Lee Askew’s path to becoming a boutique food producer has taken a few twists and turns over the years but these days the owner-operator of Shemshi Red Devon Beef is in her element.
Askew runs about 90 Red Devon cattle on 66ha of hill country just out of Gisborne with her beef products ordered over the phone and internet and sold at the Gisborne Farmers Market and events like the Poverty Bay A&P Show, the East Coast Farming Expo and the Gisborne Races.
English-born Askew was city-raised but family holidays were spent on farms, the most significant to her future a beef and lamb operation on Exmoor in Devon, southwest England.
After studying agriculture Askew had her first experience of New Zealand through an exchange in 1989, initially working for three months on a 300-cow dairy farm near Matamata followed by six months on a Dargaville dairy farm with 600 cows.
She loved it and on her return to Britain spent a year doing a farm management diploma before working in a dairy consultancy dedicated to reducing the impact of mastitis.
It was a successful consultancy, so much so that job security was a concern. She joined the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary in 1997 where she met her soulmate and husband Brian Askew.
In the early 2000s NZ police were recruiting officers from Britain. When detectives were included Askew applied and transferred in 2007.
For the next 11 years she was part of the child protection team in Gisborne.
Not long after arriving she planted the seed for her business, buying just over 2ha of land so she could buy two in-calf Red Devon cows, though she had no real idea where that might lead. Brian supported her and started to learn what keeping livestock was all about.
The breed was a reminder of her past, providing an emotional link to the Devon countryside. The breed was also being championed by another of her inspirations, Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall, who advocated its flavour and temperament on his River Cottage television series.
That gentle nature makes the breed ideal for small-scale farming while also doing well on hard country, foraging where some other breeds won’t.
Those first two cows had their calves then Red Devon bulls were borrowed from friends John and Gayle Couch at Devand Red Devons, with the herd slowly growing from there. However, it was still a part-time operation with police work taking up much of her time.
It wasn’t till 2013 when she attended the NZ Red Devon Cattle Breeders Association meeting in Masterton that Askew had her lightbulb moment and saw how she could take the next step.
The weekend event included a farm walk at Julian and Fiona Downs’ Rannoch Meats operation at Greytown where she heard how they sold meat through a stall at the Wellington Farmers Market.
It made a huge impression on Askew.
“I can still remember the journey home in the car. I was fizzing. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
The food trailer is a fixture at the Gisborne Farmers Market and other events in the district,
Ridgebacks were bred to hunt lions, which shows when they play together, demonstrated by their agility and ability to jump and spin out of the way.
They make good guard dogs, No doorbells are required.
Before becoming involved with the farmers market Askew was involved with the NZ Rhodesian Ridgeback Association and the dogs were taken to shows but time constraints made that difficult to continue.
The cattle stud name Shemshi, which means rising sun in Swahili, was created for her ridgeback kennel and the dogs do enjoy basking in the sun.
Askew also enjoys the climate and the rural lifestyle living just outside Gisborne offers, saying big cities have never interested her.
“It’s a pretty good lifestyle,” she says.
Adapting to change
With farmers markets closed and tourism non-existent in the covid-19 lockdown Lee Askew’s business has completely changed for the time being.
She spent the first couple of weeks improving the farm, attacking blackberry, thistles and kanuka seedlings while using an excavator to work on tracks before winter arrives.
She can take orders through her Shemshi Red Devon Beef Facebook page as long as deliveries are contact-free.
In the meantime Askew is surviving in her bubble of four ridgebacks, Sammy the collie and two horses.