BRANDED beef can be the vehicle to take producers from price takers to price setters. The key is rock solid relationships.
Put simply, people do business with people.
So says progressive Queensland producer Sonya Comiskey, who has just published a Nuffield report on the business of branded beef.
The Rabobank-supported scholarship took her all over the world, from Switzerland and Ireland to Japan and the United States, and she visited operations of all sizes in her bid to discover the challenges in bringing a branded beef program to market and the lessons learned by others.
"My key finding was that success is really all about people - collaboration at every link in the supply chain," she said.
"While I was busy looking for structural mechanisms like co-operative business models I discovered there were multimillion dollar businesses who don't even have contracts for processing and distribution.
"They function solely on the merits of rock solid relationships."
The lack of contractual rigour was, surprisingly, particularly apparent in the United States, Ms Comiskey said.
"Rather than being solely focussed on commercial price components, truly collaborative branding programs tended to create opportunities to bring the different blocks of the value chain together," she said.
The value of getting everyone in the same room together can't be understated.
"I was almost embarrassed to have something so obvious as finding but interpersonal relationships were just so important in all all the businesses I visited," she said.
She found multi-million dollar businesses doing deals on a handshake and word of mouth.
"Incredible businesses like Dingley Dell Pork in England and Heartbrand Beef in Texas invite their clients to see the production. Experiences like this should be incorporated to create an emotional connection with branded beef programs," she said.
"While it might be hard to get Japanese chefs out to our farms, by adopting virtual or augmented reality technology, we can transport them to mustering in a chopper over the impressive rangelands of regional Queensland where our beef is produced."
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Ms Comiskey said the need for a fundamental mindset shift also became clear - "we must move away from seeing ourselves as a cattle producer to being a beef producer."
"We can't try to be swiss army knives - tacking on more and more elements and still think we'll do the original job," she said.
"Our role must become ensuring all the moving components are working together effectively, always with the end consumer in mind.
"Nobody cares if your herd has a consistent coat colour, they care about the steak on the plate."
A major conclusion discussed in the report was the need for increased access to processing capacity.
"Reliable access to service processing for domestic and export markets needs to be established in strategic locations as this is the single greatest barrier to entry and blockage for the development of producer-led beef brands in Australia, particularly Queensland," the report said.
"Interestingly, I also observed this market blockage in Europe and North America," Ms Comiskey said.
COVID shutdowns and cyber attacks on large-scale meat processing plants underlined Australia's reliance on ageing mega plants, she said.
THROUGH the stories they tell, beef and other meat brands can facilitate a greater societal understanding of what really happens in production systems and the values behind them, Ms Comiskey said.
"Beef brands are able to educate and inform, which can hopefully offset some of the noise and misinformation well-funded anti-animal production organisations are throwing out there," she said.
"Importantly brands are able to develop a relationship and an emotional connection with the consumer.
"Some brands in Australia who I think are doing this well are OBE Organic and Vintage Beef.
"But for all of that to work, it can't just be marketing smoke and mirrors. The stories need to be underpinned by systems and technology that are able to demonstrate the brand's credibility."
The Nuffield Scholarship gave Ms Comiskey the confidence to launch her own beef brand with a collaborative value chain.
She had started out as co-founder of a French heritage Bazadais beef stud and commercial cross breeding operation based at Old Mount Stuart, a station in the Capella district.
"At the time I commenced my Nuffield journey, I was married to a fifth-generation cattleman, and we were trying to carve out our own branded beef partnership within a multi-generational commodity-focused operation across four families," she said.
That business was recognised as a leader in the production of high-quality beef, having year-on-year received awards in some of the largest carcase competitions in Australia.
"Building off my experience and what I have learned during my scholarship, I have since established collaborations with other regional beef producers, feedlots, processors and technology platform owners to supply authentic French heritage beef and regionally produced beef from the heart of Queensland," she said.
"Together we are trialling the adoption of new technologies to support the marketing of the Southern Cross Beef and Epicurean Beef (under development) brands across domestic markets with a view to expanding into export markets, predominantly in the Asia-Pacific."
Nuffield Australia awards up to 20 scholarships every year. Applications for 2022 Nuffield Scholarships close on August 6.
Find out more and apply at https://www.nuffield.com.au/how-to-apply.
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