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The classic case of turning a threat into an opportunity applies perfectly to Orari cropping farmers Raymond and Adrianne Bowan.

The couple, who farm 1375ha near Geraldine, just off State Highway 1 north of Timaru, found out in late 2008 that the local Bluebird crisp making plant which took a third of their potato crop, was to close.

Instead of throwing their hands up in the air, Bowan went and had a yarn to key people in the potato processing industry as well as an engineer.

"We were fortunate to get some key men involved with us, especially Bill Cockburn who brought a wealth of knowledge in chip making," says Raymond Bowan. "It was an opportunity for them too, and they never thought they'd have something like this be able to happen."

Once they found that they were all interested in creating a new potato crisp business, in February 2009 the Bowan's, through an agent bought the empty shell of the main building, a warehouse and potato storage area. Their purchase of an existing manufacturing plant also meant that consents were already dealt with.
This was just the beginning of a huge learning curve however.

New crisping plant had to be sourced from Holland, colour sorters (for the crisps themselves) were bought from America and packaging equipment purchased from around New Zealand.

The production side of things was just one aspect however; the branding and design of their 'Heartland' brand was an entirely separate issue.

Getting the name itself registered took a while, with the final design being an iterative process. The company was fortunate to have a co-operative local supermarket owner who allowed Heartland to test whether the packaging stood out when on the shelves.

An initial design didn't do the trick, so it was back to the drawing board.

Bowan says this was a big part of the development process, "but we used people who were able to help get us to that stage."

As well as the design, aspects such as bar-coding and "getting the ingredients right, justifying what you put on the back of the packet," were all things that needed to be considered.

Being able to get food products onto supermarket shelves is often a difficult job for a new entrant, but Bowan says Heartland was fortunate that salesman Brian Kirby was respected within the industry.

"He said from the word go that it wouldn't be easy; we had no disillusion with that," says Bowan.

Since beginning crisp production in October, Heartland crisps have been mostly only available in Foodstuff's South Island supermarkets. The Auckland Nosh food outlets have also stocked the crisps, but the company intends to slowly expand into new markets.

"Our crisps are pitched at the middle, and the reports coming back are that for the quality, they're good value for money," Bowan says. "Pricing's a fine line. If we put a dearer price on them, we mightn't get them out the door."
He makes the point that the company's learning to crawl before it walks (or even runs), and the plant is nowhere near capacity. It doesn't run every day of the week, yet, while a second shift could also be added if required.

A range of kettle crisps will also eventually be added to the line up, but again, the company's getting all its ducks in a row first.

Bowan says the major lesson for the couple has been to make sure "you have good people onboard, and get good advice."

"I wouldn't have changed a thing about the way we've done things, but without the two key people [from the previous crisp business] and the engineer, it wouldn't have been easy."

A financial advisor has also become a trusted ally, and he helps run the now monthly board meetings that Heartland has.

"He thinks outside the square and has been very valuable," Bowan says.

"We've enjoyed this challenge. We've no regrets at this stage."

Potato supply threat turned into crisp opportunity

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