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Farming: Paddock to plate

19 Dec 2017

I am always on the lookout for food producers who have moved up the value chain and I recently discovered a brilliant example of a food producer who … “had a dream”. He grew spuds and he always wanted to … “take it to the end”.

Raymond Bowan was a passionate potato grower with a good bit of dirt and a very supportive wife, Adrienne, and family. “I always wanted to take our potatoes right to the end. From paddock to packet,” Raymond told me on the phone.

I learned a lot from the hour I spent talking with Raymond and Adrienne and I had done a bit of research too, including sampling the product.

It struck me while talking with Raymond, it is all very well for outsiders like me to talk about food producers moving up the value chain and getting closer to their end customers but, to be fair, every food producer’s case is different. The Bowan’s had a special mix of ingredients and not every food producer will have those qualities.

At boarding school in Nelson in the 1960s we were encouraged to make the best of our talents. Every morning at Assembly we had a parable from the Bible and the one I remember best was the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). I must have heard it twenty times in the five years I was there.

Everyone has a unique set of talents. According to the parable, you can, a) bury them under a bush, or, b) you can put them at risk and build something bigger than yourself. In the parable, when the father comes home, all the rewards went to the son who put his talents at risk. The son who buried his talents ‘under a bush’ had to give his single talent to the brother who had made most of his talents!

Raymond Bowan has at least three talents that he put at risk in building something bigger than himself. He had a dream to take his potatoes to the end consumer. He is, according to Adrienne, a self-motivated man driven to succeed. And thirdly, Raymond is a very good communicator one-on-one. As part of that he is a good listener and humble, in the standard Kiwi tradition.

Here is Raymond’s story. (For more detail see: www.heartlandchips.co.nz)

Raymond was the second son of a dairy farmer who didn’t want to go milking. But he did develop an early interest in growing and selling potatoes. He loved machinery. He loved working the land.

He was born in 1950. By age 18 Raymond was growing potatoes for a local fish ‘n’ chip shop in Timaru. In 1975 he and Adrienne bought Fallgate Farm in Orari, South Canterbury. It was ideal for growing potatoes. Free-draining, with very little stone and it was suitable for irrigation.

They supplied potatoes to Watties, Bluebird and Mr Chips.

Then Bluebird decided to close its potato chip factory at Washdyke. Fallgate Farm was the main supplier. Raymond wrote to them about the closure but didn’t receive a reply.

He was annoyed and stirred up. He called a family meeting and canvassed ideas in response to the closure. He floated the idea of buying the land and buildings at Washdyke and going into the potato chip business. The family were right behind him. James, the eldest son, would take over Fallgate Farm and Charlotte, their eldest daughter, who had been teaching in Australia, would become part of the team in the factory. A key ingredient was Brian Kirby, who had experience in national sales. He joined the team and is now considered one of the family. Lucky man.

The Bowans bought the land and buildings left behind at Washdyke but there was no plant to speak of. State-of-the art chip-frying equipment was imported from Holland, paid for with help from the bank, installed and put to work. People had to be employed, the brand had to be created and distribution networks were established.

The equity the Bowans had in Fallgate Farm was used to back the venture financially. The bank needed security. Adrienne put it dryly when she told me, “we were putting our ‘retirement fund’ on the line for this venture.”

In October 2010, 18 months on from the purchase of the land and buildings, Heartland Chips opened for business, and is now a much-loved national brand, a household name throughout the country.

Here are some of the takeaways I took from this remarkable story:

  • Raymond was 60 and Adrienne was 57 when Heartland opened for business. Never too old to take a risk, or to re-invent oneself.
  • The Bowans put their retirement funds on the line for this venture; risk and reward go hand-in-hand.
  • They had a point-of-difference: this was a family business, owned and operated by Kiwi farmers in the South Island of New Zealand - “Heartland”, where quality and freshness are assured by a single family in control of the whole process, from paddock to plate.
  • The provenance is clearly stated in the brand. Every aspect of the business comes from the South Island of New Zealand. Fallgate Farm is an important part of the story. This is where the quality and freshness begins. Without Fallgate Farm there wouldn’t be a Heartland Chip business. Adrienne is adamant about this. The goodness in the land and the family wealth tied up in the farm gave rise to the opportunity.
  • The brand stands out on the supermarket shelves. It has a point of difference.
  • The family has a shareholding in the Farmers Mill at Washdyke, the only grower-owned, independent flour producer in the country. Again, the Bowans moved up the value chain.

Confidence in the product and the brand has developed to the extent that Heartland is now exporting to Australia, Fiji and Singapore and they have recently bought out a new line of premium kettle fried chips. They outsold all other chips in New World stores in the South Island over Christmas 2016 with the top seller being Southern Salt at 40% of sales.

I suggested to Ray that another key ingredient to the success of the Heartland Chips story was his ability to communicate, one-on-one. He reluctantly agreed. I could see in Raymond’s story the tell-tale signs of a person who knew what he wanted and could express himself, not on a stage, but one-on-one, face-to-face. Firstly with his family. Then with professional advisers and latterly with supermarket owners. He has the ability to listen to the other chap, to stay engaged and to ask thoughtful questions.

Raymond enjoys going to marketing conferences and visiting supermarket owners every year. Some might say that it takes an extrovert to communicate well, but if you talk to enough shy people you know that is not true. To communicate well it takes a decision, and an awareness, that to accomplish things in life one has to work with others. In this department Raymond comes up spades.

Family is important to the success of the new business. Adrienne and Raymond travel a bit and although they have had other people involved in the business they reckon it is not the same as having family in charge (Brian excluded). “It helps me relax knowing our family is looking after things when we go away,” confides Raymond.

All in all, a wonderful family story, and a brilliant example of what it takes to move up the value chain.

Everyone’s circumstances are different, of course, but making the most of your talents is all anyone can ask.

Keep asking great questions …

Donald Rhodes6

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