We’re barely a minute into the first episode of Shepherdess when we see Emma-Kate Rabbidge in a shearing shed, bent over to gather wool as it falls – with her baby in a pack on her back. The image sums up her life. As well as helping her husband operate their 250ha sheep farm, she also runs a shearing contracting business that handles 200,000 sheep in the Tokanui district in the Catlins and she’s mother to four “wonderful, crazy children”.
“Running a sheep business as a young mum, I actually feel like it’s kind of empowering,” she says. It looks exhausting, and she admits to “the odd row” with the husband she followed to the farm. “Every farmer knows the sheepyards bring out the best and the worst.”
Welshwoman Sheila Smith also followed her heart to Tokanui. She was comfortably in the corporate world in Britain when she met her husband, Rata, and “never thought I would get to New Zealand – I mean, that was not in my wildest dreams”.
She came “kicking and screaming” and, she says, cried every night for the first three weeks. Yet here she is, having taken the plunge, not only into keeping the farmhouse running, but embracing te ao Māori through her husband’s whānau and opening a design store in the tiny town.
The sense of willingness to step off the edge is an underlying theme of the series, each episode of which features three “women on the land” in a rural New Zealand community. The Tokanui episode concludes with Rabbidge playing bass in the local rock band, having bluffed her way in despite not having a clue how to play, or even how many strings a bass guitar has. She’s one convincing rock chick.
The third woman in the episode, grandmother Serena Lyders (Ngāti Porou), is six generations deep in shearing and declares that “everything I do in my life now, and my life purpose, is around supporting the people in the industry.”
More than 80% of workers in shearing are Māori, she explains, “and with that comes a whole lot of intergenerational trauma”. She worked as a social worker within the industry, then trained as a traditional healer to try to address deeper, more spiritual needs.
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The episodes that follow largely leave the shearing shed behind – the series’ title speaks to its origins in the rural women’s magazine Shepherdess (itself a remarkable step-off-the-edge story on the part of its founding editor Kristy McGregor) rather than a sole focus on sheep farming. It settles into a groove that’s like a slightly grittier Country Calendar.
But the attention is always on women’s lives and the meaning they find in them. From the 82-year-old postmistress in Central Otago, to the young woman with the kaimoana business on the Wairarapa coast, it’s meaning they’ve had to reach out and claim. As some of them admit, it’s not always easy.
At a time when much of farming’s presence in the public consciousness is dominated by twitchy politics and protests by the likes of Groundswell, Shepherdess feels grounded and grounding. It makes the communities it visits seem valuable in a way that any number of tractors trundling through the cities could not.
Shepherdess, Sky Open, from Sunday, October 22, 7.30pm