When we agreed to have dinner with a young and talented producer of one of (too) many TV cooking shows on the very first night we arrived to New Zealand, I was wondering if it was a grave mistake to expect the first evening of our trip to be a stunning success. What if I fell asleep with my face in my plate? After a long wait in the bar of Prego in Ponsonby, a rather posh Auckland district, the long menus were presented. What to order? In a country populated by 30 million sheep and lambs, it would feel like a travesty to order anything but— a rack of lamb! We may know New Zealand lamb from home as we cook it quite often BUT….you know that Chinese food in America cannot be compared to Chinese food in China, right? Is it the same with Kiwi lamb???
After my rack of lamb landed in front of me, the only thing rather disappointing was its size. But the quality was there. The texture was perfect, medium rare and juicy at the core, but crusty at the bone. Even though the menu was Italian, the dinner had a decidedly Kiwi twist, supplemented by Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough region of the South Island. It looks like we will eat well here.
So what is behind the NZ lamb quality? We found out quickly and from the best source. In a lovely little place south of Dunedin called Taeira River Mouth we were hosted by a couple of retired sheep farmers. We struck gold and were actually double lucky. Firstly, the Sun, the Earth and the Moon aligned to create the Super Tide that day AND the area was hit by a major cyclone circling the Tasman Sea on the way from Queensland, coincidently hitting the South Island full force! Stan and Marion had great plans to show us their bellowed bush (read woods) and sea coast but the absolutely miserable weather of strong winds and pouring rain made it impossible. What should we do instead? You might be surprised, new friends, but we would really, really like to see a true sheep farm operation. As any resourceful Kiwi would, Stan made a few calls to his still working friends in sheep farming community and got us in. We could visit the campus of Telford University that trains young farmers in all kinds of sheep farming activities.
Stan’s friend, Alistair Ward, an old hand in all things sheep, took us under his wing. And we learned more than we ever thought we wanted to know.
Here are a few cute sheep photos where you can finish this blog.
But if you really want to know all the details, keep going. I warn you–It is a veritable treatise.
The sheep farming revenue has two basic components: the meat and the wool. While in the past the split between them could be anywhere between 50/50 to 80/20 in favor of the wool, today’s market completely changed the game. The prices for wool dropped down to NZ$2 or even NZ$1.85 per kilogram. Farmers can hardly get more than 3kilograms (6.6 lbs) of wool per sheep a year, which makes for an income of less than NZ$5 per sheep a year! That is about what you pay for a cup of coffee in any of the frequent New Zealand coffee shops. It is TERRIBLE!
To the contrary, a lamb can fetch the same farmer anywhere between NZ$120 and $150 for its meat! You do not have to be Einstein to figure out where any farmer should put his money and his effort. Still, when you have a sheep to bear you lambs, you do have to shear the sheep of its wool no matter what, because it can not walk around with a heavy sheep afro. Oh yeah, and you need a few rams as well to accomplish this goal, but one ram can easily take care of 70 sheep. This pleasant male activity is quick and efficient, and as it often happens in the real life, too, is not really a very serious factor in the whole game— of wool and meat!
Alistair, Marion and Ksenija discussing the price of wool
Shearing on the other hand is, and a national sport to boot, and I would say almost as popular as rugby. Indeed, international competitions are followed by a big crowd on par with All Black’s rugby matches on international stage, including loud screams of thousands of their fans, getting the best out of the Kiwi sheep shearing team by singing the National anthem! And they should indeed be proud of them. One of their best, a very accomplished champion Peter Fagan could shear 720 sheeps in a day of competition!!! That is a sheep every 30 seconds in a 10 hour day. No kidding, our host Stan proved that to me in the local newspaper! I have not seen this with my own eyes, nor on TV, but Stan’s friend, Allistair,
showed us where it is done. As in any human activity with hundreds of years of practice and necessity of improvement one creates rituals, customs, and habits to set the stage for ultimate performance of champions. For shearing the sheep only the best man will do. Everybody else is just a helper (called “roustabout”, like in “stop rousting about and get to work, yer good fer nuttin!) in support of the leader who defines the speed of shearing and quality of product. Therefore the big guy gets to be paid per sheep and we were told it can be four bucks a piece, whole the roustabouts get a few miserable bucks per hour as current minimum wage in New Zealand is about ten (pronounced tin) bucks.
Shearing shed with wool
The shearing shed is a sight to behold, all made of wood. The sheep are brought up on a rather steep ramp to the second floor one by one to one of the elevated shearing stations. As the shearer shears the sheep, the wool falls and accumulates fast, so the helpers have to move the wool away quickly and stuff the 100-kilo bags, while the freshly bald sheep is pushed mercilessly through the tricky floor hatch and slides down to the first floor to make space for the next victim walking over the now deceptively innocent closed door.
The quality of wool feels soft on your finger tips because of its oils (incidentally also protecting the sheep in the rain) but nothing matches the virgin wool, sheared for the first time in the life of a little lamb. This wool with a gentle twist on the top pays best, but it would never grow like that again.
Meanwhile downstairs we can watch a fast and efficient way of selection of sheep into smaller units by weight. Mr. Ward, with nimble help of his dogs and a young technician is herding the lambs through narrow fenced corridors towards the scale. Any lamb lighter than thirty kilos is directed through the gate on its right to a smaller herd and goes back to the pasture. If the sheep weighs over 30 but less than 37.5 kilo, it goes to the left for further evaluation and less than encouraging prospects regarding its future. And those over 37.5 kilograms? Their path from the scale box goes straight to the slaughterhouse! Nothing to envy, my friends.
21,5 kg-safe for a little longer on the pasture
It is clear that while good natured Mr. Ward enjoys his presentation very much, he is, after all, a teacher at this University raising another generation of sheep farmers, the thing closest to his heart is—his DOGS!
Dogs herding the sheep
Sitting tensely at the outdoors shed in the enclosure they wait for their master’s whistle and its distinguished tone and sequence to be sure what his intentions are. The whistle’s sounds triggers immediate action as the dog starts circling the sheep, slinking close to the ground, keeping the whole group in a tidy circle, while moving it in a desired direction. Amazing work! Suddenly a little sheep appears out of nowhere. She is panicking, she has lost her place in the world in the secure embrace of the herd. The dog quickly gets her to the circle. All is well. She is safe again, she is one of a crowd, following along, happily eating grass, no need to think or make any decisions on her own.
Aren’t you already excited for the next blog entry? It will be all on cows and milking!