years, including the planting of 20 kilometres of shelter belts over the past 20 years to provide shelter from wind and rain at lambing time and provide shade in the summer. “A lot of money is invested into providing high-performing legume-based pastures to grow stock out to suitable specifications to meet our consumers’ requirements,” says Maurice.

The owners of the property, Dr David Ivory and his wife Wichanne, always wanted to create biodiversity on their farm. They also see planting trees as the right thing to do, not only for the benefit of stock but to create a pleasant, natural environment. With
10 per cent of the land area is tree-covered, David believes the farm is carbon neutral.

“One of my comments to the Plate to Pasture judges,” says Maurice, “was that I hope being carbon neutral will one day appeal to our consumers and that we can use it as a marketing point of difference. This day may be getting closer.”

Maurice and Renee see their Silver Fern Farms farm rep, Peter Nelson every few weeks. It’s a very important relationship and the couple has known Peter for over 12 years. A former farmer himself, Peter is highly regarded and has lived in the South Otago area for 40-odd years with 18 of those years living in Balclutha.

“I have been working for Silver Fern Farms for 20 years,” he says. “I believe Maurice and Renee won the award because of being very well organised, hardworking and passionate farming people. They always have a plan in mind to work to and they put in some very long hours to achieve this.

“The farms, paddocks and lanes are well planned out for easy management of their stock. Their farm records are excellent and they presented themselves and the farm very capably to the judges,” Peter adds. “They are very well supported and highly trusted by the farm owners David and Wichanne Ivory. They both have been and still are heavily involved in the community school with fundraising events and board of Trustees.”

So how did the Judsons feel when they won the prestigious Silver Fern Farms Plate to Pasture Award?
“It was pretty amazing,” Renee says, grinning. “The competition really made us sit down and think, and justify what we were doing. The environmental and sustainable section was big; when we had to answer all these questions it really drove home what we were doing, and it was the right thing to do.”

The couple says it has been great meeting the other regional finalists, with the winning prize a trip to China and Korea. “It will be interesting to see what they’re doing there,” Maurice says. “Supplying meat to China is important in the future so it will be good to see their market and get some fresh ideas. It will be a huge learning experience for us.”

He believes farms in the future will place even more importance on traceability, and that reporting will be more digital. “Hopefully we’ll see more research and development around growing different types of pasture, and the genetic guys are always improving the livestock.” Part of the competition included cooking a dish; no surprise the Judsons picked venison.

“We chose venison because it's nutrient-dense, high in iron, low in fat, it’s a quick cook and it’s healthy. For busy working people it's a good meal, also we can guarantee it’s 100 per cent grass-fed. In the last 20 years, people have thought venison is hard to cook, but it’s not. Silver Fern Farms Tri-Tip Grill Steaks is a new cut for venison that’s perfect for the barbecue.”

At the age of six, young Kate has already said to her dad Maurice that “she was born to farm” so it looks like this idyllic farm where the Judson children learnt to count by literally counting sheep on the back of a truck as pre-schoolers, just might be growing award-winning farmers of the future.

Words by Michael McHugh.