Pastoralists eye Japanese market

Alex MasseyCountryman

Pilbara cattle producer Annabelle Coppin says a groundbreaking visit to Japan has succeeded in strengthening ties with Australia's largest beef export market.

Ms Coppin, along with six pastoralists from around the country, travelled to Japan this month as part of the P2P (Producer to Producer) program, sponsored by Meat and Livestock Australia.

The trip gave the Australian farmers a chance to rub shoulders with their Japanese counterparts and lay the groundwork for what is hoped to become a bilateral trade agreement between the two nations.

Despite steep tariffs, a high Australian dollar and Japan's dormant economy, 32 per cent of all Australian beef exports headed for the land of the rising sun in 2012.

Ms Coppin, whose Yarrie station north of Marble Bar does not yet export to Japan, said the trip succeeded in easing the nerves of Japanese producers who feared losing market share to the Aussies.

"We went over there to meet farmers, not to meet people in government," she said. "We went to meet farmers to develop a relationship with them and show that we have the same passions - and we generally did.

"When you walk onto a farm, even though you can't speak the language, you suddenly connect because you're doing the same things and asking the same questions.

"By the time we walked away from that trip, the feeling we got from Japanese farmers was 'jeez it's been great to meet you, I can see now that you're not a threat and let's work together in the future'.

"It's a different way at looking at marketing and building relationships - farmer to farmer. Trade relations do not need to be forged in an office with diplomats. Trade relations start at the grassroots."

As part of the trip the Australian contingent visited the village of Iitate in Japan's Fukushima prefecture.

The once 6000-strong village is a shadow of its former self following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

Ms Coppin said the tragedy provided impetus for the P2P program, which had its roots in Australian beef producers taking on Japanese farmers in the wake of the devastation at Fukushima.

"The MLA wanted to help … so the local farmers had a meeting and asked if we could bring their young farmers to Australia and teach them our beef farming methods," she said.

"That's what we did (and now) we've gone back to those guys to see their progress."

Ms Coppin said at 6kg per person per year, average Japanese beef consumption was still relatively low compared to Australian diets, however most pundits expected the gap to shrink in coming decades.

"We learnt the Japanese beef product is very different to ours … it's a high quality, premium wagyu," she said.

"Japanese people are always going to go for their locally bred, locally fed, locally slaughtered (wagyu) for special occasions.

"We don't need to compete in the wagyu market.

"As a whole, all we want for Japanese farmers and us is for their beef consumption to grow.

"There will always be that demand for locally bred stuff but then there is an opportunity (for Australian farmers) to supply more manufacturing beef - still high quality, but something below the locally-bred product."

Ms Coppin, who is experiencing a "fantastic" season due to increased rainfall since December, is keen to eventually establish a niche market in Japan but said her place on the trip was all about the bigger picture.

"A lot of people asked me why I went but being our biggest beef market, (Japan) still affects us at Yarrie a huge amount," she said.

"When you go overseas you think big picture about your region and in our region there's so much water, there's so much good soil, we're that close to Asia, we've got all this capital in the Pilbara, we've got all these roads, we've got ports, rail lines and an international airport (but) not one bit of that is used for agricultural exports.

"That's what agriculture needs in Australia; we need capital, just like the mining industry did it.

"Hopefully one day we can use it for more than mining."

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