Farming for the future: Meet the Silver Fern Farms 2022 Plate to Pasture winners

<em>Tom with his parents, Cathy and Alan</em>
Tom with his parents, Cathy and Alan
A dedicated focus on consumer needs, environmental sustainability and future planning has netted the multi-generational Donaldson farming family of Taumarunui the prestigious Silver Fern Farms 2022 Plate to Pasture Award.

For Silver Fern Farmers Alan and Cathy Donaldson, Christmas is very much a family affair, celebrating the festive season with a casual family barbecue on their beautiful farm in the heart of Taumarunui. There are games for the grandchildren and of course, plenty of delicious, homemade food shared around the table. “The kids told us many years ago that they don’t want ham or chicken, they want beef and lamb,” says Cathy. “So we always enjoy that outside on the barbecue.”

This year, they have something else to celebrate, having recently been named as winners in the Silver Fern Farms 2022 Plate to Pasture awards. The couple admit that they were taken aback when they heard they’d won the prestigious award, which celebrates Silver Fern Farms suppliers who lead the way with high-quality stock, environmental sustainability and consumer focus. “I’m quite proud of the fact that we won it because it was an effort put on by the whole family, not just an individual,” says Alan, who has been farming in Taumarunui with Cathy since the 1990s, and grew up just a couple of valleys over from where they now live.

Festive dishes including Silver Fern Farms Beef Eye Fillet on a Tarragon Butter Board

Despite their surprise, their Plate to Pasture win was nothing to do with luck, but rather a recognition of their achievements as farmers who are protecting their rivers and the biodiversity of the land, while coming up with innovative solutions to future-proof their business. Part of the Plate to Pasture judging process also meant creating their own dishes using Silver Fern Farms grass-fed red meat. It was the Donaldsons’ flair for vibrant international flavour pairings that impressed the judges, serving up a Far Eastern lamb barbecue buffet – their way of showcasing modern shifts in cuisine as Silver Fern Farms has made its mark on the global stage.

“Lamb is great to barbecue, perfect for entertaining, and it takes up flavours really well,” says Cathy, who came up with the four dishes: Cambodian Inspired Lamb Meatballs with Bok Choy and a Lime Pepper Dipping sauce; Xianjing Inspired Cumin Lamb Rumps with a Soy and Grapefruit Sauce; Lamb Cutlets with Thai Mint Sauce and Spicy Sesame Cucumbers; and Turmeric Marinated Lamb Loin Fillets Wrapped in Kaffir Leaves. “Lamb lends itself to a lot of Asian cuisine which I like to cook. And I think it’s a cuisine that a younger generation also really enjoy.”

The Donaldson’s farm lies in verdant Taumarunui, with makestic Mount Ruapehu rising in the background

Pursuing a dream

Alan and Cathy started out running their own shearing business in the 1980s. The goal was always to purchase their own farm, and about 40 years ago they realised their dream. Since then, they’ve grown their beef and lamb farm with their son Tom and daughter Jess, developing it into a 2,500-hectare property in Taumarunui. “It’s very picturesque,” says Alan as he takes us on a tour through the property. Located along the remote Forgotten World Highway, the mighty Whanganui River winds through the Donaldson farm. Made up mostly of medium to steep hill country, the paddocks are bordered by native bush reserves filled with birdlife and an area protected under the QEII National Trust. The snowy peaks of Mt Ruapehu, just a 40-minute drive away, can be seen from the tops of the hills. “I probably took it for granted when I was young. It wasn’t until I went away and came back that I appreciated what we have,” remarks Alan.

Tom with his parents, Cathy and Alan

With its steep hill country, the area where they farm isn’t always easy, but like many Kiwi farmers, Alan and Cathy know the value of perseverance and hard work. For Alan, one of his biggest inspirations was his father, who was a shearer. “He lost his leg in a motorcycle accident but still carried on working and didn’t let it hinder him. That’s a pretty big inspiration to me.” Alan likes to tell this story to his three children – Sam who lives in Auckland and Tom and Jess who live and work on the farm – so that it too can inspire them. With grandkids now in the picture, succession planning is at the foremost of Alan and Cathy’s minds. But the couple always said from the beginning that farming was a choice Tom and Jess had to make for themselves. “They decided they wanted to be farmers, first and foremost. When they returned home, it was on their own terms,” says Alan.

With Tom and Jess now managing their own blocks, their parents are proud to see them take ownership, bringing their own ideas and innovations into the farming business. Tom and his wife Louise, parents to six-year-old Blue, four-year-old Huckleberry and one-year-old Jed have recently started their glamping project, Te Awa Glamping – a secluded accommodation located right on the river, with views out over the hills. “It’s a beautiful spot that really lends itself to some form of tourism,” says Alan. “That was their own vision, which we encouraged.” Jess, who has four-year-old Isla and one-year-old Molly with her husband Callum, also has her own project going on, managing a special breed of Wiltshire sheep that shed their wool naturally.

Brothers Huckleberry and Blue go adventuring

A vision for the future

When asked the lessons he’s learned from his parents, Tom says it would be to always keep innovating. “Don’t get stuck in your same old ways, always look for new options or new ideas,” he says. This future-thinking mentality is a common thread that underpins the Donaldsons’ relationship with Silver Fern Farms, supplying to the company’s Angus Beef and Lamb Programmes. “We believe in the vision that they’ve always had,” says Cathy.

“We felt the company had the correct vision going forward for a sustainable business practice that would continue into the future and for the betterment of the meat industry as a whole,” says Alan. “They’re absolutely leaders in the industry.”

Cathy and Alan with Silver Fern Farms Livestock Representative Pat Lacy

Silver Fern Farms Livestock Representative Pat Lacy is very close with the family, having grown up playing rugby and shearing with Alan. He says there is a strong culture embedded into the relationship between Silver Fern Farms and the farmers. Cathy works closely with Lacy to meet targets and ensure what’s leaving the farm is of the highest quality. Lacy says he’s not surprised to see the Donaldsons take home the coveted Plate to Pasture award, attributing their success to their hard work, love for the land and strong consumer focus.

“People want to make sure that they’re eating top quality meat and that it’s the most sustainable,” says Pat. “They want to look after the land. And give us a product that’s the best in the world. The Donaldsons are proud to do that and it’s great for where we want to be as a company. You have to be dealing with people who are looking into the future.”

Modern practices

Tom and Louise enjoy the summer barbecue with son Jed

Over the years, the Donaldsons have set about evolving their practices to protect and care for the land. The area was first developed as farmland in 1907, which is considered relatively late compared with other farms in New Zealand. Because of this shorter period of development, there is still a lot of old seed in the ground that can be regenerated quickly. “By putting a fence up, we can really take advantage of that,” says Alan.

While farmers back in the day were encouraged to clear the land and cut back vegetation, the Donaldsons are exemplifying the shift in modern farming that is about working in balance with the environment. As modern farmers, they’ve learned about the importance of soil health and biodiversity, and are working hard to protect the land for future generations. “We’re looking at farming in a different way. It’s almost a reverse role in that we’re regenerating many parts of the land now. We’re having to think outside the square.”

Many of the steep hill country areas that are difficult to farm have been fenced off and left to rewild. Now, native bush surrounds the paddocks, while pockets of trees give the animals shelter. When breeding their Angus cattle, the Donaldsons not only raise animals that deliver on Silver Fern Farms’ high standards for premium grass-fed meat, but have less impact on the land. The cattle are moderate framed Angus so they create less damage to the steep hill country. For the same reason, mob numbers are kept relatively small and there is a higher ratio of sheep to cattle.

Angus cattle on the property are surrounded by lush pastures and native vegetation

In 2017, a historic law was passed, granting personhood status to the Whanganui River, declaring it a living entity protected with the rights of a person. It’s the lifeblood of the area, and during the tourist season, visitors are often seen canoeing down the river and fly-fishing on the banks. During the summer, the grandkids spend all day swimming and playing in the water.

The Donaldsons are well aware of the responsibility they have to protect the river, having worked extensively to fence off the waterways and restore native vegetation. “In some of the steeper hill country, we’ve established a lot of natural dams which is not only good for stock water, but act as sediment traps as we do get a lot of rain,” explains Alan. Gravity-fed systems also supply water to paddocks and some of the existing water pumping systems are being converted to solar power. “It’s nice when you go about doing a job, and see all these areas which are regenerating. You know the land is better for it,” says Cathy. “All these things, we’re doing for the future.”

They’re also in the process of mapping out their carbon footprint, to assess the farm for Silver Fern Farms’ Net Carbon Zero beef and lamb programmes. Having put a lot of work into native regeneration, they’re excited to see the data that will help inform their future environmental plans. “It will give us a much more in-depth idea,” says Cathy. “It’s great to work for a company that has a vision like this and being so consumer focused,” adds Alan.

Sheep on the rolling hill country, the grandkids get into the Christmas spirit

Alan is proud to see the next generation passionate about caring for the land in a way that brings together environmental sustainability with long-term economic vision. “They are very focused on this part of farming going forward, but are also well aware it has to be economically viable.”

When they look back on the year that has been, the Donaldsons feel a strong sense of satisfaction in their hard work, both in the legacy they are leaving for the next generation, and their role in New Zealand’s wider food story. “We get to go around our farms and know that our animals are perfectly happy and well fed,” says Alan. “After a long year, we’re proud of what we send off the farm,” adds Cathy. “We take a lot of satisfaction from knowing that we are feeding people the best quality food.”

For more information on the Donaldsons and Silver Fern Farms, visit their website at silverfernfarms.com

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