An urban farm in Auckland has been raising cows for meat for years. This time, they decided to involve the community in the process – but the backlash was so intense, the plan was canned. Alice Neville talks to those involved about what went down, and what we can learn from the saga.
A sprawling, hippy-esque bucolic paradise surrounded by multimillion-dollar white villas, Kelmarna Gardens is a bit of an anomaly at the epicentre of one of Auckland’s most bougie neighbourhoods.
Covering four and a half acres of council land on the Grey Lynn/Ponsonby/Herne Bay border, it’s a city farm and organic community garden headed by a trust and mainly run by volunteers. In recent years, local chefs have got behind the gardens: you’ll see Kelmarna produce name-checked on menus all over town.
Ponsonby Rd eatery Orphans Kitchen has a plot at Kelmarna and chef/co-owner Tom Hishon is heavily involved in promoting the gardens and raising funds through events like the annual harvest festival. It was Hishon who suggested that when the time came, the meat from the three steers that lived on the farm be made available to restaurants in the community.
“I’d been promoting the idea to Adrian [Roche, garden manager at Kelmarna] and Andy [Boor, Kelmarna’s development manager] for a couple of years,” says Hishon. “They’ve always had livestock on the property and it gets processed anyway – the cattle have always been taken off site to be killed – so I said it would be great if chefs and restaurants then had access to it.”
These particular steers had been at the gardens since 2017. They’d had other cows before them and others before them, and each time they got too big to live at the farm, they were sent off to the abattoir to be slaughtered with myriad others and eaten by someone who’d have no idea of their provenance.
Hishon thought that was a shame. “It’s all part of what Kelmarna Gardens are about – locality, organics, community – so I had been expressing an interest for a couple of years and managed to get a few restaurants on board to take a quarter of a beast each,” he says.
“It would’ve been taken off site to an abattoir and killed professionally, and then Westmere Butchery was going to process it and package it up,” Hishon explains. “It got to the point where we were looking at dates to do it and everyone said what cuts they were after. Everyone was super excited about it – it’s so great that we’re able to do that right in the heart of the city.”
Of Kelmarna, he says, “they’ve really got their act together in the last couple of years, and this was going to be another way for them to supplement costs – they would have made thousands to improve their infrastructure, put more tunnel houses in, get more people working there”.
Hannah Miller Childs, a butcher who makes charcuterie under the name A Lady Butcher, was brought on board to help with the process.
“I donated my time because it’s such a cool project,” she says. “Being a farm, being a community place, they’d cared for the animals so well. They’re not certified organic but they are really close, and definitely ethically and sustainably raised.”
She worked with the Kelmarna team to figure out how the beef would be sold, suggesting a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) model that’s popular in the United States, where she’s from, whereby community members connect directly with farmers.
In addition to the restaurants that had expressed interest in buying the meat, members of the community would be able to purchase boxes of different cuts. “I helped them to come up with a plan – so the restaurants take these cuts, we deal with these cuts, this is how the pricing should work to make sure you’re covering the costs,” says Miller Childs. “The prices the boxes were supposed to be selling for was very reasonable for the quality of beef.”
Miller Childs also planned to take 30kg of hind leg herself to make a special bresaola. “I was going to pick fresh herbs from the garden to make the cure, then people had the option to add on a few packs of the sliced bresaola to their box, and [Grey Lynn cafe] Ozone Coffee was going to take the bulk of the bresaola and highlight the collaboration on their menu.”
But it wasn’t to be. After backlash on social media, a petition to save the cows was launched and received 1500 signatures, leading to Kelmarna’s board of trustees pulling the pin.
“In light of the public response, the Kelmarna board of trustees can confirm that we have returned our cattle to Kelmarna, and are working with a sanctuary who has offered to look after them permanently,” read a statement on the Kelmarna Facebook page posted on Monday 10 June.
“I was disappointed, but of course I understood because it was getting so intense,” says Kelmarna garden manager Adrian Roche.
“It was a pretty well-orchestrated campaign and I hadn’t expected that. In hindsight you can go, ‘oh yeah’, but I was definitely surprised.”
He feels the opposition can be divided into two groups: firstly an animal activist/vegan network, and secondly a group of local people, many of whom eat meat, who had formed connections with the animals.
“What I find particularly disturbing about this situation is the willingness to publicise the slaughter of your companions,” wrote one Instagram commenter. “Kelmarna, you don’t have to do this. Selling their flesh might make you some money in the short term, but they can never get their lives back.”
Others commented how their children enjoyed patting the cows when they visited the farm, and were concerned about what they’d tell them when they returned to find the cows gone.
“They got bombarded,” says Hishon. “Which I just don’t understand. I’m sure there are some vegetarian and vegans that go to Kelmarna but to be anti slaughtering the cattle there for consumption is kind of the antithesis of what Kelmarna stands for. I think it’s a little bit narrow-minded, really.
“People need to understand that meat comes from a farm. If they can see the cow and understand that that gets processed and butchered into what goes onto their plates, then that’s a real positive experience for children,” he adds. “To have a connection with food just in the supermarket, that’s what we need to get away from. I think it’s a little bit ignorant.”
Miller Childs agrees. “I was disappointed in humanity, really. The comments they were getting, the complete lack of understanding of the food process. The people commenting weren’t all vegetarians, there were people commenting who ate meat who were like, ‘you should keep them as pets’.
“People don’t understand the time and money and energy that would go into keeping those animals alive longer, and the fact that those animals cannot stay alive in the gardens any longer because the area is not big enough.
“If people choose not to eat meat that’s totally their choice, but if you do choose to eat meat I think it’s really important to understand where it’s coming from and that it is an animal. If you’re not OK with the fact your meat comes from an animal, you should be vegetarian,” she says.
“I’m devastated by the fact that it’s not happening, because I feel like it would have been such a cool thing for the New Zealand meat industry for this to be seen as a successful way to farm and to get the community involved in where their food comes from.”
Roche says in the past, no one appeared to notice when cows came and went from Kelmarna, being sent off to the abattoir on reaching maturity.
“[This time] we were directly selling it to members of the public so it was quite a different scenario to when there were animals wandering around and then, ‘oh no, there’s not animals wandering around’, then a couple of months later, ‘oh, there’s animals wandering around’. We’re really actively engaging with our community, whereas previously we didn’t quite so much.
“Previously the stock would have gone off to the abattoir and turned into a sort of faceless commodity, but we wanted to make that direct link between people and places and food. We could’ve just sent it off to the abattoir and received a cheque and that would be it, but we’re trying to step out of the commodity system.
“We’re very explicit about our values of sustainability and local food and engaging with the community. We had a ton of support from people in the community – lots of people wanted to buy the meat and thought it was an awesome thing, that we were offering them meat that they had a connection to.
“But I guess the people shouting were shouting a lot more loudly and had a lot of vitriol in their campaign and were very focused on getting the result that they wanted, so just pushed and pushed.”
Now the cows aren’t being killed, the question is what to do with them. They can’t stay at Kelmarna as they are too large for the space. “The plan at the moment is they’ll be sent to a sanctuary in Canterbury,” says Roche, referring to the Til the Cows Come Home farm sanctuary in Rangiora, a vegan organisation that rescues bobby calves otherwise destined for death.
“We’d prefer if they didn’t go to Canterbury because that’s a long trip on a truck, but we’re not sure if there are other options available – it’s still being worked out.”
Roche says with the benefit of hindsight, Kelmarna should have been more explicit about why the cows were there from the outset. “We’re a farm, we’re not a vegan organisation. Here at the farm, 98% of our energy goes into plants, but in our understanding of sustainable systems, you have diversity.”
Miller Childs agrees. “One thing I think the gardens could have done a bit better is they could have had a sign that said ‘these are our cows, we’re raising them for food’ – to get people in that mindset in the beginning.
“Face up to it early on – we’re raising them for food, to be able to have ethically, sustainably raised meat as part of our overall focus of this organic garden.
“I want to encourage them not to give up, that this kind of backlash is natural,” she adds. “Whenever you’re doing something new and groundbreaking and changing the way people have thought about things, you’re always going to get backlash.”
Roche doesn’t rule out trying again, “but it’s been pretty bruising, so we won’t be rushing into it. We’d have to go through some sort of planning and consultation process before we did meat again, so that’s a discussion to be had in the near future.”
He says one positive has come out of the saga: it’s got people talking about where their food comes from. “That’s what we’re here for, to have these conversations. Looking for the silver linings, the conversation about meat is happening more and we’re here to play a role in that conversation.”