01 March 2002
By JON MORGAN
Shelley Thomsen finds that powdered deer velvet helps her cope with multiple sclerosis by raising her energy levels. So it is just as well she and her husband Clint own the deer that provide the velvet.
They farm deer and cattle on a 164-hectare farm at Takapau that has been in the Thomsen family since 1902, and run Gevir (Danish for velvet), their farm-based business that produces powdered velvet for New Zealand pharmacies and health food shops as well as exports to the United States, Britain, Australia, the Philippines, Taiwan and China.
Mrs Thomsen was diagnosed with MS 20 years ago, just as she and her husband were running a fish and chip shop in Takapau to earn extra money to buy the family farm that Mr Thomsen was managing in partnership with his father Bruce. He had not long before decided to diversify into deer, starting with 13 helicopter-captured red deer from the South Island.
Powdered velvet was unheard of in New Zealand then, so Mrs Thomsen boiled up antlers in her kitchen to make drinks. "It was so disgusting," she says. "The stench was so strong it drove you outside to get away from it." After two years she felt better and was glad to stop.
But four years later, in the midst of a hard, rainy winter caring for 350 calves, her MS returned with a vengeance. She returned home from two weeks in hospital determined to make her own powdered velvet. Twelve years on, Gevir is a thriving business. Up to the past three years its earnings – on turnover of $350,000 to $400,000 a year – have carried the farm through tough times.
Research has shown deer velvet contains cell function regulators that play a key role in the body's response to injury, inflammation, infection and pain, and the skin care protein collagen. However, Mrs Thomsen emphasises that deer velvet is not a wonder cure for MS – she uses it as part of a health programme involving exercise, diet and vitamins.
The move into deer in the early 1980s was timed just right. The price of hinds shot up to $3500 a head, in comparison with just $200 for stags. "It made sexing the fawns at weaning time very exciting," Mr Thomsen says. Those heady days have gone and it is stag fawns that are worth more now – averaging $650 to the hinds' $350.
The last of the farm's sheep were sold 10 years ago and Mr Thomsen reckons his workload dropped 70 per cent. "No flystrike, dagging, crutching, shearing or drenching, it was a big relief," he says. Freezing work strikes were also a worry at the time and wool prices were falling. Now a head of velvet, at about $600, is equal to the value of a bale of wool, and is a lot easier to harvest.
Beef prices are making his cattle
more attractive, plus they are doing a good job on pasture management.
This year he will scale back his deer herd to 550 from 700 and increase
his cattle from 400 to 500. He buys eight-month-old heifers, fattens them
through winter, then sells them in spring to make room for the new fawns.
(c) Independent Newspapers Ltd