LIKE most farming families, fourth-generation wool producers, Andrew and Helen Ferrier, always had a "killer" in the paddock - a sheep earmarked for the family pot.
But it wasn't until the wool industry slump six or seven years ago that the Stanthorpe couple began considering raising fat lambs as another source of income.
"I was having health problems with chemical sensitivities and we were having issues finding organic produce. This got me started down the path of organics," Helen says.
It didn't take long for the couple to start raising their own lambs organically.
FILLING A NICHE
NOW their property Mallow, about 20 minutes west of Ballandean, sustains between 800 and 900 lambs and is almost at capacity.
"We think of ourselves as a niche producer," says Helen, adding the conversion process to organics was pretty gruelling. Auditing continues after accreditation.
Monitoring ranges from samples of fat being examined to portions of soil being taken away and checked for chemicals and additives.
"Consumers can relax. The checks and balances are in place. The ACO (Australian Certified Organic) is very thorough," she says.
LAST year some of the couple's hard work paid off and Mallow Organic Farm was named as a finalist in delicious magazine's Produce Awards.
Helen says even she has been surprised by the taste and tenderness of the lamb meat raised on nutrient-dense pastures. Their distribution network is also growing. Initially it was just private orders through word of mouth and a stall at the local markets.
Now their lamb is being stocked at organic butchers on the Gold and Sunshine coasts. Several Granite Belt restaurants feature the meat on their menus.
The farm will also make drops to Brisbane on request.
BUT the pair is certainly not resting on their laurels.
"It can easily go pear-shaped for producers. It's not for the faint-hearted. But once you've started you can't stop because you have a lot of balls in the air," Helen says. "Particularly if you're adamant about product quality like we are."
Unlike some farms, the Ferriers don't buy in lambs so they are in complete control of the chain from conception, which assures them of quality.
"We try to keep produce prices reasonable but organic lamb is expensive to produce. Ethical and sustainable food production comes at a cost."
Helen says its also crucial to cultivate the right mindset. "Andrew struggled for a few years. As a conventional farmer, if there was a problem, the answer was to put a chemical on it. But there are many different ways to get your soil healthy and balanced. The biggest thing is to get the thinking right."
This year's delicious. magazine Produce Awards dinner will be held at Aria Brisbane on July 16. It heralds the start of Delectable Queensland, a new fortnight-long food festival. More information from delectableqld.com.au and mallow.net.au
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN ORGANIC
LAMB Organic pasture-fed lamb fat should have a yellow tinge and not be too white. White fat can mean the lamb has been grain-fed.
Lamb flesh shouldn't be too pale, says Andrew Ferrier. If it's pale it may be "watery". If the meat is very dark it could mean you're buying hogget rather than lamb, which should be cheaper and has a stronger flavour.
Fat is necessary for flavour and keeping meat moist and tender while cooking. On loin chops it should be 6-8mm thick. If it's 10-12mm it's a sign the lamb is over-fat. Lamb legs need to have a decent fat cover for best roasting results.
You may not be able to poke at plastic-covered lamb cuts at the supermarket, so Andrew suggests buying meat from a specialist butcher where you can build the trust. Texture-wise there should be some resistance to your finger but not too much.
Look at the rib bones on a rack or cutlets. They should not be too thick on premium cuts - no more than 8mm in width. If they are 10mm it's a sign you could be buying hogget rather than lamb.