'Her indoors' moves outdoors on the farm

By Susan Edmunds

Once, the stereotypical Kiwi farmer's wife was relegated to the kitchen to make scones. Now she's strong, smart, tech-savvy and runs a business that can be worth millions. She's the backbone of the rural economy — and she still makes a mean scone. We meet the women driving NZ's agricultural boom

Rachel Tipler manages a 193-cow farm in Dargaville, and has convinced her husband to learn to milk cows. Photo / Malcolm Pullman
Rachel Tipler manages a 193-cow farm in Dargaville, and has convinced her husband to learn to milk cows. Photo / Malcolm Pullman

Five years ago, Jessie Dorman was a policy adviser in Wellington, ducking out for a lunchtime coffee in her heels and suit.

Now, when her 6-month-old baby naps, she uses the downtime to call fertiliser supplier Ravensdown, plan next season's feeding or pore over farm strategy.

The 36-year-old is in her fifth season in partnership with husband Hayden, on a dairy farm near Rakaia.

"My husband's a pretty smart man - he didn't want me to learn how to milk, he realised my skills are much more valuable outside the cowshed," she says.

Although Dorman fills in when needed, she spends most of the time working behind the scenes. She has a qualification from the Institute of Directors and uses that governance experience to work out farm strategy. There are six staff, 1,700 cows, and accounting, HR, and health and safety records to manage.

"I've been able to use a lot of the skills I used in the corporate environment on the farm.

It requires business acumen - the things I've learned about governing companies I've been able to apply to our business."

Dorman is just one of hundreds of 21st-century farming women behind the latest boom in our dairy sector.

Many city-dwellers may still have rural women pegged as stay-at-home types prone to a spot of baking, but modern farming women are on the land or in the office, running million-dollar businesses and driving the exports that are the backbone of New Zealand's economy.

Most are university-educated, tech-savvy and at the helm of this profitable sector. But Dorman says that doesn't mean they always get off lightly on the home front.

"I do feel I have to be a domestic goddess. No one has ever said 'it's outrageous you don't bake' but I think we put pressure on ourselves."

Ex-policy advisor Jessie Dorman runs a farm near Rakaia with her husband. Photo / Martin Hunter
Ex-policy advisor Jessie Dorman runs a farm near Rakaia with her husband. Photo / Martin Hunter

In 1975, less than a quarter of farms were owned in a partnership. About two-thirds were owned by an individual, usually a man who had inherited the farm from his father.

Now, almost half are owned in partnership. A further 17 per cent are owned in trusts, which include family trusts. In 1981, 15 of the 125 graduates from Massey University's agriculture degree were women. Now, women make up 68 per cent of the albeit much smaller class.

But although women have been rearing calves, moving cows and spreading fertiliser for many years, they are still slow to reach the top levels of the agricultural sector in this country.

Federated Farmers elected its first female representative to the board less than three years ago; of Fonterra's 12 directors, only one is a woman.

Federated Farmers president Bruce Wills says the role of women in the rural sector has changed a lot over recent years.

"I came to the board as national president two-and-a-half years ago. It had been running 100-plus years prior to that but under my watch we now have two women on our board for the first time."

Membership of Federated Farmers is evenly split between men and women.

"The gender balance in farming would be as good if not better than in most other industries. It's hands-on, the whole family is involved - Mum, Dad and the kids.

"We could always do better around the board table but when you look at the national councils, of the 24 provincial presidents, at least a third (of roles) would be held by women. That number continues to increase."

That first board member was Jeanette Maxwell, a sheep and beef farmer from Mt Hutt who in a previous life was an advertising artist and trained as a vet nurse. She has just returned from a week in Zambia for the World Farming Organisation's inaugural meeting, attended by women from around the world.

She admits it's surprising that it has taken more than 100 years to get a woman into the upper echelon of Federated Farmers. "Considering the age of the organisation and that we were the first country in the world to give women in the vote, we're slow in other respects."

Despite Wills' welcoming words, Maxwell has felt a pressure that male farmers might not.

"I went and did leadership training and filled up my toolbox so when I finally put my hand up I was not confident, but sure that I had the toolbox to help myself.

"I don't think men do that to the same degree."

For Maxwell, the evolution of women in farming has been as much about a change in their husbands.

Women are able to take a bigger role on farms because men have stepped up at home, she says. "Dads are much more active in bringing up the family.

"My dad took us fishing. Now dads help with homework, go to parent-teacher interviews.

"It's more acceptable for dad to take part and that shift has been the opportunity for women to move into other roles."

Jacqueline Rowarth is the foundation chairwoman of Agribusiness at the University of Waikato.

She says women are more overtly taking opportunities, and graduates who come out of the tertiary agriculture programmes are snapped up by Landcorp, fertiliser companies, banks and consultancies.

But although more women are taking a hands-on approach to farming as part of a couple, Rowarth says it's still hard for those who are doing it on their own.

"There are always exceptions but in general it takes a couple. If it's all going fine, it's peachy, but when it goes wrong it's nice to have some muscle behind you."

Farming is still a good option for a couple to build up equity and a solid investment, she says. A couple in their early 40s recently told her how they built up from sharemilking to owning their own farm.

"How else can you become a millionaire - asset-wise at least - in your early 40s? If you do the hard yards, you can succeed."

Women who aren't hands-on are now much more likely to leave the farm to earn a secondary income, she says. "In the olden days they'd be making scones for the shearers."

Rural Women NZ president Liz Evans was a city-dweller before she moved to her high-country sheep farm in inland Marlborough.

"I was a town girl who'd never been on a farm before I met my husband. I gave up my career as a newspaper reporter and went and lived out of town, right at the end of the valley."

They've been in equal partnership from the start, and Evans says she's always been clear on what the nuts and bolts are that keep the business running.

"Women have always had hands-on roles, but it's just the way they've been valued that's changed."

Many women are at the helm of multimillion-dollar dairy farms, she says, and with the development of the corporate model for sheep and beef farming, and the outside investment that comes with it, there's more need for governance roles.

"Women have traditionally played a huge part in the book-keeping side of family enterprises. Urban businesses that service those farms have been slow in some cases in picking that up, and still don't understand that it's the women who pay the bills and have the IT knowledge."

Cushla Smith was head girl of Auckland's Westlake Girls' High School in 2003. Now, with a property valuation degree, she's running a farm in Mangawhai that belongs to her husband's parents and leasing and running another farm nearby.

Agribusiness and agriscience wasn't something that even crossed her mind as an option when she left school - something she now regrets. But she's relishing the challenge of problem-solving and strategising farm success.

"I know the corporate side of it more and (my husband's) more practical. My grandma came to visit and said, 'It's not just putting cows in paddocks like it was in our day'. I'm the numbers person. I could sit and do spreadsheets all day."

Being able to offer technical input is vital for a farm to really do well, she says. Simply keeping good records of herds enables them to pick up extra cashflow. "But they don't have time when they're out there running the farm.

"I think attitudes to women are changing but there are still some old-school farmers who won't listen to women at all. I think most of them realise they need women now."

Although there are no official numbers available, a number of women are doing it on their own or have primary responsibility for the farm while their partners go out to jobs in the city.

Former Parnell-based philanthropist Christine Fernyhough chose to go farming at historic Castle Hill Station, in the Southern Alps, after the death of her husband in 2004.

She worked under the direction of a farming manager for many years, and eventually alongside her second husband, but recently sold the property.

Rachel Tipler, 31, answers the phone while mowing the lawn on the Dargaville farm she manages. She is in charge of the 193-cow dairy farm but has recently convinced her husband, an upholsterer by trade, to learn to milk cows.

She says she doesn't get any special treatment for being a woman. Her mother was a hands-on farmer and her grandmother, too.

"I'm expected to do everything. I just thought that was the normal thing. My boss does the accounting but I do the herd records and manage the vet appointments, deal with reps."

While waiting for a vet this week, she injured herself with the lid of a milk vat. "I jumped up to clean it and the stainless steel lid fell and smacked me in the face. I had to hold my nose together while I waited for the vet."

Although she's studied as a vet nurse and tried other jobs, Tipler says there's nothing like farming. "I'll stay here as long as I can. It's the best place to be."

- Herald on Sunday

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