A taste test sealed the deal for a Taihape hill country operation to win an airline tender. Russell Priest reports. Photos: Brad Hanson.

A last-minute decision by Taihape-based meat marketing minnows Hinterland Foods to enter the Virgin Australia Airlines’ tender to supply beef for in-flight meals across the Tasman has seen them blitz much more illustrious opposition and secure the contract.

“I first noticed the tender on social media,” Tom Wells, one of the four partners in Hinterland Foods Limited, says.

“Sarah (his wife) and I were giving it some thought when another partner picked up on it and suggested we should give it a go, and the rest is history.”

They had little time to put together a video presentation but had some promotional material they were able to use from the company’s website and from its brief foray into the Singapore restaurant market with lamb racks.

Besides featuring their own onfarm material promoting their strong environmentally sustainable and animal welfare approach to farming they also came up with an eye-catching video shot from a drone which must have captured the imagination of the Virgin management team assessing the tenders.

Setting up the shot involved marking out a large “V” in a paddock where Angus cattle were being fed balage. The supplement was carefully fed out along the two arms of the “V” enticing the cattle to eat. The result was a distinct black “V” on the green paddock the image of which was captured by an overhead drone. The remaining letters “irgin” were completed in the video in red to great effect.

Supplying a sample of the product was a further tender requirement. This was a little challenging for the Wells as having cattle for processing in early spring was not a normal farming practice.

With a bit of soul-searching Tom realised there were seven dry two-year heifers in a hill paddock close to the yards. His dogs pulled the nearest two into the yards, one being a Hereford and the other an Angus. He assessed the Angus as being the more prime of the two so it was dully dispatched to Taylor Preston’s plant in Wellington providing the diced beef for the tasting panel.

“It obviously did the trick,” Tom says, “because it was considered to be the best product of those submitted.”

Virgin then indicated to the Wells that Hinterland Foods had been shortlisted as one of the top three tenders and asked if their farming operation could be viewed by some of their management team. Being hospitable people the Wells invited them along with 30 local friends to lunch after the farm tour. Little did they know they had already been selected as the successful tenderers and the lunch gave the head of inflight catering for Virgin Australia the ideal opportunity to announce their successful tender.

Cattle producing the diced beef for the contract are supplied by local farmers whose management philosophies mirror those of the Wells. A local stock agent co-ordinates the supply to Wilson Hellaby’s processing plant in Auckland. The only specification is that cattle must kill out at more than 250kg carcaseweight.

Hinterland Foods (HFL) is driven by a dream of selling food directly from the producer to the plate. Its first attempt at fulfilling this dream was the sale of lamb racks into several Singapore restaurants. While this was relatively successful HFL has put this on hold while it concentrates on the Virgin contract and the sale of pre-cooked lamb shanks through Countdown supermarkets.

The farming operation

Tom (35) and Sarah (36) Wells lease Paharakeke a 500-hectare (effective) predominantly medium hill country (20ha cultivable) farm from Sarah’s father John Batley near the small settlement of Moawhango on the banks of the Moawhango River 19km north east of Taihape.

Financial performance using a low-input, grass-based farming system is what dominates the Wells’ philosophy. Performance is measured against Sarah’s father’s four other farms with the financials closely scrutinised annually. The 2017/18 results are similar across the five farms giving Tom and Sarah confidence in what they are doing and also indicating opportunities to improve.

Paharakeke’s relatively large average paddock size of 17ha suits them because they both enjoy mustering using horses and dogs so there is a conflict with the concept of subdivision. The farm has numerous blocks of native bush where animals can seek shade and shelter.

The summer-dry environment around the Moawhango area dictates management practices on Paharakeke.

“Grass generally stops growing about Christmas time and it’s hard farming after this,” Tom says.

“We farm to expect a drought each year however we’ve got to be flexible enough to take advantage of a good summer if it occurs.”

Last year it rained right through January and February which allowed them to trade an extra 50 Friesian bulls and 1000 lambs as well as finish all their home-grown lambs.

Not only is it dry in the summer it can get cold in winter with the altitude ranging from 600-1000 metres. The higher country gets more rain but is colder so is ideal for wintering ewe hoggets.

Romney ewes and lambs go up there after docking and ewe hoggets are tupped up there.

Native pasture species predominate on the hills and tend to go to head early so breeding cows are a vital tool for both control and cleaning up.

Spring growth kicks off about August 10 but slows during September-October and only starts getting ahead of the stock in November.

Paharakeke calves 60 R2 and 175 mixed-age (MA) predominantly Angus and Angus Hereford females with respective bull-out dates being November 7 (for 42 days) and November 28 (for 50 days). Both are calved on autumn-saved pasture; the heifers on a flat 10ha paddock and the cows on the hills after which they are spread among ewes and lambs.

Calving percentages are 89% and 92% respectively. Rebreeding rate in the heifers matches that of the cows. Bulls used are mainly Angus with the occasional Hereford and Charolais.

Heifer minimum mating weight at 15 months is 280kg. Tom’s aim is to keep heifers growing throughout pregnancy on the hills.

Low birthweight EBV Angus bulls are sourced from Dave and Nicole Stewart’s Komako Angus stud. No heifers have had to be assisted at calving in the last three years. Before they took on the lease there was a mix up with the bulls and the wrong ones went to the heifers resulting in about 20 calves having to be pulled. Tom is determined this will not happen again.

All steer calves are sold as weaners along with the bottom 10% (based on weight) of the heifer calves. Prices last year were $920 for steers and $780 for heifers.

In future they may winter some of their own weaner steers however while prices remain high they will continue with their present practice.

They managed to successfully winter 75 R2 liquorice allsorts steers this year after leasing another 30ha from a neighbour.

Finished lambs a bonus

With the summer dry normally arriving early any lambs that can be finished off Paharakeke are a bonus.

The Wells run a Bendall Romney breeding flock of 2100 ewes and buy 300 five-year ewes to top up the terminal flock.

For the first time this year all two-tooths were mated to terminal (Sufftex) rams because enough breeding replacements are being generated from the mixed-age Romneys. The cross-bred lambs are significantly better than straight Romneys so they’re hopeful more will be killed off their mothers.

Sufftex rams come from the Totmans’ Potaka stud in Taihape.

Both Romney and Sufftex rams go out on March 9 for 50 days. Tom brought the mating date forward 20 days when they took over because of the threat of drought and because August is traditionally a relatively growthy month.

Last year Paharakeke ewes scanned 180% (twins and singles only) with a 149% survival to sale.

Mating date for hoggets is April 1 for 30 days. Minimum mating weight is 40kg and lambing percentage last year was 93 (lambs sold to hoggets mated).

Terminal lambs are weaned at the end of November with half being drafted off their mothers at 16.5-17kg.

Normally 50% of lambs are sold as stores but last year everything they bred was killed even the hogget lambs. The usual practice is to kill as many off mum as possible then finish as many as the season allows. They are proactive in selling lambs store if it turns dry.

For the last four years 10ha of plantain/chicory has been grown for lamb finishing over the summer. Italian rye (20ha) is grown for the winter to provide a winter lamb/bull finishing option if the opportunity arises and/or to grow out ewe hoggets.

“We’re not set up to trade but we’ll take the opportunity if it arises in the future,” Tom says.

Sarah and Tom are assisted at busy times of the year by father-John’s workforce and they reciprocate.

Town and country backgrounds

Sarah was not raised on Paharakeke but on another local farm owned by her father and although she misses this she regards Paharakeke as special.

Before returning to the farm Sarah had extensive experience as a journalist. On leaving university she worked in regional radio and then for Sky News before landing a job in the press gallery where she did a lot of film work for Barry Soper. Freelancing was her next move covering five budgets and three elections being involved when Helen Clarke resigned and John Key came to power.

She also travelled overseas covering some major political forums and some current affairs in New Zealand.

At that stage in her career she was uncertain where to go next but had developed a yearning to return to her roots. While raised on the land she hadn’t been involved in the day-to-day aspects of running a farm and was keen to have that experience and to be with her beloved horses and dogs.

So she returned home and worked for her father initially finding it very physically and mentally demanding. “TVNZ approached me to do some weekend work both in Auckland and Wellington and this provided a good life balance for me,” Sarah says.

The manager’s job on Paharakeke became available and John believed it would provide Sarah with an ideal opportunity to hone her managerial skills under his watchful eyes.

The focus then became more on farming and it’s been three years since Sarah did any journalism.

Tom was brought up as a “townie” in Christchurch although his grandparents were farmers. On leaving secondary school he tried studying law at both Canterbury and Victoria universities before deciding study wasn’t for him. Reaching the age of 20 he joined the police force and was assigned to the riot squad in Auckland.

“This was a real eye-opener for me and quite intimidating but it did open up a lot of opportunities for me and I met a lot of life-long friends,” Tom says.

He spent seven years in the squad, taking two years off to play rugby in Ireland.

While in Auckland he met Sarah and when she moved south to Moawhango he followed, getting a police job in Taihape before deciding being on call 24/7 was not for him. A junior shepherd’s job came up working for Sarah’s father and so he began his farming apprenticeship.

Sarah and Tom met in 2012, married in 2013 and have two children Whiti (4) and Millie (2).

King of Moawhango

Batley history abounds in the Moawhango area with Sarah’s great-great grandfather Robert Thompson (RT) Batley having settled there permanently in 1882 after being rescued, along with others, by a human chain of local Maori as a

13-year-old from a shipwreck off the coast at Napier in 1863. After working on and managing farms in Hawke’s Bay and the central North Island, including Erewhon Station and interrupted only by a brief trip back to England where he met his wife, he finally settled in Moawhango.

He built a large two-storeyed house (now a single storey) which Sarah and Tom now call home as well as a store and post office (still standing over the road from their home) and a small church next door. The church is where Sarah and Tom were married and where numerous family weddings are held.

Records show RT became fluent in Te Reo and formed strong relationships with local people including a business partnership with Moawhango’s Henare Kepa in which they ran sheep and exported wool.

He also helped Ngati Whiti in the Native Court to establish their ownership of land in the district.

By 1905 RT and his sons were farming 8900ha, 800 of these freehold, 25,000 sheep, 2000 cattle and 300 horses as well as running a cartage business servicing the large stations of the central North Island.

He also established many of the early buildings in Moawhango and according to newspaper articles from that time became known as the “King of Moawhango”.


Tom and Sarah Wells lease 500ha Paharakeke.

  • Where: 19km north east of Taihape.
  • Sheep/cattle breeding/finishing.
  • Summer dry area.
  • Focus on sustainability and animal welfare.
  • Partners in Hinterland Foods Ltd.
  • Recently won Virgin Australia beef tender.
  • Also supplied lamb racks to Singapore.
  • Supply cooked lamb shanks to Countdown.
  • GFI (2017/18) $1460/ha.
  • FWE (2017/18) $495/ha.

Stock numbers:

  • 2100 A flock Romney ewes.
  • 300 B flock terminal ewes
  • 610 in-lamb ewe hoggets
  • 32 rams.
  • 175 MA Angus and Hereford Angus cows.
  • 60 R2 Angus and Hereford Angus in-calf heifers.
  • 65 weaner heifers.
  • 75 R2 steers.
  • 8 bulls