Dave Carter’s perfect meal is a viking cutlet, like a scotch fillet on the bone, oven-cooked or grilled, with steamed veg on the side.
And what does he season it with?
“Just salt and pepper. I like to taste the meat. I have this argument with my wife all the time, ‘gotta put this and this on’. No, I want to taste the meat,” he says, breaking into a laugh.
Carter has a lot at stake when it comes to taste. He and his wife Marianne run a beef cattle and lamb property, Bonavista, along Stewarts Brook, near the headwaters of the Hunter River east of Scone. They sell their beef and lamb under their own brand, Hunter Natural, taking pride in the fact their stock is 100 per cent grass-fed.
Carter also runs a butcher shop, Morpeth Butchery, which he bought five years ago. Usually he sells 100 per cent of his own lamb and 95 per cent of his own beef in the shop. But the drought has forced him to source grass-fed meat lines from other suppliers for the shop.
Keeping on top of the farm through the drought has been hard work. When we spoke in his butcher shop in late July, his truck had broken down. He and Marianne were feeding 110 buckets of protein meal every morning to their stock, and buying at $1200 a load that would last about a week.
“There’s only a limited amount of time you can pull that out and still exist,” he says.
There was enough water flowing through Stewarts Brook for him to irrigate a couple of paddocks, and his lambs were coming good. He expected to be able to supply the butcher shop and his other outlets with his own lamb meat within a couple of weeks.
In August he lost 19 cows to nitrate poisoning from hay – he’d had a busy morning rounding up and feeding calves. But, on the sunny side, it had rained 19ml on the property.
“Realistically, you can’t do it the same as granddad did anymore,” he says of farming. “There is enough science out there to say if you look after the land better, you’re going to end up better off.
“You might run less animals better, and your ground is improving as well. There is research out there you can actually grow carbon from grazing land.”
Carter is an optimist. He has plenty of resilience, and the fortitude to try new ideas and hang in.
The butcher shop is a result of that attitude.
He says flatly, “The farm is not enough to support us, in its own right.”
Over eight years ago they started selling direct to customers at Newcastle City Farmers Market with a stall operating their Hunter Natural brand. They built up a clientele, and it was plenty of hard work.
Five years ago they bought the Morpeth butchery, giving them a place to break up market animals and pack product for the markets as well as their own retail outlet for their brand.
“Can’t be that hard to run a butcher shop, right?,” Carter chuckles. “This is our fifth year. We’re still learning.”
Carter no longer operates a stall at the farmers market.
But, he provides his branded meat products through Your Food Collective, which services Newcastle and now Lake Macquarie. The collective, run by Lauren Branson and Cara Cooper. utilises local food producers and services customers through either home delivery or a weekly pick-up-your-order hub.
While the Your Food Collective relationship is in its early days, Carter can see it growing.
“I think Your Food has huge potential,” he says. “We’ve been with them since they started.”
He likes the fact it is efficient for him. Orders through the cooperative close at noon on Mondays.
“Within an hour, we know that order,” Carter says. ”I know on Monday what I have to deliver on Wednesday morning. We pack to order.
“On Tuesday we cut all the cuts. On Wednesday morning I will pack each order.”
The advantages for Carter include no wastage: he packs to order, whereas selling at the markets required him to vacuum pack meat in advance and then deal with product that did not sell on the day.
The butcher shop is a challenge in its own right, but Carter is getting a firm handle on what works and now focusing on producing more value-added products in the shop.
He has added a smoke oven and does ham, lamb ham and pastrami with plans to expand the lines. He’s also keen to create a jerky product soon, and dip into ready to eat meals, like for instance, a slow-cooked brisket.
“I need to step outside the square and try different stuff,” he readily admits.
As the farmer supplying his own store, he is acutely aware of minimising wastage.
Typically, about 75 per cent of the lamb carcase can produce sellable meat products, the percentage is lower for beef. With high prices for supply (in times when he doesn’t have enough like now), it means high prices for consumers, which result in lower sales, or people buying less expensive cuts.
If the drought stays, prices will go higher.
Carter has worries: “Nobody has crop planted. They should have been planted in may. If there’s no wheat, barley, oats, … feedlots can’t feed livestock. Everything will go crazy.”
But underneath all of that, he’s built to last it out. “It’s a one in a hundred year drought,” he says. “You have to keep reminding yourself of that.
“You think, we have to be doing something wrong. Not really, it’s what life’s dealt up at the minute.”