From humble beginnings hand-milking eight cows as a young Kaeo lad to meeting the Queen of England, Diana, Princess of Wales, and Nelson Mandela - these were events former All Black, now supermarket owner, Eric Rush took in his stride.

Rush was the keynote speaker at two events last week recognising the hard work of the target farmers, consultants and partners in the Extension 350 farmer-to-farmer learning project in Northland.

He had his audience captivated with his message that "success breeds success" when he spoke at events at Charlottes Kitchen in Paihia and No.8 Restaurant in Whangarei.

E350 is a project of the Tai Tokerau Northland Economic Action Plan, supported by Northland Inc, Ministry for Primary Industries, Northland Regional Council, DairyNZ and Beef+Lamb NZ.

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Rush, who also holds a law degree, spoke to both groups about his life – from that small scale dairying in Kaeo to meeting royalty.

He met Mandela while travelling with the All Blacks. Mandela spoke of how he had been inspired when the All Blacks played against the Springboks, decades before Rush and his teammates.

"Mandela told us that the Springboks were a symbol of apartheid so when the All Blacks scored, the whole Robben Island prison rose to its feet."

Rush and the All Blacks had tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, and met Diana, Princess of Wales.

"The trumpets of the palace, the fanfare ... I'll tell ya, it was a million miles from where I was brought up."

Kaeo was a typical small town in New Zealand where there was little money, few jobs and "we didn't have material stuff".

He and his four brothers hand-milked the family's eight cows.

"We didn't have iPhones but we learned heaps about life. If I had my time as a kid again, I wouldn't change anything.

"We had no running water and just one bath a week. We only got electricity when I was 11 or 12. There are a lot of things I take for granted now – having a fridge, turning the TV on, or a flushing toilet."

Penny Smart (Northland Regional Councillor), Ashley Cullen (dairy farmer) and Chris Neill (E350).
Penny Smart (Northland Regional Councillor), Ashley Cullen (dairy farmer) and Chris Neill (E350).

Rush played rugby as a kid.

"We played rugby so we could go to the shops at the weekend. We lived 20km out of town and if you didn't play rugby, you stayed home and did jobs.''

"I had a tough dad – he pushed us hard but only wanted us to do our best," he said of his Irish father.

"I once told him about my scoring four tries against Hawke's Bay. Dad told me off for being greedy,'' Rush joked.

"We would fundraise in Kaeo for the bus trip to Whangārei to watch the games and eat KFC. Fast food in Kaeo was hitting a sheep at 100km.

"Those trips, that was where my dreams started."

Rush quickly realised that what set the winners apart was the amount of practice they did.

Lori Grinter (left), Rose Philpott and Stuart Thomson.
Lori Grinter (left), Rose Philpott and Stuart Thomson.

"Sometimes you learn more too, when you're going through the tough stuff. Talent only gets you so far. To get the rest of the way, you need hard work.

"Success breeds success. If you want to be a successful person, hang around with successful people. That's what E350 is all about."

Luke Beehre, E350 Project Lead, echoed the project focus that the programme aimed to lift farm profitability, environmental sustainability and farmer wellbeing.

He thanked everyone involved in E350 for their hard work and encouraged the farmers "to hang in there".

The economic development agency Northland Inc, one of the E350 partners, encouraged projects to develop across range of sectors, he said.

"E350 is a significant and challenging undertaking for us all. It is complex, and the ruthless attention to detail is critical, and it's okay."