The country's biggest industry is facing a labour shortage and a new nationwide campaign is designed to attract more Kiwis to switch to a career in dairy farming.
Okay, the new employee will almost certainly need to be out of bed by 4:30am for the first of the two milking sessions. But there's time off during the day to spend with the family on the farm.
The seasonal nature of working on the farm means the hours are flexible — the hard work is mixed with downtime to pursue other interests. And of course the new employee is enjoying the great outdoors.
Industry group DairyNZ this week relaunched its Go Dairy career-changers campaign to encourage more Kiwis into dairying, particularly those who have lost their jobs during the Covid-19 crisis and have transferable skills.
Right now, there are up to 1000 jobs available on dairy farms, mainly in Waikato, Canterbury, Otago and Southland. DairyNZ is including free entry-level training in its campaign to help career changers transition to farming.
Lately, the dairy industry which employs 34,000 people on farms throughout the country has relied on more than 5000 migrant workers a year from Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, South America and Eastern Europe to keep milk production flowing. Kiwis have largely bypassed the rigours of farming and headed for jobs in the bigger cities.
The fate of many of the migrant workers — those already here and those intending to come — is uncertain because of the border restrictions and immigration pressures.
"There are 2500 lower-skilled and 500 mid- or higher-skilled migrant visas expiring at the end of September and we have asked Immigration New Zealand to roll them over," said DairyNZ chief executive Dr Tim Mackle. "That's in the middle of spring calving and it's the worst time to lose staff on the farm.
He said the labour supply situation presented a new opportunity to attract more Kiwis into dairying.
"The stakes are high. The sector is delivering a $19.2 billion business, more than last year — dairy exports have increased 12 per cent since March compared with the same time last year.
"This equates to a $512 million increase in much-needed export receipts and income at a critical time for our country.
"We want to play our part in reducing unemployment by connecting Kiwis with what we are good at — producing food and milk."
Mackle agreed there would be mixed perceptions about switching to dairy farming. "I won't pretend that at times during the year it isn't hard work — calving is the most challenging — but there are also relaxed times.
"The main concern, I know, will be 'how early do I need to get out of bed'. But managers are now rostering their staff and providing more flexibility and support in the job. It's also a great lifestyle.
"You can go back home on the farm for breakfast, morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea and see the family. That story needs to be told."
A new entrant could quickly move through the ranks and have the opportunity at the end of it to buy a farm or herd, said Mackle. A farm assistant with no previous experience earns between $40,000-$50,000 a year — someone with a trade may start at more than $50,000 — and within a few years be earning $70,000- $80,000.
"Those wanting to shine can become farm managers within five to six years and receive six-figure salaries," he said. "Most of the training happens on farms and what the farmers are looking for is attitude and willingness to learn."
DairyNZ, based at Newstead near Hamilton, was formed in 2007 through the merger of two independent industry organisations, Dairy InSight and Dexcel. "There's been a campaign around attracting more people into the sector for 15 years," said Mackle. "We've always wanted to get more Kiwis on the farm, and now it is more important than ever."
The latest Go Dairy campaign is supported by the Ministry of Primary Industries and Ministry or Social Development which is providing about $3 million for farm-ready training courses and other promotion.
DairyNZ is planning to attract 500 career-changers into the programme over the next six months.
"We want people coming into dairying to be informed and to understand what the sector can offer before committing themselves," said Jane Muir, DairyNZ's people team leader. "We want them to take their time — and not pretend they can do it but can't get up early in the morning.
"We have the jobs and we want to make a good match — we are aware of the different farms and what will be the best for each individual," said. "If the programme is successful, then I hope it will carry on."
Muir said the campaign represented one of the most exciting opportunities for the dairy industry. "With the (previous) low unemployment, we've been reliant on low- to mid-skilled migrants on temporary visas, but the conversion rate to residency is not that high.
"We need long-term succession in dairying with a strong contingent of Kiwis bringing innovation and new skills to the sector. People do under-estimate the level of accomplishment you can get on the farm."
The farm-ready training course is broken into three weeks and people can register by clicking to the godairy.co.nz/career-changers website.
The first week is online tuition to build an understanding of working and living on a dairy farm, including use of technology and innovation, and the other two are on the farm working with cows and infrastructure and learning about vehicle safety.
By mid-June 300 people had already registered for the programme before the campaign officially kicked off.
Registrations included tourism and construction workers, personal assistants in offices, team leaders, property managers, retail assistants — and even two airline pilots.
It looks like the face of dairy farming is about to change.
"We are an essential industry that has been able to carry on during the Covid crisis," said Mackle."Demand and prices for milk and dairy products may soften a little as we don't know how badly the global economy will be hit, but the medium- to long-term outlook for the industry is still strong.
"People still need to eat, and we have to keep farming better and tell our own story about why dairy is so important to people's diet," he said.
"We have made advances environmentally — 98 per cent of all the significant streams through farms have been fenced and effluent systems have been upgraded with farmers spending $1b. Riparian planting between the waterway and paddocks is taking place.
"We are progressing to a higher value sector and it is an ideal opportunity for higher-skilled people to enter the sector."