North Otago farm a proud producer of pet feed

JACQUIE WEBBY
Last updated 05:00 01/03/2014
Paddocks of sunflowers provide a floral vista in North Otago.

SUPERB SUNFLOWERS: Paddocks of sunflowers provide a floral vista in North Otago.

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Mitchell and Webster have farmed in North Otago for about 40 years, operating an intensive cropping operation and wholesale business producing bird and small animal feed.

Its home base is the Mitchell family's Rosedale farm at Weston and the two families are intrinsically linked with their exceptional crop management and focus on long-term sustainability.

One of the most visual of the crops grown by Mitchell and Webster is the sunflower, just one crop grown on the 1000-plus hectares under cultivation.

A single crop of sunflowers was the launch platform for other crops of canary seed, ryegrass, rape, wheat and kale, and the crop previously grown for sunflower oil is now an integral part of an operation which supplies customers all over New Zealand and has its own mixing plant at the home farm in Weston.

Topflite aims to add value to farm-produced products, says Jock Webster who oversees Topflite.

"Farmers traditionally know how to grow a product," Mr Webster said. "They don't necessarily know how to market.

"Topflite has changed as the demand and focus has changed.

"The UK market was previously 30 per cent wild birds and 70 per cent cage birds; the market split has now completely reversed.

"We have developed bird feeders in two sizes to help get the feed out to wild birds," he says.

"We have also developed products such as a fruit bell mix which is ideal for birds which prefer a sweeter feed and, in addition to all types of birds' seed, there are mixes for rabbits and chinchilla, rats and mice."

Not all products though were grown in New Zealand, Mr Webster said.

"We import the millets from both Australia and the United States, but the majority of product is grown on the Mitchell and Webster owned or leased land."

Although the product is grown in the heart of North Otago, you will not find the Topflite brand in local supermarkets or convenience stores.

"We originally sold through bird clubs but now market to large chains such as Animates, VetLife and the rural sector stores like Farmlands/CRT," he said.

As part of their marketing profile, Topflite packaging carries the story of the company, and photographs which convey the image of a large paddock of sunflowers gently swaying in the hot North Otago sunshine.

"The packaging reflects the message of providing a top quality product with traceability of non heat-treated New Zealand-grown seed back to us as the growers," Mr Webster said.

"We also aim to provide excellent customer service and to constantly seek to add value to the product we grow.

"Our focus is to produce a top quality product, with total traceability back to the growers.

"We proudly sponsor the New Zealand National Bird Show and between 75 to 95 per cent of the show champions are fed on Topflite products."

The 41-year business association between the two families began in 1972 when Ross Mitchell, who recently retired from the group, suggested they join forces.

In 1976, discussions began on a three-way partnership involving Ross and Bruce Mitchell and Jock Webster.

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An agreement was drawn up, with the key criteria of farming, the community and family.

"We regard those things as very important," Mr Webster said.

Bruce Mitchell retired in 1992 and in 1996 Peter Mitchell became a partner in the group.

In 2007 Jock's son, Nick, began working for the group and he became a shareholder in 2008.

Mitchell and Webster farm on 1375ha of land near Oamaru.

The group owns 701ha and leases 674ha. Jock Webster oversees Topflite, and Peter Mitchell and Nick Webster work together to run the farming company.

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