Jess Cairns could easily be a poster-girl for the future face of New Zealand’s farming industry.
Combining practical skills with a strong academic background, the twenty-four-year-old from Southland has a clear view of both sides of the farm gate and understands the wants and the needs of today’s global consumer.
Jess is one of three Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) Future Leaders who will represent this country at the International Beef Alliance (IBA) in Brazil at the end of May.
She says she is looking forward to meeting people from other countries and cultures and gaining insight into the challenges and opportunities they see for the beef industry both within their countries and internationally.
From her own perspective, the threat from alternative proteins is a very real one and Jess cites the example of the international burger-chain Carl Jnr investing $5m in a single 30 second television advertisement for their vegan burger during the Superbowl final.
“If a company is prepared to invest in that – then how do we compete?
“We need to make sure our products are hitting that top end of the overseas market and that consumers are made aware of how we produce them. We need to use technology to tell our story. Taste Pure Nature (the B+LNZ-developed NZ Red Meat Brand) is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of our capabilities to positively advertise our products.”
Jess is also aware of the power consumers have in giving – or taking away - farmers social license to operate.
She points out that a large proportion of the country’s 4.5m people live in Auckland and some have little understanding of where their food comes from.
She believes the agricultural industry needs to be better at pushing positive messages and helping the urban majority gain a better understanding of NZ’s unique grass-based production systems rather than reacting negatively to criticism leveled at them and their farming practices.
“Ultimately consumers are concerned about the animals, just as farmers are.”
Jess’s day job is about as far removed from urban Auckland as it is possible to get.
She is the stock manager on Coalbrook Farm, a 500ha sheep and beef operation near Gore, having risen through the ranks quickly after starting as a shepherd one year ago.
She applied for the shepherd’s position armed with a Bachelor of Agricultural Science with First Class Honours but was never tempted to continue her academic studies or take on a lucrative role in agribusiness- despite having her research paper published in an internationally recognised journal.
Having grown up on a large 2000ha sheep and beef farm in the Catlins, she admits she is a farm and family girl and four years in the classroom away from her family was long enough.
“My family is important to me so I was more than happy to move back to be close to them.”
Beef cattle are used more as a pasture management tool on the farm where she now works, but Jess says having grown up with breeding cows she has a real love for anything to do with cattle.
In her last job she looked after 500 Angus cattle and 500 dairy-cross calves and has worked on dairy farms as part of the practical requirements for her degree.
“I’ve been involved in many different aspects of the beef industry.”
While she understands the challenges facing the industry, Jess believes red meat production will continue to be an important part of NZ’s economy.
At the IBA she is keen to learn about other country’s production systems and how they are dealing with changing consumers demands.
“People want to know how their food is produced and are concerned with issues such as animal welfare, environmental sustainability and genetically modified organisms.”
She says consumers are demanding to know where their food is coming and as a producer, Jess is more than willing to tell them.
Members of the International Beef Alliance (IBA) are Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, USA and Paraguay. Collectively, the IBA represents 46% of global beef cattle production and 63% of global beef exports.