The mention of a serial entrepreneur who founded a highly successful vodka brand could call to mind images of your typical city slicker
Farmers William and Karen Oliver, inaugural winners of the Silver Fern Farms Plate to Pasture Awards, have been recognised for their vision, sustainable best practices and production of premium quality venison in the King Country.
A magnificent magnolia tree provides the perfect backdrop for lunch at Waerenga, William and Karen Oliver’s family farm in Rangitoto, King Country. Friendly banter is flowing around the table along with wine especially chosen to match Karen’s delicious quinoa salad served with perfectly cooked venison medallions. The colour of the meat matches the magnolia’s pink petals
“It is always best medium-rare,” says Karen. Appreciative comments come from all sides about the venison’s taste and tenderness, and soon the plate of medallions has disappeared. “Sometimes people are a bit hesitant to try venison because they may have once had wild venison which can be gamey and tough, but farmed venison tastes very different, it’s not gamey at all. It’s really, really tasty and tender,” Karen says. The fact that it is also a healthy alternative to other meat gives it another big tick, she says. “Lean (97 per cent fat-free), high in protein and iron and rich in zinc, venison is probably the healthiest red meat available and it’s yum.”
The Olivers have been farming venison in the King Country for the past 20 years and are one of 1500 venison farmer partners with Silver Fern Farms. This year they were judged the inaugural winners of the Silver Fern Farms Plate to Pasture Awards, which recognise and champion good land management, innovation, best practice, animal care, vision and understanding of what consumers want. They’ve worked the family farm, Waerenga, since 1994, and recently added a second farm, Three Rivers, on which they farm 2700 red deer, 1000 cattle and 6500 sheep. Together, the farms cover 1500 hectares of rolling King Country, of which 200 hectares are reserved for wildlife. “I think it’s a great thing that the farmers do. Over 10 per cent of my business is effectively in reserve for wildlife,” says William. The protection of the environment is just part of the long-term thinking and approach. “Good farming management techniques are paramount if you want to be sustainable in business as well as have as little impact on the land as possible,” William adds. This includes caring for the animals as well as the waterways and soil.
“My father was a farmer, and grandfather and great-grandfather,” he says. “I grew up on a neighbouring farm … Sustainable means the business, the family, the environment.” The Olivers have achieved this vision through investing in their staff and empowering them to make the best decisions as well as building long-term relationships with suppliers. The animals on their farms are grass-fed, healthy and enjoy the calm and quiet of their surroundings. This ensures that when the venison ends up on the plate, it is supremely tender. The way the business has been set up has ensured that Karen and William’s children – Jack, 15, Molly, 14 and Charlie, 12, can be part of it later on “if they choose to” – though there is no pressure for them to do that. Jack, Molly and Charlie are present at the farm’s quarterly meeting of its Board of Directors where the Olivers discuss the business, what they are currently doing and future plans. “The thinking around getting them involved is that what we do is transparent,” Karen says. “That way they understand the decisions we make and the reasons behind them.”
The Olivers also let consumers into their world. Two years ago they opened a bed & breakfast on the farm, which has proved to be popular with visitors from overseas as well as New Zealanders. Karen made the B & B her project after transforming a dilapidated cottage on the farm that either needed a lot of love or a bulldozer through it. She chose the former. “I love it because it keeps you in touch with people from the cities and they like to come and experience some time in the country,” she says. “We love showing them around the farm. We’re pretty proud of what we do and it’s nice to showcase it.”
Best in Show
King Country farmers Karen and William Oliver are proud of what they do and the premium meat they produce is a testament to that. Farmers of venison, beef and lamb, were recently judged the inaugural winners of Silver Fern Farms’ Plate to Pasture Awards 2014.
The Olivers’ understanding of consumers’ needs as well as their emphasis on environmental sustainability helped to set them apart. At the 2013 Glammies (Golden Lamb Awards) they were winners in the Best of Breed, Cross Breed and third in the Best of Breed Open categories. They see great value in being aligned with Silver Fern Farms’ Eating Quality initiative, which means best practices in every area of the business – including chain of care – ensuring a better eating experience for consumers.
The whole family pitches in when the Olivers get together for an outdoor lunch, featuring Karen Oliver’s quinoa salad served with venison medallions. “The Silver Fern Farms medallion packs are probably my favourite because they’re so versatile and only take six minutes to cook,” says Karen. “They’re great in summer or winter and served with salad or roasted vegetables.” The Olivers aren’t just great home cooks – as farmers, they have also been recognised as the inaugural winners of the Silver Fern Farms Plate to Pasture Awards.