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By Brenda Webb

Marlborough high-country farmer Darren Clifford knew that the wild animals running on his Avon Valley block had potential. In a province where food and wine had always been valued, he realised that he was in a position to capitalise.

‘We’ve got this renewable resource right here,’ he says.  ‘Wild venison is such an amazing meat, it’s lean, it hasn’t been drenched, it’s completely natural and it fits that model that people now want – to know where their food comes from.  The same goes for rabbit, hare and goat – goat is a fantastic meat and restaurants increasingly want it.’

Local supplier Premium Game fitted his philosophy perfectly and so Darren, with his brother Nick, bought the company, which supplies high-quality wild venison, goat, rabbit, pork and hare all around the country. ‘I feel strongly that every family in New Zealand should have the opportunity to taste these wild meats.’ A growing client list includes high-end stores and restaurants including Moore Wilson and Logan Brown, along with home cooks who want to add leaner and tastier meat to their repertoire.

More than 60 MPI-certified hunters supply meat to Premium Game, including Darren and Nick who are themselves keen hunters.  Animals supplied to Premium Game are checked by a meat inspector to ensure they are healthy and suitable to enter the human food supply chain, before being professionally butchered. The bulk of the hunting is done on private land with the landowners’ permission, and the species taken are seen as pests detrimental to the farm or to the native environment. Most hunters have a long-term relationship with farmers. Conservation is key, and both Premium Game and hunters seek to ensure the resource is not depleted.

For Darren, the company fits perfectly with his vision of Marlborough, as a gourmet food destination, not just a wine region. ‘Sure, it’s the viticulture that is bringing people in here, but they are seeing what we have to offer and we have chefs using and promoting local produce,’ he says. ‘We have such a massive opportunity in Marlborough to build a story from the land up – letting people know exactly where their produce is coming from by connecting them with the land or, as in the case of Cloudy Bay Clams, with the sea.’

Darren grew up in Marlborough and remembers his mother buying produce from roadside stalls.  ‘There was one we went to in Muller Rd and we’d grab the produce off the back of the tractor as it was driving in,’ he says. At 18 he found himself with ‘absolutely nothing’, and, determined to make something of his life, worked as an apprentice apiarist before taking up truck driving to help fulfil his aim of starting his own honey business. Over the years, it morphed into the very successful Taylor Pass Honey, benefiting from the manuka honey wave. Then he sold the company to realise his lifetime ambition of buying a farm.

Darren has a passion for the province and for food, and loves building businesses and teams of people. He also has an eye for opportunity and runs a hunting lodge on his Avon Valley farm, and a corporate retreat in hunting downtime.

In the past 10 years he’s been astonished at the variety and quality of products becoming available in Marlborough and of the food in its cafes and restaurants. ‘There is just so much wonderful produce on offer in Marlborough – lamb, rabbit, venison, goat cheese, black garlic, clams – and they all have such a cool story.  I get really excited when I see the direction Marlborough is heading as a world-class food and wine destination.’

The revival of roadside stalls delights him and he applauds smaller producers who are using land for crops other than grapes. ‘I think we are going to see smaller areas not suited for grapes being used for production of niche crops,’ he says.  ‘I believe there is a real opportunity for people to build food businesses that sit nicely amongst the vineyards.’

Darren has seen a shift in recent years in the way people, particularly younger people, perceive food.  They don’t want it over-packaged or over-processed, and provenance is important – they want to know where the food was produced and the story behind it. ‘People are far more aware and discerning about what they put down their throats and of course it always tastes better if you know the story about where it came from and the sustainability of the product and how it was treated and packaged,’ he says.

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