FACED with a multitude of challenges that drastically cut their turnover in the past two years, the De Laine family of Hahndorf Venison have shaken up the way they do business to 'take control of their own destiny'.
With much of their venison sold for food service, many of the De Laines' restaurant and winery clients were impacted firstly by the 2019-20 Cudlee Creek bushfire then COVID-19-related dining restrictions.
A third blow was the closure of the Strathalbyn abattoir, which forced the business to review the way it processed its deer.
Instead of bemoaning their circumstances, they took the deer by the antlers by building a specialist on-farm deer processing plant, re-launching a velvet extract-infused liquor under a new label and offering a premium farm tour and venison tasting experience.
"These changes have been made to take control of our destiny," owner John De Laine said.
"Instead of our decisions being driven by market forces, we're driving those forces ourselves."
The De Laine family has been butchering for more than 130 years and John's father Des got the family into deer farming in 1978 at a time when deer were described as 'gold on four feet'.
"Deer velvet at that time was achieving the same price per pound as what an ounce of gold was worth," John said.
"The momentum gained through New Zealand and Australia followed suit."
Three generations of the family are still involved - Des, aged 91, John and John's son Lachlan.
They run Red, Fallow, Hog, Sika and Chital deer, Elk and Black Buck antelope, with a 400-head capacity between two properties at Hahndorf and Wistow.
John said deer farming was in decline in Australia and value-adding was vital.
"We probably wouldn't be doing what we're doing if we were merely deer farming and not value-adding," he said.
One of those value-adding schemes has been the headfirst dive into a newly-labelled liquor called 100 Years - Spirit of the Stag, which is sold on the Spirit of the Stag website, selected cocktail bars and sampled on their on-farm tours.
The De Laine family have been using a portion of their deer velvet to make a velvet extract-infused liquor for more than 20 years, but they have now decided to direct all of their Sika velvet to the production of the liquor, which is drank neat, combined in cocktails and used in desserts.
While Sika velvet is worth up to three times more than velvet from other deer and makes the liquor more expensive to produce, John says it lends credibility to the product as the traditionally preferred velvet.
John said the idea to give the drink a new lease on life came to him in a lightbulb moment during COVID-19 shutdown in March last year and the inspiration for the new name came from an early 2000s trade mission in South Korea and an encounter John has remembered ever since.
At a dinner in a Buddhist temple on one of the final nights, he was approached by an interested local.
"He picked up a bottle of our liquor and was looking at it, then chatted away to our interpreter," John said.
"Next minute he grabbed a full bottle and took off. He was talking as he was heading out the door.
"I asked the interpreter 'what was that about?'.
"He took the remaining bottle from me, pointed at the label and told me the man had said 'you drink this, you will live a healthy life for 100 years'.
"Des has a regular swig of 100 Years and is still active around the farm at 91 years young."
For more than 2000 years, the velvet antler of male deer has been revered by Eastern cultures for its health-promoting properties and is viewed as a herbal product because the animal suffers no harm and regenerates its growth post-harvest
While the closure of the Strathalbyn abattoir last year was initially another blow to Hahndorf Venison, John said it fortuitously forced the family to review the way they did their processing.
"We constructed a purpose-built deer processing plant, which means we're in complete control of the process from farm to kitchen," he said.
"The on-farm processing component complements our existing boning, packing, storage and distribution operation.
"We've lowered the food miles and got a much better animal welfare outcome because there's less transport involved."
The De Laines make their own smallgoods, while premium cuts like tenderloins and strip loins are sold to high-end restaurants like Mount Lofty House and Magill Estate.
Another facet to their paddock-to-plate ethos has been the start of private on-farm tours. John said he had often given chef teams a tour of his Wistow farm to provide the connection between farm and kitchen, but they had broadened that to offer tours to the general public.
Tours for six to eight people run every second Sunday and include a drive around the property to view the different deer breeds and a three-course venison dining experience which culminates with a dessert using the Spirit of the Stag liquor.
"People are going to have to adapt to COVID being around and so do we as food producers for food service," John said.
"In the meantime, we're not going to sit around and moan about not selling any venison. Do you close up or put things in place? We put things in place."
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