Game of birds
Gourmet delights wander round this block, and its owners can’t get enough of what is turning into a delectable little bird business.
It’s ironic that Rodney Alexander and Joyce Lloyd don’t consider themselves foodies, despite being surrounded by gourmet game products which flap their way around their Nuhaka block, an hour’s drive south of Gisborne.
They used to be conventional sheep and beef farmers. Now they are suppliers of quail eggs, pigeon squabs, and Muscovy duck sous vide served with an orange sauce.
Their old farm was 1200 hectares with a supportive network of fertiliser reps, stock agents, accountants and established processors and markets. Rodney and Joyce are now having to educate their potential market about what their products are, what they taste like and how to cook them, before they even start selling.
“We took 30 dozen quail eggs to our first market, and sold one,” says Rodney. “So I went to Briscoes and bought a pot. Ninety-nine percent of New Zealanders have never tasted a quail egg so how could I sell them one?”
Tiny quail eggs pack a tasty nutritious punch, and are the foundation of their business which has since expanded to include a range of gourmet game bird meats and their by-products.
Going from station owner to stallholder at the local farmer’s market has been a dramatic lifestyle change. Rodney rates the learning curve as near vertical and Joyce admits the work commitment is colossal. “It never stops, there is no time off.” They’re learning about breeding and raising game birds on a commercial scale - the first in New Zealand for many species - but also meat processing, supply chains, branding, marketing and selling. The breeding and raising of the birds is the aspect they are most au fait with. They are both farmers who have spent a lifetime on the land, people who understand animal’s and nature’s quirks, input costs and returns, and how to raise prime food to meet the market.
Their bible is the 54-page Quail Manual by Albert F. Marsh, the go-to reference for everything, even how to castrate 100 male quails which when penned up before processing “fight worse than bulls in the
back paddock,” says Rodney.
Joyce’s refusal to assist was immaterial. Quail are very light sensitive so Rodney ‘castrated’ them by throwing a horse blanket over their pen. On June 30, 2008, Rodney and Joyce handed their two farms in northern Hawke’s Bay over to Rodney’s sons and retired to a block around the corner.
Until then they had been playing with birds.
“I would raise 150 pheasants and let them go, and duck shooters would come up the river and shoot them,” says Rodney. “We had some pigeons that bred up and moved into the shed. They shat on everything. The boys got sick of the bikes being covered in shit every morning so eventually shot them out.”
Once they retired - a term you apply loosely to this couple - they placed an advertisement in the Agtrader newspaper for quail and received about a dozen replies. On a road trip which included a train ride from Auckland to Wellington and hiring a red convertible, Rodney and Joyce drove up the North Island purchasing bobwhite, Californian, Chinese and Corturnix ( Japanese) quail. They acquired a boot full of quail but, more importantly, got the opportunity to talk to bird enthusiasts and glean information. It was a Whakatane breeder who told them the Corturnix quail was the one they wanted for egg production.
“Next minute, we had all these eggs,” says Joyce. “Eggs for Africa and we had to learn how to deal with them.”
The Quail Manual provided a recipe for pickled eggs which, once packed into 270ml jars, then needed a label.
That led them to Dana Kirkpatrick and the world of market research and branding. Looking back, Rodney and Joyce consider the approximately $10,000 spend on marketing a good investment.
“Perhaps others wouldn’t need to, but we are quite naive about computers,” says Joyce. “We wouldn’t be where we are today if we hadn’t done it.”
Rodney agrees. Marketing is their biggest effort he says, and needs to be a strong emphasis in any small enterprise.
“It was hard to spend the money up front,” he admits. “But it made us think ahead.”
Dana identified their target market: Yuppies, DINKS (double income, no kids), Foodies, and Careful Eaters (retirees with discretionary income who care about what they eat). She worked out where they lived and shopped (Hawkes Bay and Auckland, but not their closest towns of Wairoa and Gisborne), current supply issues (varying price, inconsistent supply,