Red Devon Beef
A thriving boutique business on 66-hectares of difficult land, with a herd of Red Devon cattle.
Lee Askew has created a thriving boutique business (Shemshi Red Devon Beef) from 66-hectares of difficult land, and a herd of Red Devon cattle, a lesser-utilised breed in the New Zealand beef industry.
Lee moved to Gisborne from the UK in 2007, to continue her career as a police detective, working in the local child protection unit, where she was a forensic interviewer. Shortly after the move, Askew (who confesses to having “been born in gumboots”) bought a small lifestyle block and a couple of in-calf Red Devon cows.
Askew wasn’t a romantic with a dream of living the good life, she was well-grounded in farming with a deep love for the land, garnered from a childhood spent camping on farms, a diploma in farm management, and experience as a dairy consultant prior to her police career. She had further experience of New Zealand farming from an exchange in 1989, where she worked on dairy farms in Matamata and Dargaville.
Lee is the first to say her initial reason for buying in Red Devons was a point of difference – she didn’t want to ‘follow the herd’ and farm Angus and Hereford that dominate the New Zealand beef industry.
“Red Devons are an ideal breed for the New Zealand all-pasture feed system. Red Devons are excellent foragers and have been proven in trials to be extremely efficient converters of grass to beef. Red Devon beef is well-recognised and of the finest eating quality, with whiteness of fat and good marbling which enhances the taste. This is “gourmet beef”. Their temperament has a favourable effect on the pH of the animal at slaughter.” [Sourced from Red Devon Cattle Breed Association website. Copyright © 2022 Red Devon Cattle Breeders Association]
While these qualities were important for Lee, she also speaks of an emotional connection. The breed was familiar to her from her home landscapes in North Devon – even her Detective Sergeant there farmed a pedigree stud.
Lee used a sire from local friends to grow her herd from the original two. With her husband Brian they started a market stall at the local Gisborne Farmers’ Market, selling meat, and firing up a barbeque to sell burgers – “it made sense to press burgers” Lee says of their first foray into adding value. As the business grew, they scaled up to a purpose-built food trailer with refrigeration. The set up allowed Shemshi Beef to move beyond the farmer’s market to other events, like the local A&P show and the East Coast Farmers Expo.
With the business growing, there was a need for more product. Askew bought a steep scrub covered 66-hectare block in the Waimata Valley and started to boost cattle numbers – building to the 90 head herd she has today. The focus has since shifted from increasing herd numbers to calving 20 cows a year – to quality, not quantity.
The breed cope well with the hilly block, though Lee has some land on the flat for finishing.
The farm is too small to sustain a viable beef-only production unit, so growing the market for her meat and adding value via the food stall have been vital in creating a viable business.
Lee works with a local butcher Trent at the Number 8 Butchery. He cuts and packages the meat and makes beef sausages for the food stall. To date her most popular cuts are whole scotch and eye fillets and dry aged steaks. In 2015 Shemshi won the Tastiest Produce from the Butchery award at the Farmer’s Markets NZ Winter Food Awards. In 2018 they were winner for the same award for the scotch fillet and highly commended for the eye fillet.
Just after moving to the Waimata Valley in 2015, Brian was diagnosed with dementia. These were dark times living in their caravan waiting for their house to be built. Serendipitously Lee heard about an event for Farming Women Tairawhiti. Attending the ‘Mix and Mingle’ event she met with local farmer and co-founder of FWT Sandra Mathews, who enabled her to refocus her business – starting with ‘Understanding your farming business’, which lead to ‘Diploma in Agribusiness Management’. From there she drew up clear plans for the business and has become a champion of SWOT analysis – “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats”. Sadly, in May 2020 Brian peacefully passed away.
Key changes on the farm have been around improving the soil fertility – starting with soil testing. Dicalcic Phosphate was applied for a couple of years and super-phosphate in 2021. The pastures have responded well. Work is ongoing to improve farm access – cleaning up tracks and putting in drainage with an 11 tonne CAT digger.
Lee has also explored more value-added product. She’s introduced slow cooked beef and sausages to the food cart menu – though she is quick to point out that keeping the food cart menu small is important to assure fast and efficient service. Lee’s new partner Simon works alongside her in the food trailer and has helped streamline the operation. Lee explored the possibility of preserved products, and experimentation with a biltong machine achieved enthusiastic feedback from friends, but that hasn’t been taken to the retail level - yet.
Simon has also been contributing enormously on the farm, Lee says, reclaiming 1 square metre at a time - controlling blackberry, barberry and thistles, when he is not employed in his other work in Waimata Valley and Auckland.
One of the biggest challenges for the business is getting cattle to the abattoir. Currently Lee uses Progressive Meats in Hastings, but lining up live transport, a spot for her 2 beasts in schedule gaps between larger clients, and refrigerated transport back to the butcher, is difficult. There was a moment where a mobile abattoir offered some hope, but after one visit to the Gisborne area it never returned. Lee has since purchased a livestock trailer to remove one of her hurdles - getting animals to the abattoir. Shortly before Rural Delivery arrived, Tom Andrews of Wholly Cow in Cambridge offered Lee a helping hand, which she gratefully took up and ensured there was product to sell at market.
Askew said the onsite abattoir resulted in some exceptionally tender meat, and now she has plans to set something set up to remove the stress on animals being transported to an abattoir some hours away. She has approached MPI and others to help research options for a mobile or micro-abattoir to service boutique operations like her own in Gisborne.
Apart from investing in a sire for Shemshi (currently Kristoff, a beautifully natured bull) her herd has been closed for 6 years. 100% of the beef is born and raised on farm in the Waimata Valley. Shemshi Red Devon Beef raises the idea of expanding the concept paddock to plate’ to one of ‘conception to napkin’.