Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Veal initiative co-founder on the journey so far

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Julia Galwey, 2020 Kellogg Scholar, talks with Bryan Gibson about Pearl Veal NZ, a new sustainable utilisation of the bobby calf resource.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Winner of the recent Silver Fern Farms Market Leader Award at the 2023 Beef+Lamb NZ Awards, Pearl Veal is an innovation story that covers the journey from an idea to the challenges of development, and to implementation.

Founded by Julia Galwey and Alan McDermott out of the frustration that there had to be a better way, the initiative is now providing high quality, pasture-raised veal to top chefs around NZ and Japan.

Listen to the podcast here, or read the full transcript below.

Bryan Gibson, Managing Editor Farmers Weekly.
Kia ora, you’ve joined the Ideas That Grow podcast, brought to you by Rural Leaders. In this series, we’ll be drawing on insights from innovative rural leaders to help plant ideas that grow so our regions can flourish. Ideas that Grow is presented in association with Farmers Weekly.

Kia ora, you’ve joined the Ideas That Grow podcast, brought to you by Rural Leaders. In this series, we’ll be drawing on insights from innovative rural leaders to help plant ideas that grow so our regions can flourish. Ideas that Grow is presented in association with Farmers Weekly.

My name is Bryan Gibson, Managing Editor of Farmers Weekly and this week I am talking to the recent winner of the Market Leader Award at the Beef and Lamb New Zealand Awards, Julia Galwey.

Bryan Gibson:
G’day Julia, how’s it going?

Julia Galwey, 2020 Kellogg Scholar and Co-Founder Pearl Veal:
Good, thank you Bryan. How are you?

BG: Pretty good, where are you calling from today?

JG: I am calling from my home office in Christchurch.

BG: Nice. Have you been getting all the wind we’ve been getting up here?

JG: Yeah, it’s been pretty mixed bag at the moment. Very much spring weather.

Winning at the 2023 Beef+LambNZ Awards.

BG: Yeah. Now, it was a pretty big time for you, the Beef and LambNZ Awards.

JG: Yeah, it was pretty neat for Pearl Veal to be recognised at such a wonderful event. Just have an evening of celebrating lots of positive things happening in the industry with the various finalists and category winners. A big thank you to Beef and LambNZ for hosting the event, and also to Silver Fern Farms for sponsoring the market leader category.

BG: Yeah. Now, can you just tell us a bit about your background in the food and fibre sector?

Background – Julia Galwey, 2020 Kellogg Scholar.
JG: Sure. I grew up on a sheep and beef and deer farm near Fairlie in South Canterbury. Then I headed off to Lincoln to do an Ag Science degree. Following that, I had six years in the agribusiness team for ANZCO Foods based in Ashburton, which was a neat team to be involved in, and a really varied role, that got me going in the meat industry.

Then in 2018, Alan McDermott and myself, we set up Agri-Food Strategy, which is our own agribusiness consultancy company. It focuses on working with farmers and agribusinesses to address strategic challenges and opportunities. I guess, again, it’s been pretty varied in terms of the work I’ve been involved with in that space.

BG: Now, you took on a Kellogg Scholarship in 2020, which, of course, was the year of the lockdown, if I remember correctly. You chose to do it on a value chain for veal. What made you think of that subject?

Background – Julia Galwey, 2020 Kellogg Scholar.

JG: Good question. Yeah, I guess the idea to look at this for my report was just being around the meat industry and the bobby calf topic continues to come up in conversations. There just wasn’t really a lot of information that I could see here in New Zealand in terms of looking at older veal animals as an option for this resource, a by-product of the dairy industry. I didn’t really want to focus on the discussion or debate around the bobby calves themselves. I did for some context in my report, but I just wanted to focus on looking at one potential solution or opportunity for utilising some of that resource.

BG: Then, of course, it’s one thing to write a report about this stuff, but you carried that on and started a business. How did that get off the ground?

JG: I guess while I was doing my research report, there’s a few things that came up in terms of some learnings and drivers or motivators. One of them was probably around learning how much of a bigger risk the bobby calf thing was here in New Zealand. Especially compared to other countries in terms of the scale, with our couple of million versus Australia would be the next biggest, at around 400,000.

The report highlighted we were out there on our own in terms of how big of an issue it might be going forward. Some of that, was a bit of a driver. I learned a bit around the varying types of veal markets that there were internationally and saw some opportunity but I really struggled to find any information on pasture-fed veal systems.

So, it became obvious that maybe there was an opportunity for New Zealand to diversify in terms of our offering in the veal space with what we’ve got here. Also in terms of some of those credence attributes – pasture-fed, free-range, rather than copying some of the international veal systems.

Kellogg Programme research into the potential of the bobby calf resource.

As I was doing the report, Alan McDermott, who’s my business partner, was pretty keen to have a go. We could test out what opportunity there really might be. I mean, it’s all very well, like you say, writing a report, but you just have to have a go to see whether something might work or not. Halfway through my project, that’s what we started doing.

We had a quick brainstorm for a name so we could get a company set up. There’s quite a few negative connotations around the name ‘veal’, which I learned a bit about while I was doing my report, in terms of some of the historic practices that used to happen in terms of how veal was raised internationally.

There was, I guess, some questions around whether we should even call it veal or not. But we talked to a few chefs and they pointed out that we need to call it what it is. That’s what they know it is. A lot of them have trained internationally and used it before, so just stick with what it is, but make sure you build a story you can underpin your brand with. We sourced some under 12 months of age, a whole 12 of them, and found a processor that was happy to process them for us.

We set up cut specs and went along to the plant to see how it would go and then started sending some products to chefs to see what they thought. We had a development chef that we were introduced to through a contact, and he kindly took us around Wellington for a couple of days. He introduced us to a few chefs, and helped us learn how that world works in terms of getting into restaurants and talking to chefs – and how to get on their menus.

The feedback on the product was great. We started working with the team at Synlait, including one of my fellow Kellogg cohort members, which was quite cool. They’ve been really supportive in what we were trying to do, and helped us connect with some of their dairy farm suppliers who were keen to give it a go and rear some calves. It’s been a nice fit for us to work with the Synlait team and some of their suppliers.

BG: How difficult is that process? You’ve got a prototype product and you’ve started with a small number of animals to begin with, then you’ve got to scale that up to something that’s a viable business. What’s the process there?

JG: It’s definitely one of the trickier things to balance. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg in terms of you’re not quite sure in terms of what market you’ve got, but you need to get enough product that you’ve got enough to supply to a restaurant to put it on their menu. Yeah, it is a really difficult balance, and some of that is just to take a risk. I guess for us, one of the things that we were quite focused on was building around the story and attributes we wanted to go around our brand. With some of that starting with animal welfare for us in producing the best calf possible.

From research to innovation.

There’s quite a lot of challenge in terms of veal as anything has to be produced before the calf is 12-months old, so a lot of the challenge is around getting it to grow as fast as possible and to reach a heavy weight in that time. It needs a really good start in life as a calf, to be able to do that. Some of our system was built around a particular rearing regime in terms of good colostrum.

Then we only use whole fresh milk rather than milk powder, which has had a lot of the good bits taken out of it. Milk is what’s designed for the calf, so let’s just give it that and obviously some pasture as well. But because of that rearing regime, we can’t just go out and get any calf on the market.

It starts right from the start in terms of what we’ve built to underpin our brand. That also is a little bit harder in terms of, like you say, we’re planning what we need over a year in advance and you don’t necessarily know what your market is then. A bit of risk, I guess, and just a balance of starting smallish so that you learn the risks, learn the things you need to iron out as you go.

BG: Getting back to your rearing regime, that must mean you need to work pretty closely with the farmers who are actually doing this stuff?

Building scale.

JG: Definitely. I think the other thing in that space is the Synlait farms that we’re working with are all certified ‘Lead with Pride’, which again, helps underpin animal welfare and the colostrum management. Obviously, our contracts have got the rearing regime outlined in them, and we talk them through what that looks like and why. We also don’t have meal as part of our rearing regime. Part of that is around wanting to remain grain-free, so 100% pasture-fed and also antibiotic-free, so that we can look at going into the US market in time.

Again, it’s the whole fresh milk, no meal. It is a bit of a change to how calves are traditionally reared here. Definitely, we’ve got to work closely with the farmers on what that looks like. We’re pretty thankful for those first few farms that were willing to take a bit of a risk and rear and finish calves for us.

We were a couple of random people saying, here, we want to contract you to rear these calves in a particular way and finish them through to an age and weight that’s not traditional here. They had to trust a bit that we would take them when we said we would and have a processor to process them and pay them.

I guess that’s probably also part of what’s been quite helpful working within the Synlait team. That helped farmers have a go. There’s just some great farmers out there that are keen to try something different and learn with us, which has been nice.

BG: Yeah. Now, who are you selling to now? What are your export markets, or locally?

JG: Currently, we are pretty much mostly domestic market into high-end restaurants. We’ve just started doing a little bit into some smaller retailers here, and we’ve just started a little bit of export.

BG: Now, obviously, the bobby calf issue is one that New Zealand’s farming industry is grappling with. Do you see this type of initiative as part of a solution?

The rearing regime and how it works.

JG: Yeah, I mean, the bobby calf issue is obviously a big social license to operate topic in the dairy industry, and it’s a pretty tricky thing to navigate with the views of community here and also our customers and consumers globally.

I guess we just have to keep asking ourselves if we got practices that we’re comfortable and being transparent about, and if not, then what are our opportunities and solutions to do something differently? I guess that’s really what we’re trying to do with Pearl Veal is.

I don’t like to focus too much on the bobby calf aspect of it. But more the opportunity that exists to take some of that resource and add value to produce a really quality veal-based product with a story and a brand that’s underpinned by animal welfare standards and a pasture-based system that we believe in. We’re proud to share with chefs and customers and consumers here.

BG: Of course, back to where this all started, the Kellogg Programme – how did you find it? Is it something you’d recommend to others who were thinking about doing it?

Collaborating for success.

JG: Yeah, absolutely. It was such a good course and I guess a real opportunity to network too. We had such a great cohort of people. It was a really good cross-sector group of people. You get to meet people that you wouldn’t normally be working with and the people and the speakers that come in are incredible. It really broadens your thinking and opens up your networks and I would highly recommend it to anyone considering it.

That’s why I did it. It’s something that once people have done it, they’re always recommending to anyone that hasn’t. If you get that opportunity, jump at it. I think it’s one of those things that probably never feels like the right time when you’re in your working career because you’re always busy or home life as well. You just have to jump in and do it.

BG: Thanks for listening to Ideas that Grow, a Rural Leaders podcast in partnership with Massey and Lincoln Universities, AGMARDT and FoodHQ. This podcast was presented by Farmers Weekly.

For more information on Rural Leaders, the Nuffield New Zealand Farming Scholarships, or the Kellogg Rural Leadership Programme, please visit, Ruralleaders.co.nz.

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