An Organic Chicken and Egg Situation
You can't develop a market for organic products if you don't have the farmers to produce them and the processors to make the raw product into something the consumer wants. But you can't entice farmers into the organic industry if you don't have someone to process their products and a consumer market to supply. It's an organic chicken and egg situation.
Similarly, you can't develop an infrastructure that supplies organic inputs to organic farmers unless you have a critical mass of farmers for those agribusinesses to service.
Fonterra has bitten the organic bullet and is supporting dairy farmers to convert to organics. For others, a way around the problem is to piggyback the organic segment of their business on the back of the conventional industry.
AgriSea is a manufacturer of organic seaweed-based fertilisers and animal tonics, but most of its customers are conventional farmers wanting some of the benefits of their approach to plant and stock health.
Wallace Harmony Meats is a supplier of organic meats, but has remained flexible in its operations and supplies free-range and conventional products as well. This approach allows it to ride out the highs and lows of the demand for organics, and service a growing market for high quality, portion-controlled cuts to restaurants and upmarket food outlets.
The market for organic inputs to conventional farming is growing, and every time an organics field day or expo is held, a large number of mainstream farmers come along to follow up ideas that appeal to them, whether they be homoeopathic remedies for animal diseases, compost teas, biological tonics for plants and stock, or sustainable ways of managing problems.
AgriSea NZ Ltd
Jill Bradley co-founded Ocean Organics in 1996, which then rebranded as AgriSea in 2004. Jill is the chairperson of The Seaweed Association of New Zealand, SANZ, which brings together marine scientists and industry people. There are 15 specialist seaweed fertiliser manufacturing companies in New Zealand, but AgriSea is the only one using a New Zealand seaweed species, Ecklonia radiata, that is found around the North Island coastline. Jill has pickers in most coastal areas who harvest only seaweed that is cast up on beaches. They dry it, put it in wool packs and send or deliver it to the AgriSea factory in Paeroa.
Supply is seasonal, and Jill says the harvest can reach over a tonne per week, depending on storms and tides. AgriSea retains highly skilled people that pick up the seaweed and dry it in the shade (so important biological compounds such as vitamins are not destroyed). High-quality control is critical to the process and the end product.
AgriSea makes three main products, each based on a slow, cold brewing process that takes about three months and is carefully controlled to retain the nutrients from the seaweed. One product is a soil conditioner/fertiliser that can be applied in autumn and spring; the second is a foliar feed used in horticultural crops; and the third is an animal health tonic that is sprayed on pasture shortly before stock graze it.
Jill explains their main market is dairy farms, and 98% of them are conventional rather than organic. She says, "The soil product encourages the roots to grow deeper down into the soil, which increases the density and productivity of the pasture, and reduces pugging and pan formation. The pasture product is beneficial to all grazing animals. Dairy farmers find it improves cycling in herds resulting in much lower empty rates, and there is a decrease in nutritionally related problems like mastitis. The foliar product is popular with grape and kiwifruit growers, and we export quite a lot of that to the USA and Europe."
Jill describes seaweed as a very complex material containing many trace elements. Ecklonia contains at least 21 amino acids and is a very rich source of vitamins. Its value is in boosting soil biology and improving production and nutrition, and the idea is catching on. Although Agrisea products are organic, the company puts less emphasis on that because most of their customers are non-organic producers. "Conventional farmers are now looking at more sustainable strategies, which is fantastic. Farmers aren't dumb, they are business people that care about the land and they want to treat it well", says Jill. "Many farmers are now beginning to understand the value of seaweed in increasing feed, milk solids and EFS, so it really does add value to their farming practice."
Jill and SANZ are working closely with the Ministry of Fisheries, looking at a long-term management strategy that is sustainable for seaweed. In 2009 a quota system of seaweed harvesting is likely to be introduced. "We are not just building the company, we are building a sustainable industry", she says.
Research into the benefits of seaweed has been more advanced internationally than in New Zealand, as seaweed products have been used elsewhere in the world for generations. AgriSea would like to provide research that is specific to NZ seaweed. AgriSea is committed to funding ongoing research trials in NZ to establish accurate data relating to the efficacy of its products.
An American Scientist, Douglas Murray, conducted trials near Chicago on AgriSea's Foliar Nutrient compared with equivalent products from the US, which had to be used at 10 times the rate to get the same results as the AgriSea product.
"Scientists overseas are interested in New Zealand seaweeds because they produce higher levels of sulphates and other compounds that generally make molecules more reactive". - Dr Jenny Smith, Marine Scientist, Cawthron Institute - Nelson NZ.
"The major difference between seaweed and chemically manufactured mineral sources is that artificial minerals can be 'locked up' in the soil and not efficiently utilised by plants and/or animals. Unfortunately, the deficiency of one trace mineral may not always be corrected by the simple addition of this one micro-nutrient. The lack of one trace element may in fact be attributed to an excess of another. For example, excess copper and zinc reduce iron availability. On pasture, an excess of molybdenum produces a copper deficiency. It is therefore sensible to provide a balanced micro-nutrient package contained in seaweed, rather than a single element." - Dane Hobbs, Masters degree in Ruminant Nutrition, USA.
Wallace Harmony Foods
Conventional, organic and free-range carcasses are cut, processed and packaged at Wallace Harmony Foods for supply to a wide range of top restaurants and retail outlets. The emphasis is on top quality, and more consistent returns to farmers. There is also potential for export in the future. Wallace Harmony Foods is a Division of Wallace Corporation. Previously Harmony Meats, has been owned by Wallace Corporation for 15 months. They produce a free-range pork product, branded "Natural Choice". There was some organic pork supply but with the high price of organic grain it became nonviable, so they now use free-range stock with full traceability, fed with GE free non-organic grain and farmed under an organic regime. "With our brand we have established a quality mark for pork, based on a pH test. We have now produced about 60,000 portions without a quality problem", says manager David Porter.
"Happy pigs have the right pH in their muscles and that helps ensure keeping quality and tenderness of the meat, so farming ethics are part of our quality mark. The product comes from passionate people who grow their animals in organic style outside. We pay our suppliers more than the schedule price, which makes it sustainable for them and that is very much part of an organic philosophy."
Cuts are packaged and stamped with a use-by date and a code, which ensure traceability back to the farm. The company also makes small goods, bacon and ham by traditional methods, including a unique rindless bacon that contains only normal food-grade salt no nitrites or other chemicals. "Our clients are very discerning, and operate at the very highest level of fine dining in New Zealand, and we supply top restaurants in Auckland and Wellington. Portion control cut eye fillets are produced for a full range of end-users, from fine dining to airlines to steak houses", says David.
By doing sequential runs of organic/free-range and conventional meats, the company keeps its options open and makes good use of its facilities. Serving non-organic markets means that it can afford to service the organic niche as well. Some people see price as a problem, but David points out that their organic and free-range products are no more expensive than conventional ones in upmarket food suppliers in more affluent areas such as Remuera and Epsom. For that market, the company makes sure that they supply exactly what the customer wants.
We haven't had BSE or other food scares here to push people towards organics. Consumers who buy organic products in New Zealand are normally well-read, well-educated, well funded and are concerned both about their own health, and the welfare of animals, says David. They are discerning buyers, they want organic food that is as good as if not better than conventional food in terms of quality, and it has to be cut or prepared to meet their needs. For example, in Wellington free-range pork is packed in smaller units, two chops per bag and roasts of about 1.2 kg because, "that's the size they want".
Growth in the organic meat industry in New Zealand is slow because conventionally produced meat is cheap, and conventional farming systems are free-range and grass-fed, unlike other more intensive farming systems more commonly seen in the northern hemisphere. David believes growth for the company will come from providing farmers with a more stable schedule, continued parallel processing of conventional and organic meats, added-value products, building strong relationships with distributors and supermarkets, and being able to sell excess organic products through conventional channels.