Producer determined to succeed

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

Last spring, Blackwood Valley Beef’s Warren Pensini boarded a plane to Sydney with a rib section of organic beef stowed away in his luggage.

It was perhaps not the most common way of promoting a beef brand, but Warren was no stranger to knocking on doors.

Neil Perry was set to open a branch of his infamous restaurant, Rockpool, in Perth, and the top chef had been in WA to source product.

Warren had missed him by several days, but undeterred, hauled his beef directly to the eatery’s Sydney door and executive chef Khan Danis.

The process resulted in Rockpool wanting to use the Boyup Brook farmer’s beef on its Perth menu.

But before the restaurant opened, WA’s season turned sour. In October last year, Warren was forced to reduce the size of his herd, which postponed his plans to see Blackwood Valley Beef on Rockpool’s menu.

Nevertheless, it’s an example of Warren’s determination to take his meat to the top.

Warren is quick to affirm he’s not producing a commodity, but a food.

His aim is to produce the best and most sustainable beef product he can and it’s a philosophy that flows from Boyup Brook’s green pastures through to the meat served up.

It all started after the former Pilbara pastoralist sold his share of the station, working at farms and feedlots until buying a 664 hectare property in the Blackwood Valley.

Initially, Warren and his wife, Lori, turned off cattle in the conventional way and had little intention of becoming organic.

“The first couple of years, we were farming anything but organic,” he said. “We weren’t cropping but we were using fertiliser — making hay and doing all the things everyone else does. But then we realised that we weren’t going anywhere.”

After raising cattle on the clean, green rangelands, Warren was keen to go chemical-free and implemented a rotational grazing system with relatively low inputs.

Branding the beef produced to gain more value seemed to be the next logical step.

“Initially, we marketed it as grass-fed, chemical-free beef, but then I spoke to (butcher) Vince Garreffa and he suggested we become certified organic. Otherwise, you’re just like any other person who’s trying to sell beef,” Warren said.

That was three and a half years ago and, since then, the brand has featured on menus across the State, including the successful Perth chain Jus Burgers, as well as IGA and Fresh Provisions stores.

But it has taken a huge amount of legwork.

“There were many hurdles and there still are,” Warren said.

“It is different to take your own product directly to customers and there are a lot of processes involved, particularly with beef.

“It was interesting getting into doing our own processing to see the costs involved in getting the product from the paddock to the plate.

“It’s a great process for all farmers to go through, because you see what it takes and the costs that are associated with it.”

Warren’s advice to others wanting to brand their own product: have a unique product that has its own story.

“Number one is you’ve got to have a good product,” he said.

“The presentation has to be good. That was something we thought about long and hard — how our product looks on the shelf.

“People want something that’s packaged and portioned well, but also has a story attached to it.

“Organics is a growing market. With our brand, we feel there’s a lot of area for growth.”

But with organics, that growth is going to be limited by the amount of organically certified land available.

Warren admitted they’re probably not making more money than if they were selling cattle on the conventional market, but by bringing other producers online and stitching up a deal with processor L and N Meats, he’s determined to change that.

In an attempt to take some of the peaks and troughs out of cattle prices, Warren has negotiated a flat price with L and N Meats.

“Part of the partnership we’ve developed with L and N Meats, it can absorb a few of those costs,” he said.

“Previously, I was wearing all of those costs.”

The flat price means Warren has a confirmed premium price. It has allowed him to bring online other organic producers, such as Nullarbor pastoralists Mark and Karen Forrester.

Mark and Karen had already been considering ways of achieving a premium for their rangeland beef.

In most seasons, the Forrester’s cattle will be grown out on Kanandah Station, finished at Warren’s Boyup Brook farm and then branded as Blackwood Valley Beef.

It also means the brand can grow.

“With the season, we’ve had to cut back our numbers,” Warren said.

“The next 12 months, we’re looking at putting about 300 through the system. Then, within 18 months, 500 to 600 a year.

“That’s going to be governed by how much we can grow the business at the retail level and seasons, both in Boyup Brook and at Mark and Karen’s station.”

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