CopperTree Farms: Our Story
"A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” Greek Proverb
Having made a good living from stockbroking, corporate finance, corporate rehabilitation and venture capital, I arrived in Australia in January 2015, at the age of 45, with firm plans to retire. A plan, it turns out, at which I was most unsuccessful.
Instead, life set me on a new path, guided by brilliant people, to unknown destinations.
But before we discuss destinations, we should have a look at beginnings. And this is done by pulling together two threads: the one starts with Paul, the other with Hamish.
Shortly after my arrival in Australia, I needed some tax advice. Everyone I asked were agreed: see Paul Welch from PWC Sydney. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
In the spirit of retirement, I started to focus on the things I always had a passion for, but never had the time or opportunity to pursue. One of them was food: specifically “good food”.
I was immediately struck by the fact that beef in Australia is significantly more expensive than in South Africa. Voicing this to Paul, he wasted no time in arranging a roadshow so I could visit various abattoirs. This was the start of my education in the food space and agriculture and a quest to find the best possible beef.
By 2016 I wanted to start employing my newfound knowledge, and I got a hobby farm to aid me in my quest to bring the highest quality meat to the Australian market, at a reasonable price. We tried Angus beef, we considered Shorthorns, but it was after I read an article on the consumption of older animals in Spain, that we found the winner: well cared for dairy breeding cows. Though the meat was slightly tougher than the younger meat we were used to, we found that this could be remedied with optimal dry-ageing processes, resulting in superior taste.
In this search other factors that made food “good food” came to play. I questioned how terms like “organic” and “free range”, which are so indiscriminately bandied about, feature in the supply chain. Unfortunately, I found that these areas of food production aren’t as strictly regulated as one might expect, giving “free range” a much narrower range in practice.
I also learnt that people use water and fillers in their food products to increase yield. They are often in the business only to maximise profit, rather than to produce a premium product.
For me it is all about the flavour and creating the best products in their most natural form.
Another factor that I found fascinating was the number of intermediaries between the cow on the field and steak on your plate, which could be as high as 12.
This led me to believe that it is possible to get better quality meat to consumers by reducing the number of intermediaries involved, using a more sustainable food source and interfering less with the product. An approach that guides all we do at CopperTree.
Hamish Church is the second thread in the DNA of CopperTree’s evolution. I met Hamish in February 2016 when he was still with UBS Wealth Management, just before he moved to Crestone Wealth Management.
In teaching me about the creation and preservation of wealth for generations to come, he gave me the book Family Wealth in which the author, James E Hughes, uses the copper beech tree as a metaphor.
Planting a copper beech tree, which takes decades to mature requires a certain kind of foresight and gumption. A young tree needs someone to look after it while it is vulnerable to the elements. And a fully grown tree will require protection against other threats, such as being taken down to make way for a new development.
In his book, Hughes tells the story of Marshal Lyautey, a notable French general. Looking out over his estate, he noticed that he had no copper beech trees and asked his gardener why this was so. The gardener indignantly replied that they took a hundred and fifty years to grow. Without hesitation, Lyautey said, “Then we must plant today—we have no time to waste.”
The following quote from Family Wealth sums it up best: “To embark on long-term wealth preservation is an act of extraordinary courage for a family, like the planting of a copper beech tree, since the family members who initiate the process will never know whether they were ultimately successful. If you are courageous and you want to be a wealth creator in the most profound sense, get started. There is no time to waste.”
But what does all this have to do with CopperTree? This approach to wealth creation is mirrored in CopperTree’s ethos. We believe that the only long-term, sustainable approach to food production must include maximising the farmer’s return on his investment. Undervaluing the farmer’s contribution will ultimately lead to lower and lower quality and more shortcuts. This is unacceptable to CopperTree. We believe that, like the planting of copper trees, investment in good quality farming today will immeasurably aid our society of tomorrow.
Hamish introduced me to some of the best dairy farmers in Australia. In August 2019 CopperTree concluded an agreement to secure retired Holstein Friesian Dairy Cattle. The more mature beef, combined with our dry-aging, resulted in a superior product. Our meat is now on the menus of the best restaurants across Australia.
CopperTree has, in a short period, graduated also to ancillary food production. Our association with the dairy farmers gave us access to unadulterated raw ingredients to make butter. In 2021 CopperTree Farms launched it cultured butter product range – made using traditional French methods that develop a natural acidity to balance out the rich creaminess. We have partnered with some of Australia’s best chefs, including Neil Perry, Corey Costelloe and Mark Best, to create our Chef’s Series range of flavoured butters, bringing a touch of luxury to the home cook.
So, is this where the story ends? I don’t think so. I view it more as a pitstop on a continuous journey towards building a legacy of superior foods using traditional methods of farming and food production.