I relish any opportunity to put my 'farmer hat' on, especially if I get to talk about New Zealand farming systems or meat.
In June, I was privileged to be selected as one of six supplying shareholders of Firstlight Wagyu, to go on a farmer's trip to visit our Northern California market, including stores in the heart of Silicon Valley, downtown San Francisco and the beautiful wine country.
Along with three of the fantastic Firstlight team, we spread the word about the product we all produce: Firstlight Wagyu Beef. It's 100 per cent grass fed, with no antibiotics or hormones whatsoever.
The marbling from Wagyu genetics delivers the consistent tenderness and eating experience that consumers expect from grain-fed beef, but in a grass fed product, along with the flavour and health benefits that come from it being grass fed.
As a farmer, the opportunity to spend time talking with not only the consumers of our product, but also the butchers, meat case managers and store owners was fantastic.
Not only were we able to answer their questions about the product and farming in New Zealand, but we were also able to enhance our own understanding of the market and the trends that are occurring.
It gave us an insight into what our competitors are doing, along with a first-hand appreciation of why it is so important for us to meet our specs, and deliver a consistent product on time.
All of these are messages we can share with our staff, boards and fellow Wagyu producer group members to ensure the continued success of the programme.
Taking farming shareholders to the market is an important part of Firstlight's integrated market approach and assists with getting 'buy in' from suppliers and bringing them along on the journey.
It also helps to lift brand awareness, create excitement around the product and maintain the all-important relationships with the store owners, meat case managers, butchers and consumers, to ensure our product remains on the shelf and selling, and that we can balance carcasses.
It was interesting to observe the variation in traits valued by consumers, even just between suburbs. In some stores, grass fed was a 'must have' and 75 per cent of the meat case was grass fed, while in others we were the only grass fed product.
For some consumers a 'never ever' hormone and antibiotics programme is a clincher, but for some 'natural' is good enough. It reinforces the importance of consumer education and the difficulty of tailoring it to each of our markets and the regions within them around the world.
The continued strong growth of the organic movement also struck me. After talking to a number of consumers, I began to question whether organics is really the bottom line or if it is a proxy for food safety and ethically, sustainably produced food.
My conversations would lead me to believe that NZ farming systems can deliver most of the characteristics consumers are interested in, without being certified organic. However, significant work is required to articulate the story of our farming systems in order to deliver that message.
The local food movement continues to grow and is a challenge to overcome for NZ producers. However, for many consumers, quality still comes first and if they can't source it locally, often the next place they look to is NZ.
I always knew that NZ's two big export earners, tourism and agriculture, were intrinsically linked but this trip highlighted it. On the domestic front, agriculture provides the manicured hills and flats which contribute to the scenic backdrop enjoyed by tourists.
On the international stage, consumers often buy NZ products as a reminder of their fantastic trip here. Or for those who are envious of friends' trips, it is their way of getting a taste of NZ until they can visit themselves. The power of these links for selling our products can't be under-estimated.
There were many positives from the trip -- you can't beat that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you see the look of amazement and satisfaction on the consumer's face as they try your product for the first time and realise just how delicious, flavourful and tender it is. It makes all the hard yards in raising the product pay off to know that you are producing a product that is valued and enjoyed by the end user.