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Organic growth

28 May 2021
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When a group of like-minded people saw a gap in the market, they decided to produce a product focused on organic principles and superior taste.

When a group of like-minded people saw a gap in the market, they decided to produce a product focused on organic principles and superior taste.  Words Kate Preece

Ten minutes from the nearest supermarket, a 2500-hectare farm spreads from the Waipara wine country to the coast. Here, at Mt Cass Station, you will find some 11,000 sheep, 700 cattle and the story of three families who, through a collection of chance meetings and shared desires, decided to invest in organic farming.   

The story of Wash Creek Organic Meats’ humble beginnings unfurls over cheese toasties around a kitchen table. The scene is set at farming couple Sara and Andrew Heard’s home – a place regularly visited by CEO Tim Chamberlain and office manager Carolanne Sixtus.  

Tim takes the storytelling lead and the clock is soon turned back to the time he first decided to test the waters as an organic farmer.   

In 1985, Tim’s father, after many loud discussions, provided him with a life-changing learning opportunity on the family’s Leeston property.   

“He said, ‘I think we should put the hardest part of the farm into organics and you can do that, and I’ll carry on being a conventional farmer, and in five years’ time, we’ll know what to do, whether it’s working and if we should continue,’” says Tim.  

“It’s the single best decision ever made, because, left alone I would have put the whole farm into organics and gone bankrupt. I couldn’t have joined the dots to create the systems needed to operate an organic farm. I am forever grateful. And we’ve had a pretty interesting time – this [Wash Creek Farm] is pretty interesting.”  

Tim and partner Rose Donaghy continue to farm in Leeston, but you’ll find him at Mt Cass at least once a week.   

As the five of us take turns crunching through lunch, Tim explains how the next chapter of the Wash Creek story began with tennis.   

Tim’s brother, Matt Chamberlain, co-wrote a one-man play about the life of Christchurch’s own four-time Wimbledon winner Anthony Wilding (1883–1915). Matt took The Anthony Wilding Story to England – and his brother tagged along for the ride. Tim’s racket remained organic farming and his mission was to learn what he could from those following the same principles in Europe.  

In doing so, Tim met mixed cropping farmer Mark Houghton-Brown who, uncannily enough, had a long-term desire to move to New Zealand, potentially to buy a farm. Five years later, that’s exactly what Mark did, settling in Nelson.   

It was when the owner of Nelson Fresh Choice, Mark A’Court, was challenged as to why there was not a steady supply of organic meat on the shelves that the Wash Creek brand was formed. Mark Houghton-Brown had the certified-organic farm and the experience of creating his own farm-based breakfast cereal brand in England: the two Marks hatched a plan.  

“Mark had been keen on getting us thinking about branding and this was a great first start,” explains Tim. “Mt Cass had been going for five years, had full certification, and it was a logical step for the farm.”  

From starting at the Nelson Fresh Choice in 2016, Wash Creek Organic Meats are now found in 17 stores around the South Island and one in the North Island, while the majority of the 9000 to 10,000 lambs are destined for British supermarket chain Waitrose.  Carolanne is the driving force behind getting new products into the market, which includes seeing it served on the menu at Black Estate Winery.  

Back on the farm, the Wiltshire sheep enjoy a diverse pasture that’s rich in chicory, plantain, clover and lucerne. This “fruit salad” minimises ailments.  

Known for their hair-like self-shedding coat, the breed itself is a key part of the farm’s winning recipe. Boasting a finer grain in the meat, if it were down to taste alone, says Andrew, “Everyone on the farm would choose Wiltshire every time. And they’re fussy!” 

With three more families joining the business over the past five years and diversification that sees paddocks flush with crops, what started as a sink-or-swim test in Leeston has become a business of ever-growing momentum. 

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