Nuffield Scholar Sonya Comiskey
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Nuffield opens doors for QLD beef producer

Category Innovation

Sonya Comiskey

Walking into her first Nuffield event, a pre-interview dinner in Melbourne, thousands of kilometres from her Central Queensland home, Sonya Comiskey knew not a single person, nor what to expect.

A few hours later, she floated out of that same room – elated, inspired and with renewed confidence after, as she describes, ‘having found my people’.

As a beef producer and a start-up incubator project manager and entrepreneur, Sonya knows first-hand the importance of ‘finding your tribe’, and immediately recognised the opportunity the Nuffield Scholarship afforded in terms of building a network of like-minded people.

“After that particular evening I thought, if I don’t get through the interview process, I’m going to keep applying regardless, the pre-scholarship process is an opportunity in itself!”

Thankfully Sonya received a scholarship – supported by Rabobank, which sponsors one scholar each year – and discovered for herself the full raft of opportunities Nuffield presented.

“It really is a priceless opportunity, a program with international connections that allows you to deep dive into your subject of choice, with such a strong alumni of agriculturally minded professionals,” Sonya said.

Sonya used her Nuffield journey to explore the use of effective beef branding to attract a premium, based on the consumer’s perceived value of the product and its provenance, as opposed to merely selling beef as a commodity. She also looked at collaborative value chains and the use of technology such as Blockchain to underpin provenance and traceability.

 

The results of her global research project culminated in the establishment of her own branded beef program, Southern Cross Beef, which uses Blockchain technology to supply branded cross-bred Bazadais beef into the domestic market.

A niche French breed, Bazadais cattle are renowned for their lean carcass and eating quality, especially tenderness, and Sonya is filling the gap in the growing market of consumers who prefer their beef less marbled.

Having previously been involved in a commercial cross breeding and stud Bazadais operation, Sonya’s Nuffield findings helped her navigate the risks and feasibility of her venture, steering her towards collaborating with other regionally-based beef producers, feedlots, processors and technology platform owners to build the brand, rather than produce the beef herself.

“Together we are trialling the adoption of new technologies in the beef industry to support the marketing of Southern Cross Beef and an additional, soon to launched brand, Epicurean Beef – which is Australia’s first French beef brand.”

Sonya works with producers who breed and background cross bred Bazadais cattle across Queensland, before they are lot-fed in Dalby and processed with the Casino Food Coop in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales.

Sonya Comiskey

The lean but tender Southern Cross Beef is fast gaining consumer attention, she said – its perceived health benefits appealing, as well as its more delicate flavour compared to rich, marbled alternatives.

“In France, the Bazadais heritage breed trades for up to 40 per cent above general commodity beef prices, and my aim is for this beef product to gain the same premium traction here in Australia in recognition for its superior eating quality and heritage breed value.”

As a mother with two young children, Sonya herself was somewhat of a Nuffield niche, and encouraged more women with children to apply and promote women in agriculture and the beef industry.

“There was a lot of concern surrounding how I could do the program with children at home, which none of my male cohort seemed to experience.”

“I think more than anything, my children see my sacrifice and hard work, and it helps inspire and drive them.  Completing a Nuffield scholarship can absolutely be done by a working Mum, you just need a rock solid plan, and multiple contingency plans – you definitely don’t want to be managing child care arrangements from a kibbutz in Israel in the middle of the night!”

From her home in Emerald Sonya is now driving Southern Cross Beef, physically and literally.

“There is a lot of travel involved, despite our virtual COVID world, my key learning from Nuffield was that people like to do business with ‘people’.”

“I travelled the world three times over to learn this valuable lesson, when you drill down into a brand, the establishment of trust and relationships is the key to success, so I make sure I get in my car and visit my partners,” she said. “It was fascinating to see multi-million dollar deals made in Europe and the USA on nothing more than a hand-shake – such is their faith in people, and relationships. This really surprised me, the lack of contractual rigor.”

“Face-to-face relationship building is so important, and my next step is to build face-to-face relationships with consumers to build further authenticity and trust.”

With Southern Cross Beef launched in March 2020, on the eve of COVID and coupled with record high cattle prices, Sonya said her business had endured a challenging start, which further reiterated her Nuffield gratitude. 

“Without Nuffield I wouldn’t have had the network or mentors that I have, and would have perhaps focussed on things that I now realise I needn’t prioritise, and I certainly wouldn’t have put in the extensive research required before venturing into a business such as this.”

“And now I feel so fortunate to have a global perspective on life – sometimes you need to get out of the back paddock and really start challenging the opinions we inevitable tend to inherit from our local environment.”

For more information on how to become a Nuffield Scholar click here

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