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Venison marketers unleash creative energy

May 31, 2021

“It is hellishingly frustrating to be a producer of one of the world’s most healthy and delicious proteins and to lose nearly all your top-end customers overnight. It’s never happened before. Not for New Zealand food producers anyway.”

With these words, DINZ chair Ian Walker (pictured), in his state-of-the-nation address to the 2021 Deer Industry Conference in Invercargill, echoed the feelings of all venison producers about the impact of Covid on venison markets.

But the Covid-crisis has not sapped his confidence. 

There have been market set-backs in the past, but after each of these, “Our industry has bounced back stronger, with a better spread of markets, better structures to assist the production of venison and velvet and pathways to restore profitability. I believe our industry has the resilience, the structures and the people needed to bounce-back from this current set-back,” he said.

As if to prove his point, the venison marketing companies showed they are not just waiting for markets to recover. They revealed creative new retail venison marketing initiatives for North America – a market that is familiar with venison and is ready for new products at retail. 

The decision to focus the industry’s market development energies on North America was made by Deer Industry NZ and the venison marketers, all of whom are partners in the deer industry’s Passion2Profit initiative – a 50/50 joint venture with the Ministry for Primary Industries.

Passion2Profit market development funding for 2021 and 2022, matched dollar for dollar by marketers, is focussed on North American retail. An investment of close to $NZ 1 million a year. 

Peter Robinson, Silver Fern Farms, reminded the conference that “adversity is an opportunity in disguise”. That it had taught the industry must think and act differently to get different results. “We cannot rely on European and American food service as we have in the past. We have seen what happens when that sector shuts down.”

The company set up what they dubbed ‘the red team’. This worked on a project to deal with the immediate problems created by Covid and to create long-term solutions to the industry’s reliance on food service.

A pointer to its first initiative was the “tremendous success” of the company’s venison burger launched in 2020 on the NZ market. A 1-pound ground venison brick subsequently launched into US retail stores has become the biggest selling venison item in US grocery. This provides assured access to shelf-space and the opportunity to negotiate space for other venison items. 

Alliance Group’s Terry O’Connell said ground venison ticks all the boxes. “It moves A, B and C–grade trim, boneless shank and neck – more than 40 per cent of the carcase -- away from the European frozen commodity trade and up the value chain.” 

Alliance is targeting 20 per cent of those consumers who are already buying ground bison, the biggest selling game product in US grocery, with sales around $US300 million. 

“Consumers must have a good experience when they try a new product, so ground venison is a safe entry point into retail. It is a flexible product with a very low risk of failure,” O’Connell said. 

Mountain River Venison has embarked on a new relationship with ‘Force of Nature’. This is a start-up US business that’s targeting a market that wants to know where its meat is coming from and how it’s grown. A market that favours regenerative agriculture. 

“At the moment we are doing three products with them. Venison steaks and two ground products, elk ground and a venison-beef ground mix,” said marketing manager John Sadler.

NZ venison marketers see a big opportunity in a growing preference in the US for venison. Also in meats produced on farms practising regenerative agriculture

He said meeting the expectations of regenerative agriculture is not an issue for most of the company’s farmer suppliers. They’re mostly already doing it. 

Silver Fern Farm’s next step is ‘Project Roosevelt’ which aims to take advantage of the continuing consumer push-back against industrial agriculture. The company’s e-commerce platform is the main vehicle for this. At the same time, it is targeting the outdoor lifestyle market, with snacks like venison jerky and other items. 

The outdoor enthusiast market has also been identified by First Light Foods. Venison manager Matt Gibson said that there is a new focus among a sizeable group of US consumers on eating healthy game meats. The TV conservationist/hunter Joe Rogan has played a huge part in creating this cultural shift.

“A lot of people in the US are primed for venison. They want venison. They fancy themselves as hunters. The reality is that they are urbanites – part of a venison-starved audience, something I find very exciting.”

Gibson said First Light is enjoying success with its First Light Steak Club. This is a food subscription club targeted at high net worth individuals who get a monthly wagyu or venison delivery, along with a kit and an app that that provides them with instructions to ensure they cook it correctly. 

Summing up, DINZ board member Mark Harris said the reality of human behaviour is that industries don’t make major change except in a crisis. “The best time to invest in the future is at times like these.”

He, along with other speakers, said they understood the frustration that farmers felt about unsatisfactory venison prices. But, every day is a day closer to the day when restaurants re-open in major markets and the current investment in retail initiatives bear fruit.

The future of farm-raised venison, they said, is bright.

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