The Hurley Family, Siberia Station, Rangitikei.


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Making the Grade

The candles are lit, the table looks spectacular, the music’s been carefully selected. Out comes the piece de resistance, what was supposed to be a juicy, flavoursome piece of steak and … it’s tough and lacklustre. Thankfully, this is now a scenario that can be eliminated from the list of potential dinner party disasters. And there are a whole lot of people who have gone to great lengths to make sure that’s the case.

James Hurley is one such player in the chain of care. His 3100-hectare farm, Siberia Station, situated in the Rangitikei region, about an hour’s drive north from Palmerston North, supplies to Silver Fern Farms New Aged Beef Range, now in supermarkets.

What this entails for this third generation farmer is meeting a set of criteria in order for his steers to make the grade. “We’re trying to do everything we can, the right genetics, the right animals, low stress levels, handling the stock quietly, having smaller mobs and not mixing them up,” says Hurley of the kinds of measures taken to raise premium stock. The incentives for Hurley are many for any stock that pass the stringent requirements of Silver Fern Farms Eating Quality System. But as

Hurley says, “It starts with the consumer really. You want them to be paying for a good experience. Every time they have to have a good one. We’re demanding it to be a premium product at a premium price.”

I love being in the big wide open spaces.

Hurley enjoys his role in making this happen. “I love being in the big wide open spaces,” he says, and counts the challenges of farming and being able to combat them as one of his favourite aspects. That and “seeing the finished product going out the gate and knowing the consumer is going to enjoy it”.

Aside from a stint working on the East Coast of the North Island and a jaunt overseas, Hurley has spent his whole life at Siberia Station. His grandfather bought the property in 1949. A neighbouring farm, Papanui Station, was also his grandfather’s and is now owned and farmed by Hurley’s uncle, Andy. Hurley’s father, Mike, runs a 750-hectare finishing block about 50 minutes’ drive away. “Dad’s still actively involved. I run the farm up here in the hill country and Dad runs the flats. We’re both sort of in charge of each other. We work together.” And that’s for both the animals and the family. Having two types of terrain means getting the most out of the steers in terms of their welfare – best pastures, minimal travelling. “Everything stays in the system,” Hurley says. Plus, “Dad and I have a good relationship. We have our different roles and do our own things but we still talk most days.”

Hurley lives at Siberia with his wife, Sarah, and their two girls, Rosie, five, and Sabia, who turns three in June. “The girls like coming out with me on little jobs. Sarah brings them out to the woolshed when we’re busy,” Hurley says. Much like he used to do as a boy.

When he got a bit older, Hurley started to get paid for odd jobs on the property, so it’s clear farming was always on the radar for this countryman. He says to do well at the job you have to “have a good eye for stock” and includes attitude and forming good relationships as being key. Hurley’s father, Mike, began working with Silver Fern Farms 20-plus years ago. “They look after us and we look after them,” says Hurley.

The on-farm care is just one link in the Silver Fern Farm chain that translates to a guaranteed great eating experience. The Eating Quality System is an investment in consumer research into the quality of red meat. At Silver Fern Farms Pacific Plant, Sarah Duncan, technical manager, and her team also have a crucial role to play.

there are techniques we’re using that have taken meat science to another level in New Zealand. It’s amazing.

After 97,000 taste tests from 13,000 consumers by a research team of 38 scientists from Texas Tech University in the US and Otago University, a set of specific criteria were established that are statistically proven to contribute to the eating quality of prime cuts. Duncan is in charge of grading the cuts. It’s not a simple process. “I had to go back to the classroom,” she says. The training doesn’t stop there. “Every eight weeks the training team comes back and checks us and we have to get the same results as the person checking – so it’s pretty intense.” Not that Duncan minds. “Everyone is so dedicated. It’s such an awesome step forward for the industry – there are techniques we’re using that have taken meat science to another level in New Zealand. It’s amazing.”

So back to that dinner party. James and Sarah decide to put their money where their mouths are and host a soiree for the MiNDFOOD team. And guess what? The meat was perfect.