Any criticism of Deer Industry New Zealand relying on international chefs to buy its premium venison cuts is "understandable", but when restaurants reopen so will the market which brings the best returns, board chairman Ian Walker says.
The Deer Industry Conference opened with a "state of the nation" presentation to about 170 delegates at Bill Richardson Transport World in Invercargill last week.
Walker, of Waipukurau in Central Hawke's Bay, acknowledged the impact of Covid-19 on the sector.
"I'm fully aware of the impact the pandemic is having on the economics of weaner and venison production and on the viability of deer farms up and down the country."
For the sector to "lose all of its top-end customers overnight" was "hellishly frustrating".
"The best paying customers for venison table cuts in all markets continue to be chefs and as restaurants reopen they are returning the best value for the middle cuts."
DINZ was criticised for relying on food services and restaurants for the sale of premium venison cuts.
The criticism was "understandable", but when "Covid is behind us", restaurants would once again be the market to bring the best returns, Walker said.
"Yes we could have put more emphasis on retail market development - that is one of the big lessons from Covid - but the role of retail is to add value to the lower parts of the carcass, it's not the channel we get the top dollar we get from restaurants."
The industry was constantly trying to find opportunities to add value to its products, he said.
"A need for a diverse range of markets has never been greater."
DINZ had redirected funding away from Europe to target retail markets in United States and was using reserve funds to "speed the development" of markets in China.
China was now its largest export market for its deer products, including venison and velvet, and had "huge potential" for growth.
He acknowledged access to the market depended on New Zealand's relationship with China.
"We need to go into this activity with our eyes open and have contingency plans in place should access conditions change."
DINZ chief executive Innes Moffat, of Wellington, said the industry was "following two paths".
The market for velvet was "confident" and had weathered the Covid-19 storm well.
However, venison prices "were not satisfactory" and deer farmers needed certainty prices would improve to levels comparable to other land-use options.
Farmers' ongoing "hard cull" of breeding hinds would result in a reduction of venison production over the next five years, he said.
"Venison is on the recovery path."