Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Securing Lake Taupo’s future through environmental farming practices


A group of Taupo beef farmers have joined together to create a new premium product that focuses on maximum return, while minimising the impact on the surrounding environment.

The premium brand, Taupo Beef, was launched following the introduction of legislation to cap the number of cattle on farms because of the nutrient run-off into the lake. Today, eight farmers produce for Taupo Beef, which sells on a platform of efficient use of the carcass.

Mike and Sharon Barton, who farm 150 hectares on the western shores of Lake Taupo, led the idea to turn the ‘negative into a positive’ by branding their beef as being higher quality because of its contribution to the lake’s cleaner waters.

“The legislation meant that we had to cap livestock numbers but our costs remained uncapped – over time this was going to seriously erode our profitability,” Mike says.

“We could have looked at the stock cap as a negative but we thought it could be the basis of our brand claims around water quality. We can say to consumers ‘our meat is grown in a manner that protects the lake in perpetuity. And we’re asking you to pay a premium for that.’

“We’ve used Ravensdown advisors in the years we’ve been here to check our own assumptions around what our farming system’s doing. The fact I’ve got an independent farm advisor checking the modelling around our leaching profile gives us some comfort that we’re doing the right thing. Our Agri Manager Lachlan Paine is great to deal with and he’ll come out here to do soil tests with GPS so we’ll take tests from exactly the same location each year and those results, along with herbage tests, drive our fertiliser policy.”

The Bartons started developing the Taupo Beef brand in 2009 and went to market in a trial two years later, supplying the product to a number of local restaurants.

“The results were outstanding and we were asked by all the restaurants we were dealing with to continue. We’ve been going six years since that trial and demand has radically exceeded our ability to supply. All our cattle go to Taupo Beef, we now have eight other farms supplying and we’ve extended it to lamb as well. Venison is next on the list.”

Mike says integral to the success of branding any product in the meat industry is the ability to use the whole carcass.

“It’s easy to get a premium off the prime cuts but getting a premium off the whole carcass is a whole other thing. For the last 18 months we have partnered with the Neat Meat/Harmony Foods Group. They distribute and market our product to high end restaurants and retail outlets throughout the North Island. This has allowed us to achieve significant scale and really test our brand. It feels good and we’ve been really heartened by the support from consumers.

Farmers shouldn’t be afraid of acknowledging the impact we are having on our environment in terms of our farming systems. What we should do is talk openly about it.

“If farmers are asked to deal with the water quality issues on their own, it’ll just become a cost. But if we can ask the consumers to pay a premium for doing the right thing, then we can share that burden between everyone who’s involved in the food space. Eating is the final step in the agricultural process so consumers can’t be divorced from this problem,” Mike says.

“At some point, we have to start building some of the environmental costs of food production into the price that consumers pay. With Taupo Beef, for instance, the premium that we get meets some, not all, of the costs of looking after the lake. But the success for me is the relationship we’ve established with our consumers.”