When exporters competing with each other to sell New Zealand's small amount of venison overseas caused a sudden slump in farmers' income, deer farmers Tony and Sally Haslett decided to find their own markets locally.
"I didn't want to play the meat companies' games," Tony remembers. "I wanted to get the true value of my animals."
At the same time, Sally's friends were adding their views. "People would come to dinner and say: 'This is a wonderful meal, why can't we buy this meat here?' "
It was 2001, and the only venison available to New Zealand diners was at posh restaurants.
But the Hasletts, who ran 1200 deer at Wakarara beneath the Ruahine range, were about to change that.
Rapidly moving from mail order to the Hastings farmers' market, to supermarkets as public demand for their meat and smallgoods escalated, they revolutionised the industry.
Now venison is no longer found only on high-priced menus but within reach of most household budgets at supermarkets around the country.
The Hasletts' Woodburn Venison meat cuts, sausages, burgers and meatballs have until recently had the New Zealand market to themselves, with only occasional short- lived forays from exporters.
And the couple who quickly sold out of the meat from two deer - and the bones - they took to the first farmers' market 11 years ago can still be found manning their stall in the Hawke's Bay Showgrounds each Sunday.
"It's the one-on-one contact with customers that I love," Sally says. "It's been a great testing ground for new products."
She now runs the company while Tony, who has a fulltime job as Fonterra's area manager, helps out at the farmers' market and food shows.
Regular visits to supermarkets are needed to cook samples for tastings and to keep contact with butchery managers.
"A lot of venison recipes are chef- orientated, so I've had to develop my own point-of-sale material," Sally says. "I know my market and it's not people who love going through three stages in the kitchen. We all get a bit tired at the end of the day - those are my customers."
Tony grew up with deer on his parents' north Auckland farm and in the 1980s he and Sally bred their own small herd of red hinds.
In 1990, they moved to their own farm, converting 150 hectares at Kereru in Central Hawke's Bay to a deer unit.
They built up to 500 hinds at a time when venison and velvet prices were on a high. "It was a great industry then," Tony remembers. "It was still new and people shared their experiences."
IN 1996 they won the Hawke's Bay farmer of the year title, the first to go to a deer farmer. The judges praised their efficiency at producing "colossal" amounts of venison and velvet, resulting in a gross income of $1200 a hectare.
After another year they were ready to take their successful formula to a bigger farm. They bought 243ha at Kimbolton, Manawatu, and put on 1200 hinds.
But then the exporters started playing their games, competing against each other to sell venison in a market dependent on a short season in Germany. Prices plummeted.
To make matters worse, the farm was hit by a drought, followed by a wet winter.
After two seasons they moved back to Hawke's Bay, determined to take control of their destiny.
They bought 160ha at Wakarara for 600 hinds but based themselves in Hastings, where their two children could go to school.
"We didn't want to get out of deer, we loved them too much," Tony says. "They are majestic animals with an ability to respond to humans. If you have patience and good stock sense, and the right handling facilities, they can be very rewarding."
He dipped a toe into the marketing waters, getting a deer processed into meat packs and twisting the arms of friends and family to buy them by mail order.
Then came the chance to join the first farmers' market.
"When we saw how fast people snapped up our venison we were hooked," Sally says.
She started by working out of a Napier butcher's shop, packaging the cuts for the Sunday market.
Events moved rapidly. Within a few months Wellington specialty food store Moore Wilson's had found them and put in an order.
This meant a move to bigger premises.
"It was meant to be just me and a friend but we grew so quickly that a few months later we needed two other fulltimers and several part- timers."
The pace picked up when supermarket chain Progressive Enterprises asked for supplies.
This breakthrough came when they started making their own sausages, burgers and meatballs to use up the lesser cuts - the "trim".
"The trim was a headache for us, we had to find uses for it, and our main focus was on selling the high- quality cuts," Sally says.
"But very quickly the minced products took over as our No 1 seller. It brought venison within the reach of ordinary people."
What makes her burgers and meatballs stand out, she thinks, is that they are handmade.
"We looked at using a machine but it would make them look like anybody else's product. We like it that ours are hand-pressed and hand-rolled, just like people would do at home if they had the time."
AS FOODSTUFFS' North Island supermarkets also became customers, their main difficulty became supply.
Wakarara's deer herd soon wasn't enough and Tony asked other farmers to help out. "I went from taking two or three deer into town in a ute to 30 to 40 in a truck."
Sourcing enough trim was the biggest problem. They bought from the bigger processors, but quality dropped.
Then, in 2004, they received a call from Gerard Hickey, a marketer just starting out with his farmer-owned venison businesses Cerco and Firstlight. He asked if they wanted his trim and they became his first customer.
Two years later, as their relationship with Hickey strengthened, they decided to sell the Wakarara farm.
"It was hard to lose that direct connection of pasture to plate but the logistics of supply meant we had to be on a different planet," Sally says.
Now they get all their venison from Cerco and Firstlight, companies owned by the farmers that supply the deer, and sell more than 1500kg a week.
The past 18 months of tough economic conditions have been hard, Sally says. "You've got to be out there talking to your customers and working a lot smarter." She has developed new products - an easy-to- cook fillet pack, gluten-free smallgoods and kofta balls - and pushes venison's healthy qualities.
She wants to take on a salesperson to help her expand into the South Island and allow her time to deal with increasingly important health compliance.
She is also exploring the possibility of export to Australia. A recent meeting with supermarket chain Coles Myer wasn't a success - venison would be competing with kangaroo meat at half the price, she was told - but she will look for a smaller retailer.
In the meantime, she can be found at the farmers' market on Sundays and at a supermarket somewhere else in the country on almost every other day.
"I love it," she says. "I light the fire under the frypan and heat up some cocktail-sized balls. And then the shoppers stop and I talk to them, ask them what they think, tell them all the things they can do with venison.
"If we could have a hundred like me around the country we'd be really cooking with gas."
- The Dominion Post
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