Saturday, March 2, 2024

Plate to Pasture winners see NZ through eyes of global customer

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SFF Plate to Pasture Award winners report back on their market tour.
The visual experience in the Japanese supermarkets was a standout, says Alan and Cathy Donaldson, ‘with videos and posters and plenty of opportunity to showcase our provenance story directly with customers’.
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Silver Fern Farms’ 2022 Plate to Pasture Award winners, Alan and Cathy Donaldson of Taumarunui, write about their market tour to the United States, Korea and Japan. 

We bought our first farm in 1990 and while things have changed a lot since that time, we’ve taken a long-term view on farming.  

First of all, family is fundamental to us. We have two of our children on the farm now, each managing a block of their own. Some time ago we were advised to write down a vision for the future of the farm. Ever since then, we’ve involved our children in major decisions and discussions about things like succession. 

We’re guided by the end consumer as well.  At the end of the day, without consumers, farming won’t survive. We need to change and adapt to satisfy consumer demand, and we’ve always been focused on understanding what consumers want. 

When we found out we’d won Silver Fern Farms’ (SFF) Plate to Pasture Award last year, we were a bit stunned and humbled because we came up against some amazing farming operations. What we also hadn’t fully appreciated was that the award involved a tour of Silver Fern Farms international markets as well. 

Like most farmers, most of what we know about the markets comes from reading rural newspapers or company updates, and so naturally we leapt at the chance to see what was happening in person. 

Our first stop was New York City, and after meeting up with longtime SFF customers Marx Foods and receiving presentations from the local SFF sales team, we were straight into the supermarkets to see some of our branded product on shelves.

What’s immediately obvious is that we need to keep finding ways to stand out. Pretty quickly we realised that New Zealand red meat really is just a small drop in a global ocean, and in these huge butchery cabinets filled with meat from countries all around the world, we actually only get a small window. 

If we don’t have a point of difference, we’ll always be beholden to the ebb and flow alongside everyone else, and after talking with customers, our grass-fed promise is a bottom line for that.  

As we toured the supermarkets, we often took the time just to watch customers as they went about their shop, and it was apparent that shoppers are making decisions very quickly about what to put in their basket. Being able to tell our story simply and clearly though our products is fundamental if we’re going to get any cut through. 

The other thing that stood out was the hardline focus from the supermarkets on the consistency of the cuts on shelf, especially compared to what we get in NZ. For us, that really reinforced the importance of having actual staff in-market to have those interactions with the supermarkets and properly understand their nuances and requirements. It also gave some perspective and validated the need for in-spec livestock to meet these expectations.  

From New York we headed down to Philadelphia, where, among other things, we visited the Port of Philadelphia. 

Like many of us back here in God’s Own, we’ve been hearing for about the difficulties in our supply chain, but hearing directly from the port managers really drove that home. The sheer scale and complexity of what happens on port was fascinating for mere mortals like us, and underscored all the things that can go wrong. 

That said, all the logistic businesses did surprise us on how positively they looked at each problem. Every crisis creates an opportunity for new ways of thinking. It’s important we keep a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in our supply chain as it’s clear that when times are tight there are plenty of people who will take advantage of any available storage space. We need to be in the right global partnerships to ensure we make the most of that. 

On the Asian leg of their trip the Donaldsons – here with the group outside iconic Japanese department store Ito Yokado – were one of the largest NZ delegations to visit South Korea in recent times.

In South Korea and Japan, while we noted the different cultural nuances, some things were consistent with the US, like a small window for shelf space and a big focus on consistent product. 

Again, we spent a lot of time watching customers, and while many tended to be shopping on price there were some customers who would spend more time picking up the more expensive product and reading through the packaging. 

The visual experience in the Japanese supermarkets was a standout, with videos and posters being displayed and plenty of opportunity to showcase our provenance story directly with customers making their purchasing decisions in the supermarket. 

It’s good to know we’re not alone in our global markets and comforting to know we have dedicated staff in our markets now helping to manage interactions with the customer and provide insights back to NZ. We’re also getting good support in the market from government agency NZ Trade & Enterprise, and it was noted we were one of the largest NZ delegations to visit South Korea in recent times.

Like many, we’ve always wondered if the amount of paperwork and regulation we have to do on farm nowadays is actually worth it, but coming away from the trip we realised that we’re going to have to keep validating to the markets why we stand out and deserve to be the product that’s picked up rather than passed by. 

We also took a lot of confidence in the grass-fed claim. The strong indication we got from the tour is that grass-fed is essential for us to remain at the table, with future opportunities around Net Carbon Zero and NZFAP Plus adding further potential, and that’s going to be great for the long-term outlook for our sector.  

We’ve always believed that if the meat companies aren’t doing well, the farmer isn’t doing well. It’s clear that it takes time to build relationships in the market and as farmers we’ve got to place more trust in what the meat companies are doing and build more loyalty to enable them to maintain those relationships going forward. We’re grateful to have had the opportunity to see this for ourselves. 

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