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