Paddock to plate leader
ASK John Mauger to tell the story of how he got into farming and his eyes light up.
"The first recollection I have is from when I was probably five years old, steering the tractor while Dad fed hay (to cattle) out the back,” says the now 59-year-old from near Robertson, in the rolling hills of the NSW Southern Highlands south of Sydney.
"The reason I remember it so vividly is that it was the middle of winter and my hands were that cold holding the steering wheel.
"But that's the way it was back then. When I was 12 I used to get on the tractor and go spraying blackberries by myself. I'd have the two 44-gallon drums strapped in behind me - I'd hit a bump and there'd be chemical all down my back because of course I didn't have a shirt on.
"There was no safety. No rollbars on the tractors, nothing to protect you.”
It was about the same time that John's father, Joe, started a butcher shop just down the road in the small village of Burrawang, selling cuts of beef from cattle reared on the family farm.
As John points out, this was decades before the terms provenance and paddock-to-plate became trendy. A time when food was food and the only celebrity chef you knew was Dad on those rare nights he'd give Mum a breather from the kitchen.
The establishment of the butcher shop in 1972 was not so much an act of expansion for the Maugers as it was a necessity. John, who would soon be juggling schoolwork with his job as chief "wash-up boy” in the shop, says it was almost forced on the family after "the bum fell out of the cattle market”.
"Dad had all these cattle and they were worth 700 bucks (but no one was paying that),” he recalls.
"He thought 'how am I going to get rid of them?'. The day he opened the shop he went to every house along the road to Moss Vale to ask them whether they'd like to buy a side of beef. He sold one, and the next week he sold two, and away it went.”
At 16, John had given up on school and started working in the butcher shop full-time. By 18, when his father died, he became manager.
Pretty soon Maugers Quality Meats was processing 10 of the family's cattle a week and selling their cuts through the shop. Fast forward to now, they process 12 beef bodies a week (in addition to about 25 lambs and bought-in meat) for Burrawang and a Moss Vale butcher shop the family purchased in 2014.
"We were doing 14 a week before the s--- hit the fan a few years ago and the price (of cattle) went right up,” says John, adding that more recent dry conditions had forced him to curtail stock numbers on his 120-hectare farm used to finish about 250 heifers and 300 store lambs a year.
John is in charge of the day-to-day farm operations, having handed over the butcher side of the business to his son, Mat, five years ago.
He reckons fattening stock is a rare art form, with the slightest mistake or setback the difference between making a profit and a loss.
John buys in stock year-round. Cattle are generally sourced from the Moss Vale saleyards at nine to 12 months. Lambs are purchased four times a year - "a couple of hundred at a time” - from Yass.
John said although he was not "a one cattle breed person” he did prefer British types - "hereford, angus, murray grey and their crosses” - as opposed to European breeds such as limousin, which "have got to be grain-fed to properly fatten”.
While temperament, breeding, shape and conformation are all crucial, for John it is all about finding stock with the greatest potential to make a return. The cattle are turned off before 18 months to produce a 200kg average carcass.
"Being a small business I have to make money out of what I buy,” he said.
"I can't just go out and buy the best angus cattle there are out there.”
On the lamb front, John buys second-cross stock, and has found success with white suffolks and dorpers. He admits with the lamb market "pretty hot” in recent years "it's been pretty hard to make money out of them”.
Twice a week John makes the two-hour round trip to the Wollondilly Abattoir at Picton with the heifers and lambs to be processed. It costs him about 10c/kg for the cattle to be killed. With lambs it's about $20 a head. These charges, however, pale into comparison with "the killer” costs associated with running the butcher shops, including "10 grand a week in labour” for nine staff. When pressed on how the butchery industry had changed over the past 45 years, John isn't shy to turn the question around.
"Well, do you eat round steak? Do you eat blade? Topside? Silverside? Nope? Well, there you go,” he said.
"It is all about rump, eye fillet, scotch fillet. That's how it has changed.
"And also it's a lot more intricate - we now make pies, beef jerky and it is all time consuming. Instead of simply thin and thick beef sausages, there's beef, pork and lamb sausages, and flavoured sausages.”
Despite the Southern Highlands becoming extremely popular with "Sydney money” pushing up local land prices "beyond farming”, John said he wouldn't want to do anything else. Nine months ago he started conducting paddock-to-plate tours of the farm and butcher shops.
"If I was to sell (the farm), I'd have 10 million bucks,” he said. "But I'd lose my lifestyle.
"And it's the same old story with every farmer.
"I don't want to lose the family farm.”