The mention of a serial entrepreneur who founded a highly successful vodka brand could call to mind images of your typical city slicker
Welcome to a new era in farming, where the focus is on a sense of community, people and partnerships. Silver Fern farmers, William and Emily Beetham have set themselves high expectations at Brancepeth, which is one of New Zealand’s oldest stations in Wainuioru, situated 15 minutes east of Masterton in the Wairarapa.
The attention to detail and focus this young couple have around best practice in farming and building a business is impressive. The Beetham’s new home was built in 2008 and overlooks the Kourarau Hills to the south. As William looks out to the surrounding view, he says, “We have very high expectations within our business and of the people we recruit and bring in. They must have similar values, obviously, they need certain skill sets, and we look for highly trained individuals. We’re more focused on the value set, making sure we can build capability and we can invest in people, it’s the value set that’s so important to us.” The Beethams believe in recruiting people who are not only open-minded but who are willing to look at things from a fresh perspective. Careful in the selection process in that “we’re attracting intelligent, articulate open-minded people,” this modern era of farming demands new thinking when it comes to staff. “We have to have people who are like-minded” says Emily. “From the outset, we are really transparent about our expectations, staff are presented with plenty of information, so as they can perform to their best ability.”
As well as attracting people with top abilities, the couple themselves are continually developing their own. There have been many learnings along the way for them both. “William has learnt to be patient,” Emily says with a smile, “he was the most impatient person – he wanted everything done yesterday. Everything he could see himself reaching for he wanted to have done by next week.” William says there have been many times when running the farm has been difficult, and he has never shied away from a solution to do things better, such as reconnecting with an older friend and farmer, John Canning from Tanui as a mentor. “He’s been fantastic because he came into the business and he recognised the impatience in me. He also recognised the fact that I wasn’t a great person to stop and smell the roses.” This is a common problem for any ambitious focused business owner – appreciating the things that had been achieved. “All the things we talked about that are probably classic in young guys at work. He saw that I was a worrier and I’d worry about things not being right.” This revelation showed William the need of taking time out to appreciate the small wins and focusing on what’s really important in the business long-term.
Relations & Operations
“Understanding the relationships of people in the business, John has been awesome in that part of the process. He just gave me lots of things to think about. He started off with the ‘3 by 3 by 3’ rule – you plan three days of work a week, because on the farm, if you fill up every day things can go wrong, so you’ll never get what you want to achieve.” Then, on the long-term operations side of the business – as opposed to the day-to-day routines – three weeks were planned out so contractors and staff are organised. “What you do in a farming business right now,” says William, “it only has an impact in three months’ time. In planning that way, any strategic changes in the business take three years to manifest and come to fruition in the business, so pieces of wisdom like that have been invaluable.”
Working with Canning “has been fantastic in terms of pulling things back, realising what beast we had to create and how to tame it and how to move forward in maturity and learning,” says William, who has known Canning for eight years. They meet every two to three months. There is however another sense of responsibility that swirls around this couple, a responsibility that is not taken lightly and which is steeped very much in that sense of community and partnership.
Origins Of The Home
The story of Brancepeth begins with the Beetham brothers Richmond, William and George who built the original whare in 1857, which still proudly stands today. While working on the homestead a wild boar walked out of the bush and through the construction site. The brothers knew of Brancepeth (Brawns Path) in England and decided that was to be the name for their new property. The whare is made from sawn totara with a split totara shingle roof, all the joints are pegged, with no nails used in the building. Later joined by younger brother Hugh, the four brothers lived in the whare for two years while their farm business started and built the first station homestead.
The 32-room Brancepeth homestead was added to from an original structure built in 1856 and is registered with Heritage New Zealand, with its highest ranking, Category 1. The original house was built of totara but was pulled down after sustaining dry rot, borer and damage in the 1903 earthquake. The ‘new build’ including the tower was added in 1905. The station's Clerks Office, post office and station library, which held over 2500 books and now reside at Victoria University, had gas lighting and Brancepeth got electricity in 1957 and still houses original fittings and fixtures of this era. In 1864 the marriage of Annie Beetham to Thomas Coldham (TC) Williams created a farming partnership in the Wainuioru valley between the Beethams and the Williams. This partnership has provided the opportunity to freehold existing land holdings that the Beethams had been developing for the previous eight years and provide further expansion of the property.
As a result, Brancepeth was one of the largest sheep stations in the country at 31,000 hectares, which at its height had 300 staff on the payroll and a permanent population of over 100. The old wooden buildings around the homestead, the original cookhouse, now used as a toolshed, would provide meals to the staff living at Brancepeth, where the bell at the top was rung at 7 am every day. The stables were built in the late 1860s originally as the single men’s quarters and later converted into the stables, where you can see the original pitsaw used in establishing the buildings on the property.
The Importance of Brancepeth
Brancepeth is a national treasure filled with prized possessions – a wonderful preserved historical reference point of how our country once was. This keen sense of history, preservation and responsibility has seen the establishment of a private trust, now driven by the sixth generation of the Beethams, ensuring the homestead, outbuildings and garden are maintained for generations to come. The faded photographs, maps, records, wallpapers, farm implements and furniture make Brancepeth a rare experience, providing a glimpse into the dawn of pastoralism in New Zealand’s colonial life and the forefront of the country's emerging society. William’s dad Ed who is the historian within the family mentions items of interest as he walks through the home, pointing to different paintings that generations of the Beetham family have painted, furniture that arrived from different continents and rooms filled with books and artefacts. “Maori Chief Piripi would sit over there,” he said, pointing to the sun-drenched chaise lounge in the corner of the smoking room by the window. “They would make a bed for him upstairs but he would prefer to fall asleep in the corner there on that handbuilt sofa.”
Each generation of the Beetham family learnt to speak Maori, as close relationships with local iwi ensured no interracial conflict occurred over the years. Kiwi feathered cloaks were presented to the subsequent new generation of Beethams at their christenings as a mark of mutual respect. It is the new generation at Brancepeth who is now at the forefront of that responsibility, and their thinking is exciting.
Silver Fern Farms and the Beethams
William believes it’s “absolutely crucial” to create strong partnerships and in believing in the vision of the people who are selling their product. “We believe in what Silver Fern Farms are doing. We wouldn’t be able to build what we’re doing otherwise and try to operate a best practice business that meets, not only minimum best legislative requirements but actually steps out further to operate in best practice and grow and invest in our business,” says William. “The way Silver Fern Farms is operating with its plate-to-pasture strategy, we talk about that with our team because they have to believe in it too. It’s really important that everybody believes in the strategy and the vision of what they’re doing.” He says, “Our team needs to see and believe in the process and the people trying to do things better, who have a clear vision for the industry and for the future. “Silver Fern Farms can put our product in markets and create connections, and people can see value in connecting with us and add value to our product,” says William.
We believe in what Silver Fern Farms are doing. We wouldn’t be able to build what we’re doing otherwise
He continues, “That process, which has a long-term aspect to it, is hugely beneficial in terms of being able to say that the value that surrounds our product in the market has a sustainable return to us – and that’s where the product value sits, not based on a supply-demand commodity market process.” This attitude and thinking with a long-term strategy and plan in mindsets not only the business up with a strong platform for growth, but continues to build on long-term partnerships like with Silver Fern Farms.
It’s not about the perfect game, it’s about the perfect effort.
William and Emily have high expectations for themselves and respect for their surrounding environment. “It’s not about the perfect game,” says William. “It’s about the perfect effort.” Treasuring rural community relationships, they consider all aspects of the environment in all their decision-making. “Yes, we are committed to maintaining where practicable, enhancing the quality of soil, water, flora and fauna, respecting our animals and accepting responsibility for their welfare and recognising their dependency on our actions,” he says. “We have high expectations, and therefore must uphold the highest standards and be open and honest. It is also always about the people.” And this attitude is something all generations of the Beetham family clearly understood.