IN THE LATE 1980s WIMMERA graingrower David Matthews used to bag his chickpeas and drive 300 kilometres to Melbourne to deliver trailer loads to small retailers and pigeon owners. It was, he says, a great lesson in developing a customer focus.
Building on that experience, in 1993 David and his wife, Sam, established the Wimmera Grain Company. The company specialises in buying, processing and exporting pulse crops, and meets the dual aims of the couple wanting to market their-own crops as well as creating jobs in the small town of Rupanyup in Victoria's western district.
One of the company's distinguishing features is that it strives to give growers as much information as possible about their customers and their requirements.
"In a traditional grain trading environment there has always been a temptation to ensure the growers don't know too much, to keep the producer and consumer well apart from each other so you can maximise your margin, " David says. "Well, we've tried to go the other way and provide as much information as we can to the growers, to be sure they understand what we are targeting. "
This reflects David's belief that the only way everybody along the supply chain can improve their returns is to increase the overall value to the consumer. "If we co-operate with each other we can drive up the overall value and ensure that everybody increases their profit. That is central to our approach, " he says.
Another aspect of the company is management of the supply chain. By identifying who in the chain adds value to the process of getting grain to their customers, they can sometimes tighten up that process.
With the red lentil trade to India, for example, David believes it is best to deal through the Australian offices of Indian exporters because they understand the culture as well as the complex legal and financial systems of the country. In other cases, such as selling oats for feed to Spain, David feels confident dealing directly with the customer.
"We feel we can control that, so the only people we need are the grower, ourselves and our customer in Spain. That is a very tight supply chain with everybody communicating tightly in that loop, " he says.
While products like red lentils, desi chickpeas and field peas dominate their trade, the Wimmera Grain Company is heavily focused on developing small specialty markets. "They'll generally be ones where we need good communication between each participant to ensure we get the right quality parameters and to make sure we understand clearly what our customers are looking for, " David says.
The company employs a plant breeder who is trialling crops such as azuki beans, borlotti beans and marrowfat peas.
"Our role is to try and bring everything along together. To make these industries successful we have to get the agronomy right, so we have to find suitable cultivars for the geographic zones we are looking at; and we also have to find cultivars that suit our target customers, the Japanese. As soon as we get some reasonable samples, we'll be sending them to the Japanese for their assessment. "
David believes farmers of the future will continue to be more involved in ex-farmgate roles. "For maybe some of your crop, like wheat or barley, you will just be a grower, but for the specialty crops or ones with more precise specification, you will need to be more involved in the marketing, " he says.