Attempting a world-first, Havelock North's Jason Ross was told "it couldn't be done" but he persevered anyway. He is now the co-founder of First Light Foods, a Hawke's Bay based premium grass-fed wagyu and venison company that he started with two friends in 2003. Hawke's Bay Today reporter Andrew Ashton finds out how he did it.

When you helped found First Light what was the biggest worry you had about the viability of establishing Japanese wagyu cattle in NZ? And how did you overcome it?
We were the first company in the world to attempt to raise wagyu cattle exclusively on grass, so our greatest fear was the unknown. We faced opposition at every step, from Japanese experts who said it couldn't be done, to traditional farmers who didn't like how they looked in the front paddock, to beef processors who wanted 5000 not 500, to international wholesalers who were happy with status quo.

We knew the beef from 100 per cent grass-fed wagyu was incredible and consumers would love it, so we overcame every obstacle by being bloody minded and thick skinned. We all kept a copy of Geoff Ross' story about starting 42 below Every Bastard says no on our bedside tables.

What are the economics that need to be right to ensure ag-businesses get access to the initial capital layout needed to establish sustainable and free-range farms?
It's fair to assume potential investors into New Zealand agriculture are playing the long game. Investors therefore need confidence regarding the profitability of the sector over the medium to long term. Given all the natural factors at play in a pastoral system, the ability to forecast farm gate returns becomes critical. A key reason farmers join First Light is our ability to offer known returns, which they can hedge against their exposure to commodity markets.


Do you see meat-free meat alternatives ever replacing real meat or can the two co-exist?
The French cheese makers producing Roquefort may have worried about the invention of the Colby cheese slice, but I doubt it. They were probably too busy passionately improving their beautiful natural product.

Factory produced alternatives to meat are just that – factory produced. Over the years, companies have made many attempts to replicate nature but we prefer to concentrate on getting more of nature to our customers. It's all about giving people options, and in that vein we've just launched a range of natural, grass-fed, completely nitrate, nitrite, gluten-free sausages in conjunction with some of NZ's other best-loved brands, Barker's, Whitestone Cheese and True Honey Co. We'll keep on doing what we're doing, with pride and passion.

How can Hawke's Bay better promote its pioneering achievements across the ag-business and broader business sectors?
The best people to promote the great products Hawke's Bay can and should become famous for are its tribe of loyal customers. It is beholden upon the owners of the products and brands to have their customers love them and tell all their friends.

There are agencies here to help build that following - Hawke's Bay Tourism, Business Hawke's Bay and all the other industry organisations are doing a great job of raising awareness. We are also really lucky to have some of the best chefs, restaurants and foodies in NZ right here in Hawke's Bay who advocate daily for what the ag and food sector does, as well as providing jobs and regional growth.

Do you think the concept of the traditional co-operative movement is still valid in business today or has it had its day?
First Light's business model has many of the principles of a traditional co-operative. The philosophy of a group of like-minded individuals working together toward a common goal has worked for us. One risk of the co-operative model in New Zealand is it fuels our natural tendency to be generalists. In our experience the boat goes faster when you engage and empower specialists to manage each respective step in the value chain.