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Sonya Comiskey

Queensland producer jumps into the business of branded beef

A “perfect storm” of prolonged drought and the cattle live export ban saw the availability of feedlot and processing slots and prices plummet for 2018 Scholar Sonya Comiskey and family.

Tired of being a price taker and schedule taker as a commodity beef producer, Sonya thought there must be a better way to do business. She wanted producers to benefit from the quality of their product and connect more directly with consumers. onya and her former husband introduced Bazadais, a heritage French beef breed, to their herd. That saw them win awards in some of the largest carcase competitions in Australia. They also worked with a renowned French restaurant in Brisbane to host events to promote their beef and the Bazadais breed by way of market research.

“It was really satisfying to get the feedback from chefs about how exceptional the quality of our beef was. It was more rewarding than reading a good kill sheet” she says.

Driven to take branded beef to the next level, Sonya embarked on a Nuffield Scholarship – generously supported by Rabobank – that saw her travel from the Central Highlands of Queensland across the globe. She met successful produce brand owners and technology leaders from Europe, the US and Japan. Sonya’s research identified opportunities not only for her individual business but across Australian beef and agriculture. She has launched a branded beef program, Southern Cross Beef and is about to launch Australia’s first French beef brand, Epicurean Beef.

“Building off what I have learned in my Nuffield studies, I’m collaborating with other regionally-based beef producers, feedlots, processors and technology platform owners to supply authentic French heritage beef and regionally produced beef ‘from the heart of Queensland. Together we are trialling the adoption of new technologies in the beef industry such as BeefLedger that uses blockchain, to support that provenance messaging and the marketing of the brand across domestic markets with a view to expanding into export markets predominantly in the Asia-Pacific.”

Her other big learning: “People do business with people.”

“I was almost embarrassed to have something so obvious as a finding, but interpersonal relationships were just so important at all the businesses I visited – even in multi-million dollar businesses in Northern Ireland and the US, deals were being done on a handshake and word of mouth.”

Sonya says that personal connection extends to consumers.

“Incredible businesses like Dingley Dell Pork in England, and Heartbrand Beef in Texas invite their clients to see the production. Experiences like this should be incorporated to create an emotional connection with branded beef programs. While it might be hard to get Japanese chefs out to our farms, virtual or augmented reality headsets can transport them to mustering in a chopper over the impressive rangelands of regional Queensland where our beef is produced.”

She says for more beef producers to benefit from branded beef, increased access to  processing capacity needs to be established in strategic locations.

“A lack of reliable access to service processing is the single greatest barrier to entry and scale for producer-led beef brands in Australia, particularly Queensland. Interestingly, I also observed this market blockage in Europe and North America. I was surprised as I thought it was just an Australian thing.”

Sonya says COVID-19 shutdowns and cyber-attacks on large-scale meat processing plants underline Australia’s reliance on these ageing mega-plants. She says a lack of access to smaller scale, high tech service processing operations was missing opportunity for regional development in places like Central Queensland, which is home to almost a quarter of the nation’s beef cattle herd.

“There’s great opportunity for industry and government to incentivise this kind of development, because it aligns with government priorities of regional development, innovation, manufacturing and technology.”

The scholarship gave Sonya the confidence to launch her own beef brand with a collaborative value chain.

“The Nuffield experience is life changing and invaluable. You get a level of access like no other, and then the connections you make – it’s unbelievable. Travelling with a group of people for weeks at a time, you’re excited and you’re tired and that pressure environment meant we developed relationships and had deep conversations with people that you don’t get to have in everyday life.”

Final Report Link

Final Video Link