There’s a lot to consider when taking over a family legacy. On the one hand, one must uphold the family’s accomplishments. On the other, they must respond to modern challenges with forward-thinking solutions. It’s a tricky balancing act, but one Silver Fern Farms Coromandel beef farmer Brent Lilley is happy to take on.
The Lilleys have owned their grass-fed beef farm for three generations now. The 400-hectare property is situated in the sun-soaked area of Hahei, an enviable five-minute drive from the tourist hotspots of Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove. Growing up on the farm set Brent up to eventually take over the family business.
After working for his parents Bruce and JoAnne, he now runs his own beef-farming operation on half of the property. Brent has already achieved a major milestone for the family, having been awarded the top prize for his exemplary farming and five-hour slow-smoked beef short rib at the 2020 Silver Fern Farms Plate to Pasture Awards.
These awards recognise farmers who consistently supply high-quality lamb, beef and venison with a focus on consumers. It’s a proud win for Bruce and JoAnne, who have made it to the regional finals several times with their premium beef.
Humble about his success and impressed with the other finalists, Brent admits he was surprised when the judges called him up as the winner. “I remember thinking I was out of my league. I told my livestock representative I wasn’t going to win and next thing I know, I was called up to do a speech,” he says. “It was a surprise, but I think that really speaks to the calibre of the other finalists – it’s a credit to all of them.”
Brent’s herd of 612 is a mix of Friesians, Red Herefords, Black Angus and Red Devons. This flexibility of breed allows him to respond quickly to the needs of Silver Fern Farms and consumers. “We’re not stuck to a hard-and-fast system; we’re adaptable and can change classes of stock if needed. If Silver Fern Farms signals that they want a different type of animal, we can buy the stock to suit what they need.”
This flexibility is a reflection of Silver Fern Farms’ ‘plate to pasture’ model, which focuses on the consumer needs first, then works with farmers like the Lilleys to deliver premium meat products consumers want, an approach that drives Silver Fern Farms’ sustainability commitment.
Every day, Brent is out on the farm making sure the cattle are moved to a new paddock to get fresh, quality grass. “We feed them well and keep on top of any animal health problems.” This regular care and duty to animal welfare has seen them achieve impressive results in Silver Fern Farms’ Eating Quality (EQ) grading system, which measures high standards of taste, tenderness and juiciness.
The community has changed a lot since Brent’s grandfather established the farm. Over the years, the Lilley family have seen their beef farm grow and adapt. “Back in my grandfather’s day, the area was undeveloped so he was focused on developing the land, putting grass in and fencing it up,” says Brent.
Now, Brent’s focus is on the next stage of succession and upholding the Lilleys’ strong reputation. “My parents have had a great farming career so are now looking to slow down, and I’m working on buying land off my parents and growing my own operation.”
From their home at the foot of the farm’s rolling hills, Brent and Kara, along with daughters, 12-year-old Malia and 9-month-old Tiffany, take in expansive views across the farmland towards the neighbouring estuary. The coastal location not only provides spectacular vistas, but a warm climate that helps them supply the freshest grass for their herd.
“The warmth is the biggest plus for us. We’re lucky to have reasonably warm winters, which means we can grow fresh grass to feed our cattle year round, which helps supply Silver Fern Farms in the early spring – that’s the biggest advantage for us,” explains Brent.
However, the balmy weather isn’t without its challenges. Last year, they experienced the worst drought in 50 years. As experienced farmers, the Lilleys have learned to respond to the challenges of the changing climate without compromising the quality of their cattle.
“Part of being on the east coast is that it can dry out in the summertime, so you have to be prepared for that, with supplementary feed on hand,” says Brent.
The small coastal town of Hahei has burgeoned over the past few years. In the summer, thousands flock to the picturesque beaches that have become some of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Housing developments and lifestyle blocks have expanded the community, along with new cafés, restaurants and bars. Brent has embraced the changing landscape and community, and found new ways to run his operation.
“I’ve been able to utilise those lifestyle blocks by leasing the land for grazing. The owners love it and it works great for me, so it’s a win-win.”
One of the local projects Brent is excited to be involved in is a public walking track that winds up the coastline and alongside the farmland he leases, as he supported opening up the leased parkland to the public. “It’s great, I’ve got grazing land and next to it the public can enjoy the walkways.”Living so close to the coast has given the Lilleys a deep appreciation for the ocean – and the importance of protecting it.
Four kilometres of the farm stretches along the Purangi Estuary, putting the farm right at the front of one of Cooks Beach’s most popular swimming spots. Brent is well aware of the responsibility he has to care for the land and ocean. “We’ve done a lot of fencing around the estuary frontage and planted native trees all around the water,” he explains. Fencing off large areas gives a buffer against the estuary and means waterways are protected from any run-off from the farm.
This commitment to sustainability impressed the Plate to Pasture judges, who gave the Lilleys special commendation for their environmental action. The environmental project has been a huge, long-term undertaking for the farm, with significant costs involved. Brent is passionate about continuing this environmental work and becoming a leader in sustainable farming.
“Thousands of people swim in the estuary in the summertime. It’s a beautiful spot, so of course you want to look after it. It’s been a lot of effort to get to where we are, but there’s always more you can do.”
One area Brent is most excited about is the advancement in data and traceability in recent years. With a farmer’s ‘No.8 wire’ mentality, he’s developed his own digital record-keeping tool – a spreadsheet he can access on his phone. “It was a brainwave when I realised I could use it on the go,” he says.
By tailoring his system to his needs, he’s able to capture key data such as animal health and weight, enhancing traceability to improve his farm and support Silver Fern Farms in their chain of care, which traces every product back to its source. “It’s exciting because I can track it down to the exact calf and use data to improve the way I run the farm.”
For their winning Plate to Pasture dish – a five-hour slow-smoked beef short rib – Brent and Kara were inspired by the way local chefs were using new techniques to bring out the best flavours of particular cuts. “A lot of our friends are into slow-cooking BBQ meats so it seemed like a great idea,” he says.
The slow-smoked beef is seasoned with salt, pepper and mustard, and served on a steamed bao bun with fresh coleslaw. “This style of cooking adds value to what was traditionally considered secondary cuts of meat.”
Partnership with Silver Fern Farms
Having worked with Silver Fern Farms for almost a decade now, Brent values the honesty and integrity that underpins the partnership. “Silver Fern Farms are transparent with their farmers. Our Livestock Representative, Simon Boshier, is very upfront and honest and if he can make something happen, he will. That’s what you want out of a partnership.”
Simon agrees, adding that the Lilleys’ hard work and dedication is seen in their ability to consistently deliver quality beef at Silver Fern Farms’ high standard. “It’s impressive – their cattle are happy and well farmed, and always rate well in our Eating Quality System grade.”
As a farmer with a stake in Silver Fern Farms Co-operative, Brent also sees the importance of aligning with a brand with a strong reputation for quality, and a shared commitment to sustainability and animal welfare. “I believe in the co-operative approach, having seen some reward for my share in the company – that’s keeping me impressed.”
Proud of his achievements so far, Brent has his sights set on future conservation projects, upholding the Lilleys’ standard of premium beef, and working with the growing community around them.