Taking the Escalator to rural success

By Erika Venter

Karen Schumacher (58) from Inglewood is one of 14 graduates nationwide of the Agri-Women's Development Trust's (AWDT) 2012 Escalator programme aimed at creating prospective future leaders with the skills and capability to govern and lead agricultural organisations and communities.

The programme, now in its second year, is a national initiative and follows from extensive research into the role of women in the agriculture sector and low participation rates at the leadership and governance level.

"It is not about women per se, but about a huge part of the population that just happens to be women who needs a push to step into governance roles. They have the skills, already being partners on the farm and involved with school boards and community groups, but needing the confidence to take the next step."

Having read an article on the programme in 2011 in a rural paper, she decided to enrol as she feels strongly about continually challenging and developing herself.

She says it was a privilege, and a humbling experience to have been part of the 12-month coarse.

"It is such a supportive environment to learn in."

She is no stranger to taking the lead on the national or international stage, having chaired the East Taranaki Environment Trust (ETET) since she and husband Bob launched it in 2005, and being immediate past-president of the New Zealand Red Devon Cattle Breeders Association. The latter had her represent New Zealand on two international conferences and in 2014 she will facilitate a world miniature tour for the association in New Zealand. She also served six years on the Taranaki-Whanganui Conservation Board, with one term as president.

"The programme shows you the importance of looking outside your area, of being well-read and up to date with national and international events. The world has become a global village."

The 10-month programme involves five Wellington-based learning modules, individualised distance learning, coaching and professional development, supported by the Trust and industry organisations and mentors. Topics include leadership, governance, strategy, finance, communication, critical thinking and human resources.

"It is a huge commitment, but their support was superb and we have set up an alumni and continue to network and support each other."

Other Escalator graduates include PKW Director Hinerangi Edwards.

A chartered accountant, Karen says she found the Institute of Directors in New Zealand's module particularly helpful.

"It made me aware that I have the skills required to become a member," says Karen, adding that she has since applied and been accepted.

Passionate about agriculture and the environment she has her eyes on further governance roles in these two areas, which she says is not exclusive, but complementary to each other.

"Farmers have the right to earn money from their land, but it is all about balance."

The Schumachers turned from dairying to dry-stock in 2004, but since setting up ETET has been leasing out most of their land, keeping just a few hectares for their "boys" - Red Devons.

Karen is tremendously proud of what ETET has achieved in Purangi.

"We aimed to have 500 breeding pairs of kiwi by 2015, our estimate is that we have achieved it this year. There is something special when you get to hold a kiwi.

"We now aim to bring back the Kokako."

Meanwhile, she says she wholeheartedly recommends the Escalator programme and adds that for her it would be a privilege to help others grow into future leadership roles. "It is a powerful thing: giving others the hands-up."

- Stratford Press

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