I was one of over 70 women working throughout the chain from farm to plate crammed into a room at Napier’s Convention Centre on 29 May. We were all there for the first event for the New Zealand chapter of the international meat industry initiative, Meat Business Women.
The organisers were delighted by the response and turnout, including women from farming, retail, processing, export, logistics and education as well as administration, marketing, media and comms.
The multi-tasking Millennial Ashley Gray, general manager of Beef + Lamb New Zealand Inc (B+LNZ Inc) and chair of MBW New Zealand who has been instrumental in launching the professional networking initiative here, says there is plenty the group can achieve once underway.
“Once I began on this journey, the interactions I had with women working in the supply chain, were for me – revolutionary. Women in our sector are incredibly passionate. They are forward thinkers, conversation starters, game changers, shakers and movers and I believe, collectively, have a huge role to play in shaping how the meat industry is perceived and operates in years to come,” she said.
“I can see how a young woman looking to choose her career path could overlook this industry. I almost was that woman eight years ago, but I’ve had some unforgettable experiences and opportunities to create change. I know that if we can develop an environment that attracts talented women into our industry and nurture their development, the whole sector will reap the rewards.”
Gray chairs a committee of six set up to run Meat Business Women NZ – Melissa Clark Reynolds (independent director B+LNZ Ltd), Lee-Ann Marsh (B+LNZ Ltd), Brigit Corson (Foodstuffs North Island), Rebecca Hunink (BX Foods Ltd), Angela Clifford (Eat NZ Ltd) and Nikki Verbeet (NZME).
Whilst the main objectives for MBW are to develop the image of the meat industry to attract more female talent; to nurture women through the sector and skilfully improve networking, the group in Napier spent some time developing those objectives and setting the direction for the role the group will play in NZ.
Gray joined a panel – including Kate King, founder of online meat retailer Gourmet Direct, Brigit Corson fresh produce and meat manager for Foodstuffs NZ and Rebecca Hunink marketing manager for meat exporter BX Foods – chaired by B+LNZ Inc’s Fiona Windle to give their views
Discussion in the panel and during workshopping sessions roved around why women liked being part of the industry which has so often in the past has ignored their input.
Comments came back time and again to ‘the people’ and their authenticity, the “awesome experiences” available, and opportunities for women at every point and level of the supply chain. They like it too because it’s exciting and “extremely challenging”, which keeps the brain really busy.
“I also really enjoy being part of an industry that nourishes our nation and contributes daily to family life around the world,” said King. “Thousands of memorable meals happen in New Zealand homes and globally every week because our industry has made it possible and I love that.”
Industry is evolving, and even more so in recent times, consumers are starting to embrace and appreciate what Kiwi farmers are working on, the returns are getting better for farmers and processors are collaborating better with them, she noted.
Noting consumers’ disconnect from production reality, another made the point, “Urban folk often forget we produce their food.” but part of the sector’s challenges is to keep educating those consumers, said Corson. It will also be important to keep domestic prices affordable, as the sector moves to service people wanting to eat less but better-quality meat and prices rise, she noted.
Keeping a strong connection between us and our industry and its biggest influencer, Mum, is also vitally important, said King.
“As women, we can apply our natural talents to keep that connection really strong and keep her motivated to feed and keep her personal community healthy through supporting our industry.”
Noted too were the issues of finding labour at all levels, especially with Millennials not as attracted in to the meat industry as they once were. It will be important to grow the talent pool and attract new female entrants into apprenticeships, internships and grad entry.
Comments showed participants are well-aware of the impact and challenge for the sector with the rapid introduction of synthetic/plant-based proteins, which will continue to grow, but possibly not as fast as the small “but noisy” vegan movement would like. Currently quality and palatability is relatively limited, uptake of the generally thawed US and European product here in New Zealand is quite low, and they are relatively expensive. However, UK retail chains like M&S and Waitrose have launched plant-protein lines that are doing quite well.
“I’ll get frightened by them when I can smell good food when I cook them,” said King.
Split Into tables, we workshopped thoughts around what we hoped MBW would do for the meat sector and also what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern could do immediately to improve the attractiveness of working in the sector for women. We’ll hear more about that after the Committee has had time to analyse all of the many suggestions.
In addition to the panel members, included among participants were many other inspirational female leaders with stories to tell, including Aimee Charteris, the geneticist behind the Rissington Breedline and Alliance’s Omega Lamb Project, Agresearch senior meat scientist, Dr Emma Bermingham and First Light Foods venison sales and supply manager Toni Frost. There will be plenty more as well.
The New Zealand launch is the latest in a rapid expansion of the organisation which was started in the UK by Laura Ryan who says, “It’s fantastic to see the group go from strength to strength on an international scale. So many of the challenges and opportunities within the sector span the globe and getting the best possible talent pipeline is definitely one of them.
“Having an international reach will allow global mentoring opportunities and the sharing of best practice. Research shows us that having more gender diverse company boards and workforce facilitates enhanced financial performance and governance. As someone who is passionate about the meat industry, I know we can make a positive impact with Meat Business Women.”
The hardest job for the organisers in Napier was getting people to stop talking!! With many more women indicating interest in joining, but who couldn’t attend the event on the day, I’d say the initiative here in New Zealand is off to a roaring success.
For more information regarding Meat Business Women, please visit meatbusinesswomen.org.