As well as grappling with the significant regulatory changes all farmers and growers are facing, deer farmers are also faced with historically low venison schedule prices. Despite those challenges newly appointed Deer Industry New Zealand board member Mandy Bell told Colin Williscroft that she is optimistic about the industry’s future, while not forgetting the people in rural communities who are having a tough time.
WANAKA deer farmer Mandy Bell has had a lifelong association with deer, attending New Zealand’s first-ever live deer auction on industry stalwart Sir Tim Wallis’ property as a child in the late 1970s before working with fallow deer as a vet student.
These days Bell and husband Jerry farm Criffel Station, which they bought from Jerry’s father Hector Bell in the early 1990s and converted the then high country sheep station into a deer farm.
Since then, they have evolved the deer farming business to also include agri-tourism and an events venue, while also playing significant roles in their growing local community.
Bell has been involved in a range of governance roles in the primary sector, including previously chairing the Passion2Profit primary growth partnership that aims to grow and capture the full value available for farm-raised venison by positioning it as a premium, non-seasonal meat, and by better aligning supply with demand and currently she is a Deer Industry New Zealand (DINZ) director.
As co-founder and chair of WAI Wanaka, which is in effect a large catchment group for the Upper Clutha, Bell is involved in a number of land and water sustainability programmes.
“We have tourism, urban and rural people all working together to look after alpine waterways and the whole of the environment.”
That big picture approach extends to the farm, which is run holistically under what Bell calls a “one health” approach.
“That’s looking at things as a whole. Healthy water, healthy environment, healthy animals, healthy people.
“As a veterinarian my background in the early days was working with farm production and the health of animals. And to have a healthy, productive herd, you need to be looking after the environment and have good clean water in the system.
Along with her extensive farming knowledge, Bell says one of the qualities she will bring to the boardroom table is her experience in practice change and adaptation, which will be an asset in the current period of regulatory change.
She says practice change is a focus for Passion2Profit but her experience goes deeper than that with her DINZ and WAI Wanaka work.
In 2020 Criffel Station was one of 30 farms that piloted the NZ Farm Assurance Plan Plus framework, which effectively sets farming standards to support production in a sustainable way, while adding to the value of agricultural products.
She says that involved taking a close look at farm systems, realising changes for the better were necessary and considering how they can be achieved.
“Asking how can we make it easier, how can we enable and support farmers to have carbon plans, biodiversity plans and water plans, because it’s a lot, and it’s complex.” Bell says there are advantages in applying a whole-of-farm approach to on-farm regulatory change.
“Let’s look at the whole of what we’re being asked to consider, what we should be doing and what we need to be doing, then individually we can make our own calls as to where we are along that pathway of where we need to be heading. Whether we think about soil health this year, or water or whatever’s the most critical in our own system, it must be part of the bigger picture.”
That approach ties in with the Primary Sector Council’s Taiao ora and Tangata ora Fit for a Better World strategy, which was released last year.
“What we need are frameworks to support us as farmers and producers to head towards that vision,” Bell says.
“We’ve got to break it down.
“The ideal for farmers is a seamless flow of information from the deer shed to the office. We are running our businesses lean, we have to make a profit but we’ve got an awful lot of asks of us.
“It’s important that we scaffold the change, we phase it, prioritise, and these frameworks are invaluable for doing that.”
She says some of the challenges the deer industry faces are shared with its dairy and beef and lamb counterparts, and there is already collaboration on those, such as He Waka Eke Noa.
There are also obstacles that it does not have in common with other primary industries.
“In the deer industry, one of the key challenges at the moment is the (venison) schedule.
“We’ve got a premium product, it’s a quality product, but with what is happening overseas at the moment in the restaurant trade, it’s obvious as to why it’s not where it needs to be for us to have sustainable businesses.
“But I’m pretty encouraged with the people we have in the deer industry particularly with the structure of the DINZ board to help us work through that challenge – and it’s a critical one, given all the other pressures on the farming sector.”
Passion2Profit is one of the programmes that provides encouragement.
She says P2P workstreams provide strength and solutions in the way the industry looks at the market and animal health, genetics and nutrition specifics on-farm.
She says as an increasing number of people overseas get vaccinated, we would expect the restaurant trades to increase and venison schedule prices will improve.
“As things start to open up, there is the potential for a more positive schedule in spring.
“There are also some initiatives being developed by DINZ for the medium term.”
However, she says in the near future looking after people in rural communities has to be a priority.
“With all the changes farmers are being asked to make – and we do need to be going there – let’s integrate our solutions, integrate policies and make sure we have good consultation.
“And to also realise a lot of us are doing tremendous work out in the paddocks and on the ground and there’s some great changes already happening.”