One Foot in Front of the Other / From ur­ban liv­ing to chaff cut­ting, meet The Chaff Chaps

Latitude Magazine - - CONTENTS - WORDS Ruth En­twistle Low IMAGES Mark Low

As the say­ing goes, when life gives you lemons, make le­mon­ade. And that is ex­actly what Broad­field cou­ple Chris Reddell and Adele Allport found them­selves hav­ing to do when their foray into mush­room farm­ing was up­ended after the first of the Christchur­ch quakes. In fact, if one were to mea­sure just how much metaphor­i­cal le­mon­ade this re­silient cou­ple have made in the last nine years, it is likely they could fill a swim­ming pool.

On the out­skirts of Christchur­ch, down the end of a long stony drive, around the back of what were once mush­room grow­ing sheds, Chris Reddell is busy with his staff cut­ting and pack­ag­ing chaff, to fill ever-grow­ing or­ders for The Chaff Chaps’ chaff. A bale of hay is loaded at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals on to a parked cur­tain-sider trailer that acts as the plat­form to feed the ever-hun­gry ‘state-of-the-art’ 1910 An­drews & Beaven Com­mon­wealth chaff cut­ter. The cen­tu­ry­old in­dus­trial ma­chine chomps through the grass quickly, and bags, po­si­tioned care­fully to swal­low the fin­ished prod­uct, are fre­quently changed, weighed, sealed and stored be­fore be­ing de­liv­ered to stock­ists of horse feed around the coun­try. The put­ter­ing and whirring noise of the 990 David Brown Case diesel trac­tor driv­ing the cut­ter, by belts and wheels, leaves lit­tle op­por­tu­nity for chat­ter be­tween the small team of three. There is noth­ing high tech about the process, but the qual­ity of this prod­uct is en­sur­ing that The Chaff Chaps is be­gin­ning to grow its mar­ket share.

De­vel­op­ing a chaff cut­ting busi­ness was not on the agenda when Chris Reddell and wife, Adele Allport, moved from Auck­land to a 10-acre block on the edge of Christchur­ch with their two young boys, Joel and Thomas. They were leav­ing bigc­ity liv­ing to be­come mush­room farm­ers, but just four weeks after their mon­u­men­tal move the first of the Christchur­ch earth­quakes struck. When Chris braved en­ter­ing the mush­room shed on 4 Septem­ber 2010, he dis­cov­ered that six out of nine grow­ing rooms had col­lapsed in on each other like a large set of domi­noes. Adele can look back now with a smile and recog­nise the irony in the sit­u­a­tion. The cou­ple were fac­ing a steep learn­ing curve get­ting to grips with their new ven­ture and Chris had just said the night be­fore the quake, ‘I think I’m get­ting my head round this.’

In­stead of de­vel­op­ing Broad­field Mush­rooms, the cou­ple found them­selves left won­der­ing how on earth they were go­ing to sal­vage a busi­ness from the ru­ins. To say they felt over­whelmed would be an un­der­state­ment; in a new com­mu­nity, know­ing no one, with two young boys to set­tle into school, Adele heav­ily preg­nant with now nine-year-old Olivia, and with Chris’ par­ents close at hand but of an age where they were un­able to as­sist, all they could do was put one foot in front of the other. It wasn’t just the busi­ness left in tat­ters – Adele re­mem­bers it be­ing ‘the whole suc­ces­sion; a brand new baby, and then an­other earth­quake and then Chris’ fa­ther dy­ing, then the snow col­laps­ing the roof that fol­low­ing

win­ter, that had been earth­quake dam­aged and… you just had to keep mov­ing for­ward oth­er­wise the al­ter­na­tive wasn’t any good and I guess we’re both pretty de­ter­mined…’

Those less de­ter­mined would have im­me­di­ately walked away from the wreck­age, but for nearly six years Chris and Adele doggedly bat­tled on, at­tempt­ing ev­ery which way to res­cue the busi­ness. Even go­ing to the ex­tent of cran­ing in seven 40-foot re­frig­er­ated con­tain­ers to act as grow­ing rooms for por­to­bello mush­rooms while they grap­pled with new busi­ness mod­els, new shed plans, bat­tling the bank and an un­en­vi­able pile of in­sur­ance pa­per­work. In 2013, with money tight, they made the de­ci­sion to stop grow­ing but­ton and por­to­bello mush­rooms and be­gan grow­ing higher value oys­ter mush­rooms. One of their staff mem­bers had the req­ui­site knowl­edge to help them es­tab­lish this new crop and, sur­pris­ingly, it was this crop that led the cou­ple onto their ven­ture with chaff.

Un­like the but­ton and por­to­bello mush­rooms, the oys­ter mush­rooms needed short straw to grow in. So, Chris jokes he found him­self try­ing all man­ner of ways to cut his wheat straw into suit­able lengths. ‘Un­til fi­nally one day an old guy came past, he was look­ing to buy some mush­room com­post from us, and I was prob­a­bly sit­ting out there with a pair of scis­sors is my guess cos he asked me what I was do­ing. I ex­plained to him what I was do­ing, and he said, “Chris, what you need is a chaff cut­ter.”’ As a townie, Chris didn’t even know what a chaff cut­ter was, so he found him­self on yet an­other learn­ing curve.

After this rev­e­la­tion, Chris found some­one to cut their wheat straw and then went search­ing for their own chaff cut­ter. When they bought their ‘new’ ma­chine their wheat chaff sup­plier helped get it up and run­ning and taught Chris how to cut chaff. Chris’ sup­plier also men­tioned there was a gap in the mar­ket for chaff, par­tic­u­larly ti­mothy grass ‘by far the best grass for horses’ and en­cour­aged Chris to start a chaff

The Chaff Chaps has ex­panded to also sup­ply lucerne, oaten and meadow chaff as well; each grass pro­vides a var­ied bal­ance of pro­tein and fi­bre, which matches the pref­er­ences of horse own­ers.

cut­ting busi­ness. His part­ing shot, how­ever, was that there was no ti­mothy grass around. Not eas­ily de­terred, Chris be­gan in­ves­ti­gat­ing. At the end of 2014 they had their first ship­ment of ti­mothy grass from a source in South­land and The Chaff Chaps was born. Their mar­ket edge – they were the only chaff busi­ness in the coun­try sell­ing ti­mothy grass.

In the early stages the neigh­bour­ing fam­ily came on board as part­ners. Rob, with an en­gi­neer­ing back­ground, fo­cused on the main­te­nance and run­ning of the el­derly ma­chine while Chris fo­cused on tak­ing the prod­uct to mar­ket. It was a low-key start. ‘We’d get to­gether as two fam­i­lies, we would have one-hour morn­ing tea breaks – do a lit­tle bit of cut­ting, prob­a­bly do a lot of eat­ing, do a bit of kid wran­gling, it was quite so­cial but there was not a lot of pressure on us to cut lots be­cause we didn’t have a lot of peo­ple to buy it. And then as the busi­ness grew it got to a point where ac­tu­ally the fam­i­lies do­ing it was no longer go­ing to work.’

Tak­ing on part-time staff was a big com­mit­ment, and still jug­gling grow­ing oys­ter mush­rooms, some­thing had to give. In 2016, with an in­sur­ance pay-out that wasn’t go­ing to cover a re­build, the tough de­ci­sion was made to leave the mush­rooms be­hind and to fo­cus on grow­ing the chaff busi­ness. Adele, who had gone back teach­ing to help with fi­nances, re­mem­bers it not be­ing easy. ‘It was a dif­fi­cult step though, it felt like a fail­ure, it felt like we hadn’t suc­ceeded in pick­ing it back up again. It was what we had come here to do, and we just couldn’t do it be­cause of cir­cum­stances…’

Look­ing back Chris says, ‘I can’t think of a par­tic­u­lar time where we sat down and said let’s go chaff cut­ting – it evolved.’ While the piv­otal change to cut­ting chaff may have just evolved due to the quake, Chris has been very de­lib­er­ate in grow­ing The Chaff Chaps at a sus­tain­able level. As he ap­proached stock­ists with the ti­mothy grass, the re­cur­ring theme was ‘Can you guar­an­tee sup­ply?’ With that in mind, Chris has been in­tent on grow­ing the busi­ness at a rate they can main­tain, en­sur­ing those early cus­tomers had a guar­an­teed sup­ply of ti­mothy grass while only tak­ing on new clients as they were able. Ini­tially, fo­cus was on sup­ply­ing ti­mothy grass, but now The Chaff Chaps has ex­panded to also sup­ply lucerne, oaten and meadow chaff as well; each grass pro­vides a var­ied bal­ance of pro­tein and fi­bre, which matches the pref­er­ences of horse own­ers.

Chris draws in­sight from his univer­sity study in com­mu­ni­ca­tion man­age­ment and mar­ket­ing, but it is his re­tail ex­pe­ri­ence that he con­sid­ers his greater ad­van­tage. ‘I came out of a re­tail back­ground, so I wasn’t afraid of the end-cus­tomer and ac­tu­ally I like that in­ter­ac­tion…’ Lis­ten­ing to the needs of the end-user is cen­tral to The Chaff Chaps’ phi­los­o­phy and Chris and Adele en­joy meet­ing cus­tomers when they at­tend Equi­days and A&P shows. Spon­sor­ing events and the in­no­va­tive in­tro­duc­tion of the two-kilo­gram sam­ple bag of ti­mothy grass has been an easy way to en­sure more cus­tomers try and, ul­ti­mately, re­quest stock­ists to carry The Chaff Chaps’ prod­ucts.

As de­mand grows, Chris faces the is­sue that all small busi­ness own­ers share: the bal­anc­ing of mul­ti­ple roles. ‘I need to grow the busi­ness, I need to cut the chaff, I need to get it out the door and I need to de­liver it and I need to main­tain the ma­chine and I need to do the pa­per­work…’ In­vari­ably, Chris finds him­self dragged into ur­gent tasks rather than hav­ing the time to step back to plan and think. De­spite these strug­gles and the knowl­edge there is still a lot of work ahead of them, Chris re­mains up­beat. He knows when the time is right he will take on more staff. In the mean­time, there is sat­is­fac­tion in know­ing that The Chaff Chaps’ prod­ucts are recog­nised for their qual­ity, and as a re­sult the busi­ness is grow­ing.

ABOVE / Kyran Ayson (left) and Chris Reddell feed­ing in the hay. There is an art in know­ing just how much to feed the chaff cut­ter; too much grass and the ma­chine be­comes clogged, too lit­tle and pro­duc­tion for the day is slowed.

TOP / A once un­used shed has be­come the per­fect stor­age shed for The Chaff Chaps' ti­mothy grass. MID­DLE / Chris ex­am­ines freshly cut ti­mothy grass. BOT­TOM / From left to right: Thomas, Chris, Olivia and Adele with bags of their chaff. Re­spond­ing to the re­quests of their cus­tomers The Chaff Chaps have moved to us­ing more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly pa­per bags.

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