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Taking control of the agribusiness chain

Cate RocchiCountryman

A yard near a Northam farmhouse holds six fat Dorper lambs. They are on a supply schedule and are about to be loaded in the back of a four-wheel-drive ute for a one-way trip to a Gingin abattoir.

Then they head to a commercial kitchen in Midland that Macabee Estate sublets from pork producers Neil and Annie Kavanagh, of Spencer's Brook Farm.

At the kitchen, Macabee lamb chops, and pieces for roasts and stews, are packed in boxes ready to sell at the Subiaco Farmers Market where the brand is gaining a top-quality reputation.

The black-faced, sturdily built sheep, which originate from South Africa, started being imported into WA in the 90s and are particularly prized for their tasty and tender meat.

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On a recent visit to Macabee Estate, it could not have been a prettier day in the Avon Valley, driving past a running river in rich country overlooked by a natural escarpment. The 880-hectare estate is located on Baillee Farm, 90km north-east of Perth, between the towns of Toodyay and Northam.

A lamb roast cooks gently in an outdoor Weber and the air is filled with the smell of delicious roasting meat and rosemary.

Macabee Estate principal Anthea Brown said she had a passion for good food and wanted to share her knowledge.

"Consumers need to understand seasonality and its impact on meat's flavour and colour," she said. "By and large local producers are already producing a quality product - it is now about educating the consumer that a paddock-reared lamb in September, taken straight off its mother, is not going to taste or look the same as a 10-month-old lamb slaughtered in March at the end of a long, dry, hot summer."

She said good food was more costly to produce and consumers should pay a "fair" price for it.

Anthea, who started the operation in 2003 with her parents, Neil and Liz, commutes to the property from Perth while her parents live on the property.

Prior to working on the farm, Anthea had an interesting career that included global travel. She worked in New York for Austrade promoting food and wine, and as a corporate lawyer in Sydney and Perth.

She is also a believer in the appeal of paddock to plate businesses and is one of a growing number of farmers taking control of all elements of the agri-business chain - from that of producer to marketing and sales.

Furthermore, she recognises the benefits of working together with others.

Anthea is directly involved in large-scale marketing of her region, being a committee member of the Avon Valley Slow Food Convivium, and has helped organise several events recently, including 'Food Conversations with Don Hancey' in Northam and some Slow Food long-table lunches in Perth.

She speaks articulately about the need for farmers to understand and respond to demand for superior quality food by urban customers. Anthea constantly experiments with lesser-known cuts of sheep and reveals some lamb bacon she is trialling is made from a salted flap of meat.

In the footsteps of UK 'real food' campaigner and presenter of the River Cottage series - Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall - she is also enthusiastic about using the whole sheep and said people often needed to learn how to cook all cuts of meat, not just fillets and chops. Lamb ribs, for example, can be prepared in a similar way to pork ribs.

She said the age of the animal had an effect on flavour and people needed to understand how to cook the different cuts of meat to make sure they made the most of the animal.

A great deal of thought has gone into her specialisation in Dorpers.

"We believe in the traits of the Dorper - hardiness, adaptability, low maintenance and high fertility - make them ideal for the landholder," Anthea said.

"My interest was focused on the meat production (rather than wool and meat considerations) and therefore the breed's meat characteristics - high yield, good fat coverage, flavour and tenderness - were paramount.

"I was also encouraged by the non-selective grazing habit of the animal, high fertility and maternal instincts. The fact that the animal sheds its fleece was also a consideration with the ageing workforce, increasing shearing costs and deteriorating infrastructure."

"The natural shedding of wool also means there is less flystrike. Therefore the need to mules was negated and the use of chemicals reduced. Coupled with the shedding, the breed also has a short tail which means tail docking could be done away with."

She said her operation was not certified organic, but was 'biological' and she worked with Wayne Challis of HiTech Ag Solutions.

"We have adopted more sustainable biological farming methods to produce robust and resilient plants and animals," she said.

"This involves balancing minerals (with soil and leaf tests), and use of microbes, foliar fertilisers, humates and bio-stimulants to improve the quality and production of our crops and pastures. By improving the health and resilience of the plants and animals, it promotes reduced use of farm chemicals and animal health products."

Anthea's catch phrase is - healthy soils, healthy plants, happy animals.

Customers can buy the usual cuts from her market stall, as well as 'Lamb in a Box' for $220 and 'Taster Boxes' for $120.

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