Selling lamb to North America through Atkins Ranch
Atkins Ranch is a farmer-owned supply cooperative, based on the East Coast of the North Island. It sells lamb and lamb products to Whole Foods Markets in the United States and Canada. The New Zealand farmers have begun to achieve Global Animal Partnership (GAP) Step 4 accreditation, on a voluntary basis, with the costs borne by Atkins Ranch. Over 60 farms of the 100 regular supply farms are expected to gain accreditation by the end of 2016. GAP is a non-profit, charitable organisation for the improvement of farm animal welfare. A Hawke’s Bay property, Waipari Station, was the first sheep farm in the world to gain the GAP 4 accreditation and among the farms that have followed has been Waiwhero, owned by the Pattison family.
Formed in 1989, Lean Meats NZ, now known at Atkins Ranch, is a farmer cooperative for the procurement of lambs and supply of chilled lamb meat and products to the Whole Foods Market chain in the United States and Canada. Whole Foods is a provider of the highest quality natural and organic produce, very well displayed and backed by food safety and quality assurance programmes. Atkins Ranch has over 100 supply farms in the North and South Islands. Other retailers in the US are also supplied with lamb.
Atkins Ranch is a market-based company which allows the farmer supplier the opportunity to become the exporter with associated ownership, risk and margins.
Atkins Ranch was founded by Wairarapa farmers John Atkins and Phil Guscott, both New Zealand producers who believed their high quality lamb would earn premium prices from discerning customers in North America.
The cooperative is owned by shareholder suppliers, the Atkins and Guscott families and Craig Hickson who owns and operates Progressive Meats which toll processes lambs for Atkins Ranch in the North Island. Lean Meats was renamed Atkins Ranch in mid-2016 after John Atkins died in 2015, and the family still owns the Hawke’s Bay farm known as Atkins Ranch, where finished lambs and beef cattle are produced.
Atkins Ranch promotional materials says, “our ranchers care for their animals and land with the utmost compassion and consideration. They work with the natural eco systems of their land and aim to keep the environment as pristine as possible. Many of them have set aside areas on their ranches for conservation purposes, focusing on regenerating the land and water. We ensure that our lamb can be traced from the shelf back to the ranch it was raised on.”
Atkins Ranch said the GAP step 4 accreditation is an important initiative for the company in its relationship with Whole Foods Markets. “We maintain exceptionally high animal welfare and environmental standards and uphold the highest compliance requirements. We also have high expectations of our producers and work closely with them to ensure they meet those requirements.”
Sheep in the GAP step 4 programme must live on pasture throughout their life. Atkins Ranch already expects high standards from its producers including supplying high quality, antibiotic-free, 100% grass fed, GMO-free lamb.
The 5-step programme begins (on step 1) with no cages, crates or crowding, and moves to step 2 which is “enriched environment”, and step 3 “enhanced outdoor access”, step 4 “pasture centred” and finally step 5 “animal centred, entire life on same farm”.
Whole Foods Market requires at least step 1 for a step species – cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry. The GAP organisation first published the animal welfare rating pilot standards for meat sheep in early 2016.
Atkins Ranch is the first Whole Foods Markets vendor to embrace the GAP 4 animal welfare standard and to offer the opportunity to its farmer-suppliers, with the auditing costs paid by Atkins Ranch. Auditing services are provided by AUS-MEAT Ltd.
Farmers have to meet and to be able to verify standards for the animals, among which are; to have unrestricted daily access to pasture, be non-GMO, use natural mating, have no use of antibiotics or growth hormones. Maintenance of animal health records is required and veterinary on-farm euthanasia is only permitted under strict protocols (i.e. stock must be shot first or a captive bolt gun used prior to cutting throat). Temporary periods only are permitted off-pasture. Body condition scoring, handling methods, annual shearing, permitted castration and tail docking methods, and fly control are also operated under set standards.
The Pattison family have farmed Waiwhero near Waipukurau since 1908 and the present business combines an Angus cattle stud with a Romney ewe flock. Charles Pattison is an Atkins Ranch shareholder and intends to supply 1760 finished lambs this season, according to his commitment programme. These will mainly be Texel-cross lambs with average kill weight over 20kg. Texel rams are used over the terminal line of ewes, being five years old and older.
Waiwhero went through the GAP 4 auditing process and was accredited recently. Charles said it was a straight-forward process that took him and stock manager Gerald Cushing about four hours and “multiple phone calls”.