Fourteen years ago, city boy Chris Balazs left his busy life in Melbourne and immersed himself in the world of beef farming, just outside Geelong.
Chris and his sister, Gen, who has a farm on the other side of Bannockburn, started with Hereford cattle that were sold to saleyards.
Four years ago, tired of the poor returns, the pair decided to take matters into their own hands. They started a “paddock to plate” farming company.
They took control of every aspect of the supply chain – from breeding and farming to butchering, processing and selling to consumers, in doing so cutting down the distance their meat has to travel.
The business was initially known as SageBeef, but has recently been rebranded SageChoice, reflecting the addition of lamb to its range. From the start, Chris and Gen aimed to supply premium meat to family and friends and a couple of farmers’ markets.
“We started doing one [beast] a month. Jump forward four years and we are now in five stores throughout Geelong,” Chris says. “We go to five farmers’ markets, we have an online shop, we have a butcher who works for us and we have our own processing facility on the farm and our own cattle trucks.”
SageChoice has a base of local customers who bypass supermarkets to buy direct from the farmer. Driving this trend are consumers who want to know where their meat has come from and who are becoming increasingly conscious of the ethical treatment of the animals.
Michelle Berry, a mother of four, has bought from Chris since SageBeef’s early days. She spends $200-$300 a month on a range of cuts that includes roasts, mince, cutlets and diced meat.
“You absolutely can taste the difference,” Michelle says. “I’ve got a lot of friends who have become part of Chris’s farming network. We know that Chris really believes in the ethical treatment of the animals and the other farmers believe in it. It’s their way of life. It’s not just about making profit.”
An important focus for SageChoice is the ethical treatment of its animals. The cattle are raised in stress-free environments.
Chris says a cow faces six stress points in its life – birth, weaning, transport, saleyards, feedlots and the abattoirs.
“We remove two of them,” he says. “Our cattle never go to saleyards and they don’t go into feedlots. We do what’s called passive weaning (calves stay in their herds and their mothers have time to naturally wean). We have our own transport truck and do all of the transport ourselves.”
Feedlots – where dozens of cows are crowded into a confined space and consume a high-energy feed, rather than grass, to maximise their growth – are never used for SageChoice cattle.
“It was only when I started to get poor returns from the saleyards that I investigated what others were doing and realised what other large supply chains do to get the cheapest possible price in the quickest possible time,” Chris says. “They forget they are dealing with living animals.”
An important part of the paddock-to-plate concept is ethical eating.
“The plate side of it is where we strongly advocate ethical eating and the concept of being a conscious carnivore,” he says. “It’s about people making active decisions about what type of meat they eat.”
Chris says an Australian meat industry focus on cuts such as eye fillet and scotch fillet means there’s lots of wastage.
“There’s this whole status symbol around those particular cuts and they constitute only about 7 per cent of the animal,” he says.
“There’s 93 per cent that ends up as hamburgers or really budget cut meat.”
Public education is a big driver and challenge for SageChoice.
“We do a lot of advocating of different cuts, things like osso buco, brisket and diced chuck, which in the Australian cuisine are considered a poor man’s cuts,” Chris says. “In Europe, these are actually highly sought-after cuts of meat.”
SageChoice has a network of eight local beef farmers and six lamb farmers, called Sage Farmers, who supply beef and lamb. Sage Farmers and Angus breeders Leanne and Rowan Broad are heading into their third season with SageChoice.
For Leanne, who is based just out of Inverleigh, it is pleasing to see their meat sold locally. The emphasis on the importance of “tip to tail” consumption is also welcome.
“When we buy meat back off Chris, we get half of the cow back and we use every bit of it,” she says. “People need to realise it’s not a resource that is endless.”