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Meet the Maker: First Light

The Healthy Butcher exclusively imports its New Zealand 100% Grassfed beef directly from First Light, a New Zealand Meat co-operative. There are quite a few reasons why The Healthy Butcher opts to source meat from New Zealand (alongside local options), so we wanted to properly introduce First Light to you! This partnership has always been a natural fit as First Light's farming practices, ethical raising of cattle and commitment to quality align perfectly seamlessly with The Healthy Butcher's values. New Zealand also offers very favourable conditions to allow for 100% Grassfed animals. We caught up with Jason Ross, First Light's CEO and one of its founders, to further delve into these topics. 

First Light Founders Jason Ross, Greg Evans and Gerard Hickey

Fresh City: Can you tell us about how First Light started? What was the original intent and has that changed in any way over the years?
Jason Ross: First Light was founded by 3 friends frustrated with the traditional meat value chain. We had cut our teeth in the industry and were unhappy with the lack of transparency and the commodity mindset. We had also identified a problem we thought we could solve – beef with the consistency, tenderness and succulence of grain-fed, raised on grass without any of the nasty inputs. So we set about inventing 100% grass-fed wagyu beef, and we set about designing a value chain to seamlessly connect consumers who care, with a group of like-minded farmers.

This all happened back in the early 2000’s when grass-fed beef was just starting to make its come back in North America. We came from New Zealand, where grain-fed beef doesn’t exist, so for us it wasn’t a return to the old ways, grass-fed wagyu was our attempt to make the grass-fed beef better than grain-fed in every possible way. A few things have changed; where once the whole company could sit around a desk with 3 chairs, we now have almost 50 staff and 150 farmers in our co-operative. We are a little older and have an amazing team around us. And our vision for grass-fed beef rightfully being more valuable than grain-fed has played as we hoped it would. But the fundamentals remain unchanged; great First Light farmers growing wagyu cattle on grass, producing amazing beef, and sending it to a small group of fantastic like-minded companies like Fresh City.

FC: What makes First Light's meat so different from others? Can you explain what 100% Grassfed means and why that's so vital to a high quality result?
JR: As much as we love grass-fed beef, it’s really inconsistent when compared to grain-fed beef. That’s because there is a lot less energy in grass than corn, and free range animals burn energy walking up and down hills. Then there is the annoying inconvenience of having to contend with the vagaries of nature in a pastoral system.

Unfortunately, the rain, cold, sun and wind don’t always play ball and deliver perfect grass every day of the year. New Zealand has a natural advantage when it comes to growing grass, a temperate climate and rain every other day make for perfect growing conditions. But that’s not enough. Tender juicy meat needs fat, which is where wagyu genetics comes in. 100% grass-fed wagyu cattle require good grass every day of their lives in order to put down marbling, which in turn requires grass farmers at the top of their game.

Together with our farmers we have developed a farming system that includes multi-species grass swords, rotational grazing techniques and crops such as kale, chicory and brassicas planted and ready for those periods of the year when we know the grass naturally reduces in its energy levels. Our system replicates nature, and like nature it’s far from simple. The result is what we believe to be the ultimate beef – guaranteed tender, juicy, delicious steaks with the reassurance the animal lived a great life. 

FC: Why is marbling so important when it comes to taste and texture of meat? 
JR: It’s a bit of a tongue twister but there are 2 types of fat in an animal, intermuscular and intramuscular. Intermuscular fat sits around the muscle, intramuscular fat resides within the muscle. Both serve the same purpose, they are basically reserves the body is storing for the moment it needs it. Most cattle breeds lay down fat around the muscle, the wagyu breed is unique in that it lays down fat within the muscle. When you see a fully grown wagyu animal it looks lean when compared to another breed, however it will likely have more fat. That is very important when it comes to steak, because all that intramuscular fat, or marbling, performs the job of internally basting the steak. It also carries the flavour of the meat to our palette. The result is a piece of beef that needs very little trimming of external fat, so little waste, and a guaranteed juicy, tender and flavourful bite.

FC: Can you talk about sustainability and the ethical raising of meat as it pertains to First Light's practices?
JR: Yes, I could talk about this subject all day… But basically, our business is connecting people with a shared moral compass. If we have done our job right, the person who raised the animal in New Zealand and the person who ate the steak in Toronto should have aligned values. That means the animal had a great life. Great means it was free to express its natural ruminant instincts, on a farm that knows its environmental limitations and manages inputs and outputs to ensure it is net positive.

We don’t need Certified Humane or ASPCA certification to oversee our animal welfare practices, but third party validation helps provide reassurance, so we are certified by both organizations. Environmental custodianship has and will increasingly be important. We already farm to what is broadly accepted as regenerative standards. Because the definition is at this point very grey, we have decided to write and operate to our own internal Regen protocols. Our approach to Regen is whole new story, suffice to say on the continuum from protecting to rejuvenating, our job is to protect the carbon rich soils we are fortunate to have.

FC: Meat consumption has a big part to play in our environmental impact - how does First Light approach these issues?
JR: It’s a hot topic we have been thinking about for a very long time. Our approach is to look to nature for the solution. The planet has happily sustained ruminant animals and plants for as long as it has held life. It is hard to see how humans could possibly re-engineer a world in balance without animals. This said, the reality is human population growth means fewer natural resources and the inevitable result will be less animals. So we are designing for a future with less animals on our planet.

We arrived at this conclusion some time ago, at which point we shifted our focus from growing volume to growing value. We stopped increasing cattle numbers and we have no intention of re-starting. Instead, we have invested in optimizing our micronutrient biomass, or put more simply ensuring every last piece is used for its best possible purpose. We now produce our own leather, pet food, collagen, nutraceuticals and we are even bringing back bone china. For us, success is delivering more and more value for our consumer and our farmer, a business fit for the realities of the future world we are all responsible for.

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