August 9, 2007: Ian and Heather Atkinson's
250-hectare farm, Wharerata, is located in the North Island's
Wairarapa region, not far from Martinborough, one of New Zealand's
many successful wine districts. The Atkinsons have managed
the land organically since 1982 and have been certified by
BioGro, the leading NZ certifier, since 1990. They currently
raise 500 ewes, 600 deer, 40 beef cattle and 130 dairy heifers,
the latter under a 12-month contract to a local organic dairy
farmer. In addition, they provide winter grazing for another
230 dairy cows and offer surplus hay and baleage to the organic
dairy industry at large. They've recently begun growing organic
wheat for feed and have another portion of the farm planted
in pines for timber and acacia gum trees for firewood coppicing.
Two steep valleys of regenerating native bush at the back
of the property are permanently protected under a Queen Elizabeth
But while the farm has every appearance of a mature organic
operation—diversified and largely self-contained—the
changing shape of the organic marketplace means the Atkinsons'
business model is still evolving. Martinborough, 15 miles
away, is a handsome little town with attractive cafés,
a boutique wine shop and an upscale, winery-based B&B.
So it comes as somewhat of a surprise to learn that the Atkinsons'
are the only organic livestock producer in the Wairarapa region
and that the domestic market for their meat has only recently
begun to develop.
"There are two things you need for marketing
organic meat. Number one, you need quality;
number two, you need continuity of supply."
"There are two things you need for marketing organic
meat," Ian says, sitting at the kitchen table on a summer
day in between farm chores. "Number one, you need quality;
number two, you need continuity of supply." For the export
market, you also need volume, at least at a moderate scale.
In the early years of their organic enterprise, Ian used to
liaise between breeders and finishers around the North and
South Islands. He made connections to facilitate the supply
of organic beef and lambs for processing and sale to overseas
buyers, working on a commission-free basis in exchange for
right of first refusal at time of sale. These days, UK and
European importers of organic lamb want New Zealand meat primarily
for the three months of the year (January through March) when
they can't get it closer at hand; but before local organic
suppliers came on line, they looked for a steady year-round
supply from Down Under (both Australia and New Zealand).
Ironically, the lack of consolidation in the NZ meat industry
has probably made it more challenging for the organic sector
to get itself established. There's no one with the dominance
of Fonterra—NZ's leading dairy cooperative, with 11,000
farmer-owner-members—so it's largely been up to individual
farmers to figure out how to market their product. The situation
has improved as numbers have slowly increased, but those early
years were difficult.
"A lot has changed in the past five years; it's been
good for the whole organic sector," Ian says, estimating
that the South Island now exports about 30,000 organic lambs
a year. A group of those South Island farmers he used to contract
with has banded together and made arrangements with a processor
for direct sale overseas. Organic lamb for the UK market enjoyed
a 100-percent price premium over non-organic lamb this season,
earning NZ$6/kilo carcass weight versus NZ$3/kilo for non-organic
(US$2.11/pound vs. US$1.05/pound).
The Atkinsons still raise lamb for export, but their attention
has begun to shift to the domestic market. Some years ago,
they made the decision to take some time off to reassess the
business and spend more time with their three daughters, now
ages 14, 16 and 18. They leased the farm for a couple of seasons
and scrutinized their operation from top to bottom. This proved
to be well worth the effort and gave them the opportunity
to refocus and chart a course forward. As it happened, their
processor, a Dutchman then based in Wellington, took two years
off to go back to Holland around the same time. After his
return, the Atkinsons decided to develop their own label,
Organic Essentials, as a way of more effectively marketing
their meat at the regional level.
Their product line now includes specialty sausages, salami
and luncheon meats as well as traditional fresh-chilled cuts
of lamb and beef. With Organic Essentials as part of their
enterprise mix, the Atkinsons can buy livestock from other
organic farmers to supplement their own supply as needed,
have it processed and sell it to their network of retail buyers.
Health-food shops, specialty organic shops and butchers throughout
the North Island and northern part of the South Island are
their primary outlets, Heather says. The larger supermarkets
now carry organic items as well, but the big stores' access
to a wider pool of suppliers makes them less dependable than
other customers—as Ian puts it, "If they have a
chance to buy at a lower price from someone else, they'll
"The locals are our core market.
People try [our meat] and they say, hey, that's really good—that's
meat with flavor, and they buy it."
The final step has been to shift from regional to local.
This year, the Atkinsons started selling at a new, Saturday-morning
Wairarapa Farmers' Market in Masterton, with between 23 and
33 local producers, depending on the time of year. Ian and
Heather are the only specialty meat producer, and sales have
Heather says, locals are their core market, rounded out by
a steady stream of holiday-makers and tourists. The key is
offering samples, she adds. "People try [our meat] and
they say, 'Hey, that's really good—that's meat with
flavor,' and they buy it." They also identified a need
for hot food at the market, leading them to start selling
their own cooked and ready-to-eat hot dogs, beef sausages
and mint-and-lamb sausages—all organic, of course. This
has been very successful, Heather says. It attracts customers,
and "it’s a great way to introduce people to chemical-free
The Atkinsons like selling their meat domestically because
they believe in reducing food miles by serving the local market
and because they enjoy the direct connection with customers.
Ian smiles: "It's really satisfying to have the end consumer
right there standing in front of you tasting your product
and saying, 'Good on you, well done.'"
Balancing domestic against export market demand is an omnipresent
issue for NZ organic producers—and to some extent for
all NZ producers: it is complex calculus of exchange rates,
trade rules and international food trends in addition to the
normal considerations of weather and work. "Take crayfish
[lobster] as an example," Ian proposes. "Say that
the maximum price that the New Zealand consumer will pay for
crayfish is about $25/kilo. The export market may pay $50/kilo.
Where do you think those crayfish are going to end up?"
A related issue has been finding appropriate slaughtering
and butchering facilities for organic meat. "We've been
through six plants over the years," Ian says. "Very
few companies will toll-kill [and] give you back your product."
The usual arrangement is for the slaughterhouse to act as
a broker, giving you a price for your animals minus the processing
costs and then sending them on to the general supply chain.
"Your standard plant in New Zealand will be handling
five- to eight-thousand lambs a day. Our runs are very small
compared to that." Nowadays there are a few plants that
specialize in organic and other controlled-identity meats,
like Angus Pure, which has helped the situation somewhat.
The situation with deer, a major livestock animal for NZ
farmers, is even further behind. While there's plenty of demand
for organic venison overseas, farmers like the Atkinsons just
don't have the numbers to access those markets—yet.
(New Zealand has just one native mammal, a bat, so deer are
present here as a farm animal only.) For the time being their
venison is certified but not marketed as organic.
Leading the way
Negotiating the organic marketplace as buyers as well as
sellers makes the Atkinsons doubly committed to the fundamental
principles of organic and the vital importance of maintaining
organic integrity. Organic certification is founded on maintaining
that integrity through rigorous quality-control measures,
says Ian. "It's got to be strict as strict as strict."
"Early perceptions saw organic farmers labeled as jandal-wearing,
tree-hugging hippies." He goes on: "Nowadays it's
more about food trends, healthy choices, care of the environment
and sustainability. We expect to deliver quality and professionalism."
Most banks and agricultural consultants are still skeptical
of organics, the Atkinsons say, so it's difficult to get the
financial backing and good advice many farmers need to facilitate
the transition. Some headway is being made in the dairy sector
now that Fonterra is offering guaranteed premiums for organic
milk and other incentives for transitioning farmers. (Fonterra
currently has 68 organic suppliers and expects to contract
with 160 more by 2010.)
"Farmers need more support—which
isn't to say that a lot of responsibility doesn't rest on
the people managing the farms—but it's about getting
people the information."
That situation needs to reach other sectors for similar effects
to take place, says Ian. "Farmers need more support—which
isn't to say that a lot of responsibility doesn't rest on
the people managing the farms—but it's about getting
people the information." He and Heather are hopeful that
outreach and training opportunities forthcoming through Organic
Aotearoa New Zealand (OANZ), a government-supported umbrella
organization charged with boosting the organic sector, will
help to fill that gap.
Farmers transitioning nowadays should have an easier time
of it than the Atkinsons did 25 years ago. "There shouldn't
be any loss of production these days," says Ian, still
less a loss of income. "Fonterra's advisors say to expect
20 percent loss [in yield] in the first three years, but with
40 percent lower costs," he notes.
Sheep are widely recognized as among the most challenging
organic enterprises, even in New Zealand. It took Ian and
Heather eight years to fully convert their Romney-based flock,
a slow process of selecting for hardier animals more resistant
to parasites. It helped that market conditions at the time
favored venison over lamb, prompting them to cut their ewe
numbers from 2,000 to 1,200 while increasing their deer population
from 400 to 1,000. These days they readily share their sheep
genetics with other farmers making the transition to organic.
"All [sheep] breeds can be used," Ian says; it's
a matter of rigorously selecting for traits within the breed
suitable to an organic system.
Raising organic lambs also requires farmers to shift their
work schedule. "Most farmers have three drafts of lambs
in January and then they're done," says Heather. For
organic markets, domestic or international, "The key
is to have year-round supply for year-round markets. Frozen
meat doesn't sell as well as fresh, even though three-quarters
of people will go straight home and throw the meat in the
freezer. People buy by eye—they like that red look."
To get the best price, lambs are shorn two to three weeks
before slaughter so they're cleaner and easier to handle,
therefore that work gets spread out, too. Other critical elements
of organic stock rearing include strict attention to rotational
grazing schedules, mineral balancing and the cultivation of
a diverse pasture sward so the animals can tailor their diets
according to their changing nutritional needs. The Atkinsons
rely on soil testing as well as Brix and dry-matter tests
to verify forage and haylage quality in their various paddocks.
There's always more to learn—Ian recently attended
a workshop by the American agronomist and physician Arden
Andersen, who tours NZ regularly—but he also argues
that one problem with the conventional mindset can be its
insistence on understanding exactly how and why things work
in organic systems.
"My father was a commercial fisherman for 15 years,"
he reflects. "So I always knew from him how what he would
catch was affected by the phase of the moon. The same is true
for plants. For some of these things, you have to accept that
they do work, and that can be the hardest part."