By Innes Moffat, CEO of Deer Industry New Zealand
DEER farming is one of New Zealand’s biggest little industries. We’re heavyweights when it comes to deer velvet production and our venison is eaten in restaurants all over the world – particularly in European countries with strong hunting traditions.
But as was the case with a lot of other industries, covid kicked our butts when restaurant trade globally ground to a halt. Prices for our venison halved between 2019 and 2020, and prime cuts sat unsold in freezers.
However, the silver lining of that cloud comes from the hard graft done by our marketers to forge new revenue streams and expand the markets for NZ venison. As a result, the industry has a better spread of markets today than it had before, and prices to farmers are well above the long-term average, at just under $9 /kg.
It’s well-known business wisdom to never plan strategy in a crisis, but we are out of the pandemic woods now, so to speak, and it’s time for the industry to set its sights on the future.
My job is to put our farmers’ levies to work on key priorities.
The deer industry is working hard to market itself abroad to create greater demand for our product. In particular, marketers have developed a North American retail programme to get products into supermarkets – tough customers. This requires ongoing investment if we want to see repeat purchases and increased sales.
Venison in North America is regarded as a natural meat because it is not intensively farmed. The work we do with marketing and export companies is directed at assisting the promotion of their brands to grow those micro-niches of consumers who want naturally raised, lean and healthy red meat.
Our deer are raised primarily in the high country and are finished on low-country pasture. They are grass-fed and processed at a young age with full traceability. High in iron, and rich in macronutrients, it’s a superpower food. This is the story we are telling.
Deer velvet is another major success story for our industry. NZ is the largest producer globally, despite our tiny size. We export over $100 million worth of deer velvet a year – a third of total industry exports. We are, in fact, a velvet “superpower”.
Velvet is most commonly viewed as a traditional ingredient in Chinese medicine due to the collection of extraordinary compounds found in this self-regenerating tissue; it’s increasingly used in South Korea and China in foods or as a health supplement.
Products like drinks, pastes and chews are sold for a high unit price and are taken on a daily basis. Velvet is used to treat a wide variety of conditions, but mostly as preventative medicine to promote energy and boost immune health.
Deer Industry NZ is supporting those health food companies and some of the pharmaceutical companies producing products using NZ deer velvet, which is recognised for its food safety credentials and animal welfare standards.
There’s huge potential for NZ deer products around the world.
But current government policy settings, as for most other farmers, are something of an overwhelming proposition. It’s not the direction of travel – our farmers take responsibility for their impact on the environment and emissions – but sometimes it feels like a freight train is coming at us, with a pace and scale of changes that are unmanageable for most farmers.
Stock exclusion rules are a good example of this, as are putting trees on hill country farms. Step land is great for deer and is an efficient way of producing high-quality, nutrient-dense food.
Deer fencing is a costly business, and more expensive than sheep and beef fencing at between $25, 000 and $30,000 a kilometre. The requirement to fence all streams is not always the best solution, particularly when the sector has already developed alternative management systems that reduce the impact of deer on water quality.
As an industry, we accept that waterways need protecting but would like the flexibility to attend to the situation on a case-by-case basis.
Similarly, the current urge and regulatory drivers to plant up much of our hill country with pine often feels blinkered and ideological. The price we pay as a country is losing productive farmland, along with the native biodiversity that occurs on these properties.
Putting a price on emissions when no commercially realistic mitigations exist simply forces farmers to abandon the land in favour of pines, especially at the prices being offered – one only needs to peruse the decisions made by the Overseas Investment Office on a regular basis to see the number of farms going up for sale. Sadly, we are losing key farming infrastructure that’s unlikely to ever be rebuilt.
NZ is well suited to deer farming. Our breeding hinds do very well in hill country. We provide high-quality, nutrient-dense, natural food to markets that are willing to pay a premium for that. This is a more balanced use of land than monocultural forestry.
Deer farming brings diversity to our farming landscape. The future is bright if we can slow down the reforms and get the government to work more closely with us so that policy is targeted and effective, rather than an expensive exercise in compliance.