The mention of a serial entrepreneur who founded a highly successful vodka brand could call to mind images of your typical city slicker
Spring Valley farm in Kaituna Valley is turning out award-winning Silver Fern Farms lamb, all while implementing sustainable practices and boosting team morale with some seriously good home cooking.
The smell of roast lamb is wafting around the house and the fire’s adding a cosy warmth. Outside, Alex, aged nine, and Cameron, seven, have their wellies on and are excitedly tending to Franklin the steer who’s lapping up the feed they’re doling out. I comment to their dad, Silver Fern Farmer Matt Wyeth, that the boys seem awfully comfortable around such a big beast. “Yeah, they jump on his back – he’s pretty docile,” he says. Matt’s wife, Lynley, is busy preparing the accompaniments for the lamb lunch.
Her kitchen window looks out onto the rolling hills of Kaituna Valley and in the front paddock, a flock of plump sheep are busy munching lush grass. The topography of the land here at Spring Valley farm, a 15-minute drive from Masterton township, is one of the things Lynley likes most about her home. “We have mountains, we have the river, we have the flats – we have everything,” she says. She and Matt grew up in the area and both come from generations of farming families. The couple bought the 1000-hectare Spring Valley property from Matt’s dad, Tony, after share-farming with him for a couple of years. Father and son still work together every day. “He’s very much my mentor,” says Matt of his dad. “I’ve been home for 14 or 15 years and I’ve never had an argument with my father. That’s more of a testament to him than myself. But we know our roles.”
Tony encouraged Matt and his other children – two daughters and another son – to get out into the world and find their own space before making any decisions about farming at home. Matt took the advice and worked on many other properties over the length of New Zealand. After studying in Canterbury, Matt took up an opportunity back at Spring Valley. What he brought home was a more dynamic approach to farming. Tony embraced the changes. “You have a lot of scientific things and technology come through that we didn’t have in our day,” Tony says. “I like seeing changes – I struggle to keep up, but I like seeing changes.”
One of those changes is an emphasis on sustainability, one that has been recognised with a Supreme win for the Wyeths at the 2014 Greater Wellington Ballance Farm Environment Awards. “We live in a very high rainfall area so we’re surrounded by creeks – we call it the bloodstream. We have a very good natural resource and we need to protect it,” says Matt. He’s been doing that by introducing riparian strips of native plants along waterways and planting trees so the nutrient run-off from paddocks goes through a filter system. “It keeps your water quality up,” Matt explains. Trees are also a big part of animal welfare – the Wyeths run 12,500 stock units. “It’s about creating an environment so that our stock thrives – shelter in winter from the elements and shade in the summer from the sun.”
A few years back the Wyeths lost 1000 lambs overnight in a terrible storm, which Matt describes as “heartbreaking” as a farmer. What the tragedy did, however, was spur the family into further action. “We were helpless to do anything about it so we decided we don’t want to go through this again,” says Lynley of the event. “And that’s where the orphan lamb shed idea came from. Any lamb that is vulnerable out in bad weather or that might die overnight, it will go into the orphan shed,” she says.
Because that is our obligation – to look after those lambs.
Lynley rears anything from 300 to 400 lambs at a time. “I love it. Absolutely love it. A lot of people now call me ‘the lamb lady’. It’s such a positive, feel-good factor that we’re taking all possible steps. Because that is our obligation – to look after those lambs.” She has even started up an orphan lamb foster programme at the boys’ school, Fernridge, sponsored by Silver Fern Farms, which was a huge hit.
For consumers, what all this pride and passion amount to is some superior-tasting Silver Fern Farms meat – and that’s no lip service. For the last three years running, the Wyeths have been in the finals of The Golden Lamb Awards, also known as “The Glammies”. The competition aims to find the most tender and tasty lamb in New Zealand. Matt credits this achievement to consistency – made possible by EID (identification tags) and the ability to analyse data through Silver Fern Farms’ Farm IQ programme.
“That’s why we choose Silver Fern Farms,” says Matt. “Because they’ve been innovative in the market”. For Silver Fern Farms, supporting sustainable farming is a core part of being a responsible food producer. It’s obviously something farmers in the co-operative, like Matt and Lynley care a lot about. “It’s the way we want to farm,” says Matt. This care extends to how they look after their people at Spring Valley. Matt believes that the biggest point of difference on his farm is his team. “We try to instil a team culture and have fun while we’re doing it.” The winters at Spring Valley can be tough so team camaraderie is very important. Do they dread the cold months? “No – we’re quite set up for it,” answers Lynley. “And we’re so used to it.” Her parents echo the sentiment. “We’re just deep-rooted to the land and the area,” says her father, Ed. Her mother, Marilyn, adds, “You don’t give up 150 years of family farming just because of some weather.”
Lynley does her bit to contribute to morale with her cooking and baking. Sometimes, if it has been a miserable week, a call goes out on the RT radios and Lynley will announce that the “Spring Valley cafe is open”. “Everyone will come in at 10 am and have scones and coffee – it’s lovely,” she says. Her favourite winter warmer? “Probably soup, because I use our lamb shanks and veggies out of the garden. And some nice crusty bread. Everybody loves that. I can take it easily out on the farm in thermoses – and the house just smells yummy.”
But it’s baking that Lynley’s especially keen on – and luckily for all, her sensational Black Doris plum cheesecake is on today’s lunch menu. Did Lynley pick up her love of cooking from her mother? “No, I’m not a keen cook”, says Marilyn. “Although I do say Lynley learned everything from me.”
Speaking of cooking, back at the house, lunch is just about ready. Everyone has been nibbling on Matt’s mum’s snack platter of homemade crackers, Tony-caught-trout pâté, local cheeses and homemade peach chutney, but now the main event is ready to be served. As they all dig in, it’s evident this is a strong family unit – one born out of a genuine passion for farming. As Matt’s mother, Lynn says: “Farming’s a lot of work. A lot of people think about all these fluffy things in the paddock – and they look lovely on a lovely day – however, it is a lot of work. It's 24/7 – long hours. It’s a commitment. But it’s a great family way of life and it’s just as well we all love it.”