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The Hawke's Bay farm producing meat of uncommon quality

Duncan Smith, a third-generation farmer, has diversified into retail, buying the Waipawa Butchery as a shop window for their quality cuts of meat.

Duncan Smith and Annabel Tapley-Smith weren’t satisfied with producing meat of uncommon quality. So they bought a butchery. Simon Farrell-Green talks to the Hawke’s Bay farmer-retailers.

You’ll find Pātangata on Google Maps if you look, though it’s barely a town, more of an intersection with a tavern beside the Tukituki River, not far from Havelock North where the vineyards and plains of Hawke’s Bay graduate to rolling hill country.

Here, the Smith family – Duncan Smith, Annabel Tapley-Smith and their children Tabatha and Rupert – farm several hundred hectares of rolling country and irrigated flat land, either side of the river, finishing Angus cattle and Suffolk-Texel lambs on grass rather than grain, and producing meat of uncommon quality.

The Smith family has been farming in Hawke’s Bay since before World War II, when Duncan Smith’s grandfather, Robert, left Wellington – where the family owned the department store James Smith – for a farm at Ōmakere, on the coast of Hawke’s Bay. “It was hill country,” says Duncan, who grew up farming the property with his father and grandfather, “a breeding and finishing operation.”

Duncan Smith, Annabel Tapley-Smith and their children Tabatha and Rupert.

The couple took over the farm shortly after Smith’s father died in 2002; in the 17 years since, their farming has evolved. Not long after moving back, they bought another property, Paihia, gently rolling country bordering the Tukituki River, followed by another, smaller parcel. Eventually, they bought Pātangata Station, on the other side of the Tukituki from Paihia, and then they sold the original family holding.

So far, so familiar. Smart farming, beautiful country, a better cut of steak. But where the story gets interesting is that, two years ago, they bought the Waipawa Butchery, founded in 1948 and still owned by the same family. The Smiths had always shopped there, and jumped as soon as they heard it was for sale. Telling the tale, they make it sound like an entirely logical, straightforward move.

“As farmers, you’re always looking to diversify,” says Tapley-Smith. “Having something that related to the farming in the primary industries is a really nice offshoot.”

Smith talks to butchery manager Justin Hinchco. Behind them, butcher Rex Tidy is boning out meat.

But it’s not the most logical move – not really. Most New Zealand farms are based around a much more traditional model: raise animals to weight and sell them, receiving a price determined by the market. The animals leave the farm and the supply chain takes over – there’s no interaction with the consumer, let alone selection of meat with a focus on what it’s like on the plate.

If there’s a drought or an issue, you have less to sell; if the prices spike then you have a good year. Running the butchery means creating a continuous supply chain throughout the year and it means a staff of 13 and it means working out an entire supply chain that includes their butcher’s shop, an online delivery and farmers’ markets. It’s complex, and demanding: in the past couple of years, they’ve worked longer hours than before, seven days a week.

Diversification aside, they do it because it gives them a chance to show off just how good their meat is. At home, the family had always been very specific about what they ate. “We have a set of rules,” says Smith of their approach. “We’re breed specific, weight specific and gender specific.” They use only Angus cattle and Suffolk-Texel lambs, and they take only female animals, as male animals have more hormones, which can make for a stringier, tougher cut of meat. “We control what we put into it,” says Smith. “We only put the best of the heifers and the best of the lambs through the butchery. The males will put on weight quicker, but the females are slower – and it’s worth the wait.”

Smith on Pātangata Station. Waipawa Butchery uses only Angus cattle and Suffolk-Texel lambs, and takes only female animals, as male animals have more hormones, which can make for a stringier, tougher cut of meat.

The other difference? “We dry-age on the bone,” says Smith. “That’s really critical. Most guys will cut it down, put it in a vac-pac and that’s its ageing.” He waits a beat. “That’s not ageing. It’s deterioration.”

From there, their team of butchers – average age 45 – break down the carcasses by hand. It’s a return to a style of butchery that is increasingly rare in New Zealand, where whole animals come into the store, and every piece gets used somewhere along the line – they use the trim, for instance, in their highly excellent sausages rather than buying it in. Which means? “We can definitely taste the difference,” says Tapley-Smith. “It’s tender and it’s light, and the taste is exceptional.”

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before word spread around Hawke’s Bay, and the chef community came calling: two years in and they have a waiting list of restaurants, though you will find their meat on the menu at the likes of award-winning Bistronomy in Napier, along with Craggy Range and Black Barn. There’s a good story behind their cuts – you can see the provenance on the menu – but it’s also consistent to cook with, and they don’t have to do much to it. The hero is, in short, the meat rather than what goes with it.

You can find the meat in the butchery, of course, or online – I can highly recommend their meat packs. 

It’s all part of a whole new way of farming for the family. “We went from a business doing one or two cattle a week to eight or nine, and from four or five lambs to 35 a week,” says Smith. “From a farming perspective, that was rapid growth – and we’ve got to put product in the display every day, regardless of what the climate throws at us.” 

This article was first published in the June 2019 issue of North & South.

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