Time for farm talk over as agricultural leaders ratchet up market connections

Primary leaders want to paint the picture of natural farming assets for our export products.
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Primary leaders want to paint the picture of natural farming assets for our export products.

The easy openness of Kiwi farmers and their potential to attach stories to meat, wool and other farm products is finding wide appeal among tech leaders in Silicon Valley.

Casual workers in the San Francisco design hotspot have in droves taken to wearing casual shoes made from merino wool by Allbirds, co-founded by ex-All White Tim Brown.

Making the most of more story-telling opportunities, Kiwi charm and the country's natural assets is the challenge that primary industry executives have put on themselves during the Te Hono Summit at Stanford University in July. 

NZ Merino chief executive John Brakenridge.
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NZ Merino chief executive John Brakenridge.

During the latest summit a line-up of business people including Lone Star Farms owner Tom Surgess and co-author of Wall Street Journal bestseller Moments of Impact, Lisa Kay Solomon, challenged projects devised by the leaders in a session along the lines of the television series Dragon's Den.

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"The thing that really blew them away [in] Silicon Valley, which is about transaction after transaction, was when the New Zealanders were up there it brought personality and culture," said New Zealand Merino Company (NZM) chief executive John Brakenridge, a summit founder. "They felt that was the most distinctive thing for New Zealand, that provided something real and authentic."

Allbirds founder former All White Tim Brown. Silicon Valley workers can't get enough of the merino shoes.
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Allbirds founder former All White Tim Brown. Silicon Valley workers can't get enough of the merino shoes.

Over six summits, previously called bootcamps, primary industry chief executives have represented companies behind 80 per cent of New Zealand exports.

New Zealand had many stories to tell which were largely not getting to consumers, said Brakenridge.

Companies used to spend $0.5 billion to launch a big brand but could become the next big discovery by plugging into consumers in top end markets through social media and online channels, attach a story focusing on natural assets and see them being shared by peer groups, he said.

High country images dazzle overseas buyers of New Zealand food once they learn of them.
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High country images dazzle overseas buyers of New Zealand food once they learn of them.

"I think that opportunity to do this is the best in decades if not the century."

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Brakenridge said the summit leaders were motivated to be "less about rhetoric" and had shaped nine projects which would go back to Stanford University professors as design challenges this year. Silicon Valley experts would also provide advice.

The executives were determined to shift from volume to more value trading, be more connected to markets and provide back stories linking to health, wellness and a care for the environment.

One of the speakers at the Te Hono Summit was former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who said the old structures would not deliver for the new economy.

Summit executives have already invested $1 million in consumer empathy research in premium markets in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York to find out what drives buying behaviour and opened an office in Shanghai to connect closer to the Chinese market.

Brakenridge said opportunities were emerging in other countries to monetise products linked with a "deep care" for the environment or food safety. 

Among the projects were Water and Waka and farmers were working closely with Maori, Crown, dairy, business and other representatives in initiatives such as using markets to reward changes to farmer behaviour about water and rejuvenating water quality. Marginal land under irrigation with stock on it may be better suited to crops or other land uses.

To get closer to niche markets the Te Hono USA project is looking at ways to connect closer to them including with new digital channels and technology.

Other projects want to better position New Zealand as the delicatessen of the food world and create commercial opportunities from the luxury nature of food and health and wellness.

Another project was looking at opportunities for plant based foods. During the summit executives dined on burgers made by US company Impossible Foods.

Brakenridge said there seemed to be an attitude that synthetic meat and milk would only enter the bottom end of the market, but their marketing was also being directed at high end restaurants.

"In Silicon Valley what used to go into technology a huge amount of that money is going into food innovation. .... For New Zealanders to realise both the threats and the opportunities is incredibly important."

He said the leaders were advised during the Dragon's Den session to get businesses offshore and closer to consumers, perhaps partner with offshore companies and bring in people with design, consumer empathy and even anthropology skills.

 - Stuff

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