At lunchtime on Thursday afternoon Steve Binnie was busy.
He wasn't on the 8000-acre family farm at Mirannie Station, 30 clicks north of Singleton in the Hunter Valley in NSW.
But he was hands-on, building a beautiful nine-metre timber table inside the space that he has been adapting to become the "Binnie Beef Warehouse" on the western edge of downtown Newcastle.
While the Binnies combined with others to buy the Newcastle building at 144 Parry Street a few years ago, taken by the fact that it used to be the office of the AA Company, they never imagined it as a retail outlet for their wagyu beef product. It was renovated for offices upstairs, with plans for a retail client in the spacious ground floor.
But, COVID-19 changed that.
In the last five years, Steve and his wife Liz had invested invested heavily in the wagyu beef industry, as breeders (with 1000 head) and for beef (turning 600 to 700 carcases a year).
Creating the company Delta Wagyu Genetics, they established a record of success with top breeding bulls and exporting straws (frozen semen) to all corners of the globe.
Raising wagyu cattle for beef is a different exercise. While using the genetics of their own breeding stock created a quality product, the business is still tied to vagaries of the cattle industry, such as the price of feed rising from $170 a tonne to $480 tonne. The wagyu beef cattle are on feed for 400 days to obtain the famous marbling that makes them so nutritious and valuable - there are no shortcuts.
Then came the COVID-19 shock: "Shanghai port shut. That really hurt us," Steve says. "Then the US and Europe."
Perhaps there was a moment of panic, but over several conversations I had with Steve and Liz since late March, there was never a sense of that.
"You gotta keep moving," Steve says. "You can't sweat what's gone in the past, you keep moving. You make decisions for now and the future, not decisions for a history that's gone. That was then, this is now. What are my resources, what is my skill set. Let's go."
You gotta keep moving. You can't sweat what's gone in the past, you keep moving. You make decisions for now and the future, not decisions for a history that's gone. That was then, this is now. What are my resources, what is my skill set. Let's go.Steve Binnie
While farming might seem like a slow and stable existence to people looking from a distance, or not looking at all, that's not the reality. Things change all the time - prices, weather, demand, etc.
"Volatility is our wheelhouse," Liz says.
"Welcome to our world," Steve says. "This is part of being in agriculture."
In 1835 Captain Alan Bennie established Binnie Wholesaddleries on George Street, Sydney. In 1898 family member Richard Bennie purchased the then 20,000-acre Mirannie Station in the Hunter Valley. The family bred draft horses used to haul wagons for bakeries and breweries, and eventually cattle, establishing an award-winning herd of Hereford cattle.
The property was split in 1935 into two 8000-acre farms ("One brother drew on a map where the divide would be, the other brother chose which side he wanted. It worked out well. No angst," Steve says.)
Eventually, one of those farms was passed to Steve's dad, Nigel, and Nigel's brother, Richard. The brothers bought another property and it was split.
"We've been through a succession period. Nigel has passed. We've been managing it for a period. It's ours to look after. It will become ours after a period. It is not, 'here's the silver spoon'. It is you work hard, you commit, and the rewards are there."
Steve worked the farm with his dad Nigel throughout his youth, eventually attending boarding school in Sydney and coming back to work the property every school holiday. When Nigel became unwell, Steve and Liz - who met at university in Sydney and settled in the city - moved to the property to help.
"When dad fell ill, we walked away from our careers, went straight into managing Mirannie," Steve says.
Liz, a city girl from the northern suburbs of Sydney who had a good marketing job, had no hesitation with the life change. Steve had a commerce degree, focusing on finance and accounting.
The idyllic property has a life of its own, with a rich family history and well-kept paddocks and dwellings.
"You can see nothing there but love went into it. Every fence, every brick , every part of that property is 100 per cent loved. There is a romantic connection, no doubt about it," Steve says. "There is an emotional connection to the land. We love it, it loves us."
Steve and Liz came to Mirannie around 2003 and Steve worked with his dad (who recovered with a pacemaker installed). "We did it dad's way for five years," Steve says. "In his words, it was the highlight of his career to work with me. It was a highlight for me, old school. It was about respecting his knowledge, all the years he put in."
One thing that did change was the cattle. It was run as a hereford stud, and the breed had truly gone out of fashion.
In 2011 then prime minister Julia Gillard caused huge upheaval in the cattle world when she banned live exports of Australian cattle to Indonesia. Suddenly cattle from the Northern Territory were being sent to feedlots in southern states, and it meant no space for local cattle - during a drought.
"So there was two years of production coming out of the north, and a drought here so we couldn't sell the cattle, so it was at that at point we realised we had to move away from herefords," Steve says.
So Steve and Liz created a private equity firm with a Hong Kong-based partner.
The company combined the Binnies' agricultural experience and intellectual property with their partner's structure and access to capital. Despite extensive research and several deals on the table, the Binnies "never pulled the trigger" on buying any huge cattle properties because the cost of capital was too high.
The partnership combined the Binnies' agricultural experience and intellectual property with their partner's structure and access to capital. Despite extensive research and several deals on the table, the Binnies "never pulled the trigger" on buying any huge cattle properties because the cost of capital was too high.
"The debt facility was too high." Steve says. "It would have worked, but that's history. We are very conservative and we didn't want to lose our property."
That's the bottom line for Steve and Liz: they would never bet the farm.
"It's our farm," Steve says. "We are custodians of that land for as long as we are on this earth. And then we'll pass it on."
It's our farm. We are custodians of that land for as long as we are on this earth. And then we'll pass it on.Steve Binnie
The Hong Kong partnership did not result in a deal, but it gave them a huge amount of business experience, and the confidence that goes with that.
They did take a leap on getting out of herefords and into the wagyu business five years ago.
"Once we started eating wagyu, we realised how much better the product was," Steve says.
"There is no way this product won't continue to gain market share because the product is so far superior to anything else."
They made it a giant leap, committing big-time to the fast-rising breed.
"We superovulated the wagyu full bloods, synchronised the cycling of the whitefaced-herefords," Steve says. "We implanted the ovaluated embryos out of the full bloods into the herefords and changed our breed overnight without having to buy them."
The science and numbers of wagyu fitted Steve's brain for math perfectly.
"You can go for the absolutely best of the best genetics, by using IVF," he says. "So you can take one straw of semen off the best bull in the world, and you can produce 50 calves from one straw. The next generation from the best bull in the world, 50 of them, in one year. And so you can leapfrog your genetic gains, right to the top of the tree, if you start with the best of the best."
He preaches what he practised.
"It goes back to carcases, and marbling. It is all data driven," he says. "It's all about how much money is that set of genetics delivering to the farmer in the cool room. How much yield. What is the size of the cube roll (scotch fillet, the highest value cut). It is all directly linked to profitability."
So losing the bulk of their Chinese wagyu export market hasn't caused any more sleepless nights than they would have had thinking about their next move, their next innovation, next idea anyway.
"For us, China has been pretty painful," Steve says on Thursday while working on construction converting the lower floor of the building they own at 144 Parry Street into Binnie Beef Warehouse.
As for regaining that business in China, he says without hesitation, "I have a solution for it, so I'm not concerned.They can do whatever they want and our customers will be served just fine ... I'm not too concerned.
"Where there is pain, where there is trouble, there's always opportunities."
For the past 10 weeks they've been working on the new outlet, the concept store. While they are open from 9am to 5pm weekdays for walk-in customers, they have refined their plan, creating a chef's kitchen and large tasting room, so they can offer cooking classes that end in an excellent feed.
The new plan allows them to educate consumers on how to prepare and cook wagyu, and provide a tasting experience, which can end with purchase of product right there.
The conversion should be ready by the end of June. And cooking classes will start soon after. Meanwhile, they have taken on staff and are committed to selling a lot more of that export-quality beef right here in Australia.
"With China pinging all night on We Chat, it was running us ragged," Liz says of the time spent working with the extremely tough negotiating Chinese buyers. "We didn't have time to sell it here. It's been a refresh button. We have doubled down with the store, the concept store."
And while the family has a home in New Lambton and their children (Adelaide, Campbell, Willber and Benny) attend St Philips Christian College, their real home is still at Mirannie, where they spend one or two nights a week and most weekends.
"They are still farmers," Liz says. "If there is something important, like IVF, they need to be there. That's their future, it's important they learn how to do it."