Aimee Charteris: redesigning the sheep

Aimee Charteris
Aimee Charteris she sees the world quite differently from her male counterparts, but for her skill sets are key, not gender.

Growing up on a remote sheep and beef property 75 kms west of Gisborne on New Zealand’s North Island, like many other Kiwi farm youngsters, Aimee Charteris worked on-farm after school and during holidays. That work, plus a lifelong interest in science – and more particularly genetics – led her to a solid understanding of what was needed to redesign the New Zealand sheep for the future.

Charteris’ work has been behind the successful Rissington Breedline, producing high quality lamb for British retailer Marks & Spencer’s in the early 2000s. Now, as consultant to the Omega Lamb Project, which includes stakeholders Headwaters NZ, Alliance Group and the Ministry of Primary Industries, she has guided the breed development for the high-quality Te Mana Lamb produced through the partnership. This is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and is increasingly being found on restaurant tables around the world.

“I come at things from a different angle,” the livestock breeding specialist explains. “And, I always look at where I can best add value.”

She is recognised for designing and running large-scale, multi-farm breeding and commercial finishing operations with electronic recording systems and electronic progeny testing technologies to collect carcase, meat and eating quality measurements.

Her personal on-farm background included a considerable amount of time on her parents’ farm growing up. “I was really proficient in the practical side of sheep farming by my teens and I consider myself really fortunate to have had that upbringing,” she says.

A passion for science opened doors

Primary school, a 50-minute bus ride each way, gave way to secondary school in Gisborne and later boarding at King’s College in Auckland. “Which was an amazing school and a steep learning curve in diversity,” she says.

Her passion for science – a strongpoint through her school career – led on to an undergraduate degree in animal science at Massey University. This was followed by an honours degree in livestock product, meat science, animal breeding and genetics from which she graduated with a first class honours in 2001 – a personal highlight for her.

It also opened the door to Rissington Breedline as Charteris had been highlighted to them as a student with potential by lecturer Professor Dorian Garrick. The company approached her and she joined them as soon as she’d finished at Massey.

“It was a fantastic opportunity,” she says. “My landscape was far greater than it would have been in a normal graduate position.  I’m so incredibly grateful to the founders of that company, who gave me a great start to my career.”

Employed by Rissington, Charteris spent an “considerable amount of time in the UK market’, getting to visit importers, secondary processors and customers to gain a really good impression of what was required of New Zealand lamb.

“Those insights are sometimes still missing today,” she believes. “Having close connections to the market you are selling into is so incredibly important.”

After three years of full-time employment, Charteris took a break, working in Scotland at the Scottish Agricultural College where she was analysing and collating CT data in sheep. She also started speaking to farming groups about sheep systems, “which was fun,” she says.

After return to Rissington and continuing to work hard – and play just as hard – Charteris finally left in 2011 when Landcorp bought Rissington and it became Focus Genetics.

“I decided that I’d delivered what I could. I was very market focused and could see the breeding programmes were going to remain confined to being production focused only.”

By then, she had been approached by Headwaters, the group of farmers involved with the Omega Lamb Project. Her role, alongside her team, has been to develop and execute the programme from genetics through to managing lamb supply to slaughter to Alliance Group for Te Mana Lamb.

“Fundamentally not OK to take the fat out of an animal”

Careful not to negatively impact any of her previous work, one of her highlights has been learning: “It fundamentally wasn’t OK to take the fat out of an animal, which breeding programmes had been doing over the earlier two decades in order to increase the meat yield.”

Charteris works with a “higher purpose” and safeguarding the health and welfare of animals is key for her in all of her work. “I realised that breeding systems designed to enhance meat yield were breeding out the fat they needed to be healthy and also for taste.

“Consumers are highly discerning these days, they want to understand where their food comes from – the story not only needs to be authentic but it must demonstrate systems that  are conducive for the betterment of the animals.

“You can’t continue to stack meat around a skeleton,” she says, adding increasing meat yield has a finite life.  The focus had to change to eating quality – increasing the level of fat, in particular intramuscular fat is well associated with a improving the overall eating experience of lamb.

Headwaters were open-minded enough to revise their breeding indices and are now breeding ewes, specifically with high levels of fat to thrive in New Zealand’s high country.

Charteris’ highlight working with Te Mana has been the ability to work collectively with all partners along the supply chain, including Headwaters’ farmers,  the AgResearch meat science team which has done a lot of the laboratory work, the Alliance meat processing plants and the “fabulous chefs that create gastronomic masterpieces with the resulting product,” she says.

Align more closely with the market

She believes the red meat sector needs to be closer aligned with market and needs to start doing things differently.

“We need to be able to tell our stories authentically so the consumer can easily understand where we’re coming from,” she says. “Change is inevitable with the rise of alternative protein and we also really need to take account of our systems.”

She would love to see the sector becoming a lot more conscious about the health of its systems: soil, plant and animal. “We are all responsible for that and it’s where we can really make a difference for the well-being of all,” she says. Her hobbies – water-skiing, trail-walking and running, indoor netball and also polo, until she damaged her knee a few years ago – reveal a strong drive to push her limits.

She is also an advocate in finding mentors to assist with life’s journey and has relied on several for different parts of her life. “Everybody should have one,” she says. She takes a holistic approach and says it is generally better to find one outside the agricultural space. One of hers, for example, was from the mining industry.

“The key is to find out how to develop to be a better you.”

Skill set is key

Charteris has never had a problem working in the meat industry, but says she realises, as a woman, she sees the world quite differently to her male counterparts.

“The focus for me has always been around skill sets, not gender, and I love working in teams with both men and women. It’s that diversity that brings strength to projects. The key thing is for every individual is to always to understand what their strengths are.”

She hasn’t had any lowlights in the sector. “I’m a born optimist and I love a good challenge. I have found that I have often had to change my view and in doing so, I believe I’ve learned something and become more accomplished and wiser moving out the other side.”

Women bringing that different viewpoint and complementary skills will find a place in the sector, she believes. “I would love to see the meat industry attracting amazing talent. However, if you are coming into the sector, come with an open mind,” she warns.

Charteris has recently been considered for roles in governance, but has declined so far: “I believe you have to have time to commit yourself to work effectively at governance level, that is not a luxury I have had but I will think more seriously about it as I move into my next decade.”

She would love to move into the sheep and dairy goat milking sphere.  “I believe there are some fabulous opportunities in the space,” she says.

With her signature pink highlights and an articulate and punchy delivery, Charteris is a regular and popular speaker at farmer forums. Her most recent delivery was at the Dairy Women’s event, which was very well received to the extent she was swamped coming off the stage.

“I like to be able to speak freely in spaces with agile and forward-thinking teams and I want to make sure they will take my messages home and think about it.”

Her next booking is at ProteinTech in Auckland at the end of the month where she will be showing delegates, many from outside the red meat sector, that smart, natural food systems can be achieved.

“As food producers, it is our responsibility to turn the focus to building outstanding natural produce from the ground up. However, this requires a complete reset of purpose – quality and value, not quantity,” she says.

I’d say, Charteris is ready for her next step.

This is one of a series of MeatExportNZ Women in Meat profiles highlighting the roles senior women hold in New Zealand’s red meat sector. You will be able to hear Aimee Charteris speak next at ProteinTech, 30-31 July in Auckland.

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