It’s tough enough maintaining a reliable domestic food supply chain during the coronavirus pandemic. Imagine, then, the challenge of managing one that stretches nearly 8,000 miles.
Silver Fern Farms is New Zealand’s largest processor and marketer of livestock and red meat. Jointly owned by a cooperative of 16,000 local farmers and China’s Shanghai Maling Aquarius Co. Ltd., the company exports $1.6 billion of grass-fed beef, lamb and venison each year.
With roots extending nearly 100 years, Silver Fern is well-versed in the complexities of exporting to some 70 countries around the world. But the COVID-19 posed a new and unprecedented challenge.
Key markets disappeared overnight, but U.S. country manager Matt Luxton says the company was able to maintain a measure of export sales around the world because the virus hit different countries at different times. In the U.S., it has benefited from the ability to shift its sales and marketing focus in line with changing industry trends. The food service business “has almost fallen off the cliff,” Luxton notes, “so pivoting into the retail space has been hugely important.”
Silver Fern does a substantial business in both frozen and chilled red meat. In the case of the latter, a 120-day shelf life makes it possible to sell product in the U.S. despite the distance it has to travel.
A steady supply of transportation and distribution infrastructure is, of course, always a concern. Luxton says the company leans on long-standing relationships with international and U.S. carriers to maintain a reliable flow of product, both directly to retailers and to three processing plants in North America.
Many Asian exporters to the U.S. have been subject to sudden vessel cancellations in trans-Pacific services. That was especially the case for Silver Fern in the early months of the pandemic, Luxton says, but the disruption “was relatively short, and we were able to manage our way through.” Over the last three to five years, ocean carriers have placed bigger ships into service out of New Zealand, boosting capacity for an exporter that can marshal large amounts of cargo on behalf of its many owners.
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