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The Deer Farmer Sunday 22nd February, 2009
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Development at Dunrobin

Bruce Russell with the view from the top of the Dunrobin hill Enjoying his deer and the development challenge
10-09-2007 | webmaster

When he gets there he might open a gate from one paddock to another. Or maybe shut it. Either way, it probably won?t matter much because the management of the block is easy-care and he?s really there for the view.
From the top of his Dunrobin block he can see a huge chunk of northern Southland and up into the Te Anau basin: lush dairy and fat lamb pastures, hill farms, forestry blocks and the deep blue of conservation land in the distance. But what he enjoys most is in the other direction ? his own chunk of wilderness: the 1320 hectares of rough grass, tussock, matagouri, beech forest and rock he?s attempting to tame.

He?s chosen a tough assignment. After being debt-free for all most of their adult lives, Bruce and wife Annabel bought the block five years ago from the forestry company Ernslaw. At the time venison was topping $10 a kilo and they budgeted at a conservative $5/kg ? only to see prices go into a tail-spin the next year. Now they know what it?s like to live off your equity. ?We?re no better off than if we?d hadn?t bought the place, but I love messing around with deer,? Bruce says.

Ernslaw had removed all the internal sheep fences in readiness for trees and grazing had been very light. As soon as the Russells took over, in went 45 km of deer fences, dividing most of the farm into 70?300 ha blocks. A 200 ha block of beech forest and a steep face in regenerating native cover were retired from farming.
Near the road, 90 ha was developed and then, with the thick end of $500,000 spent on fences, a shed and tracks, and with velvet as well as venison prices plumbing the depths; it was time to hunker down and wait for improvement.

For someone aged 63, who 10 years ago decided to ?sort-of retire? from Avondale, the family farm, it?s been a case of the old dog learning some new tricks and Bruce is enjoying it. Annabel, meanwhile, has thrown herself into the life of her new community and the Bracken Hall business she owns with two partners.

All the same, when the Russells bought the historic Dunrobin Station homestead and 120 ha of adjacent flat land 10 years ago, they had expected to take things a little easier. Bruce says he had been running out of ideas on their family farm Avondale ? 30 kilometres away ? and son Brian was ready and waiting to prove himself. ?I needed to give him some space.?
But there was only so much Bruce could do on the homestead block, so when Ernslaw sold out of the former Dunrobin Station, he bought the hills and some of the flats in partnership with three neighbours. It was a property that enjoyed fame in the late 1970s when it was owned by former NZDFA president the late Bernard Pinney and his wife Jenny.

The new Dunrobin ? about a third of the former Station ? is run as a breeding unit with the 370-ha Avondale as the deer finishing unit and home for the family?s 350 velveting stags and replacements. Avondale also runs 450 hinds, 1400 ewes, 500 hoggets and dairy grazers. Brian and wife Kristine?s family trust owns the Dunrobin hill block which is then leased to the family farming company.
Since they?ve been there, the new Dunrobin land bought for around $1000/ha has inflated to around $2500/ha in value ? the sort of hike in property values that has kept most deer farmers afloat during a time of appalling product prices.

At age 63, Bruce reckons he?s got another four or five years of active deer farming left ? years where product prices show every indication of giving a fair return on investment.
But, after going in to deer in the industry?s early days as a sheep farmer?s son who wanted to make a clean break from the freezing industry blues, he?s disappointed that the venison industry is now in the hands of the very people he was trying to get away from. In his view, the boom-bust cycle of the deer industry is a symptom of bad management by the big meat companies.
?We are really suffering because the venison specialists like Michael Rice [former chief executive of Mair Venison] have been pushed aside. People like Michael did a great job of promoting venison and the deer industry.?

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