The Taranaki Sharemilker of the Year was the forerunner of the New Zealand Dairy Industry Awards.
Back in 1977 Murray Cross, then sharemilking with wife Ruth on his father’s farm at Ngaere near Stratford, persuaded the Taranaki Sharemilkers Association to run the Taranaki Sharemilker of the Year contest. He thought sharemilkers needed to be able to showcase their skills to prospective employers and to banks.
The competition soon expanded to other regions and became a national event in 1989.
Rachel Short, who won the Taranaki title with husband Kenneth in 2013, was the contest’s first second-generation winner, following in the footsteps of her parents, Barbara and Louis Kuriger, who were the 1987 titleholders. Brother Tony won the Hawke’s Bay/Wairarapa Dairy Sharemilker/Equity Farmer of the Year in 2014.
Rachel is now on the New Zealand Dairy Industry Awards executive and is undertaking the Agri-Women’s Development Trust escalator programme.
Mel van den Brand, who is convening the 2017 Taranaki Dairy Industry Awards with husband Rob, is the daughter of 1981 Taranaki Sharemilker of the Year winners Murray and Judy Brown, of Hawera. The van den Brands won the Taranaki Sharemilker/Equity Farmer of the Year in 2015 to repeat the Browns’ success.
Winning the title fulfilled a childhood dream for Mel, born 15 months after her parents’ win. «Mel was always aware we had won the contest,» said her father as he recalled her affinity with animals and an ability to recognise individual cows.
As a baby, she would say: «Backpack, Daddy,» because she wanted him to take her out on the farm, he said.
Rachel and Kenneth Short are equity partners and variable-order sharemilkers with the Kurigers in Shortland Farm Ltd Partnership which owns two dairy farms being converted to an organic system.
Louis Kuriger remembers wheeling his daughter and her brother Craig around the farm in a wheelbarrow during judging for the 1987 Taranaki Sharemilker of the Year. «So she’s been part of the competition for as long as we have.»
All four couples say the competition offers opportunities to contestants.
Now in her first term as National’s Taranaki-King Country MP, Barbara Kuriger took on a variety of governance roles after the couple’s win. She sat on the Fonterra Shareholders’ Council and became a director of LIC, DairyNZ, Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre, Primary ITO, Venture Taranaki, Dairy Women’s Network and Young Farmers. In 2012 she became the inaugural Dairy Woman of the Year.
She said winning the Taranaki Sharemilker of the Year with Louis was a launch pad for her career in governance and politics. The competition was about benchmarking, pride in farming and learning about their business.
Louis said their win opened doors. They went on to purchase the Kuriger family farm which became a showcase for low-input feed systems as he hosted national and international visitors, including Nuffield scholars and tour groups from Ireland, Argentina, Australia and the UK.
«I keep the farming system simple and go-off farm for my challenges,» he said, as he acknowledged his focus was always on making the most of the grass he grew. «It’s too easy to ring up for a feed truck to sort out your problems. The biggest factor in using all the grass is forward planning and my biggest rule is never to look in the vat.
«That’s re-active farming. What’s in the vat comes from decisions made a month ago. So you should know what’s happening in the vat. No matter what the time of year, you need to farm properly every day.»
Rachel said her parents formed strong friendships with fellow entrants and other titleholders. «We had dairy awards meetings at our house and as a teenager I was the babysitter for the children of people on the organising committee.»
She started a hospitality career and wasn’t planning to be a farmer. «Growing up, I wasn’t wanting to win the Taranaki Sharemilker of the Year.»
The couple entered the contest for the first time in 2012 to challenge themselves and because Rachel wanted to put to use the agribusiness diploma she had completed. Kenneth, a qualified builder, was relatively new to farming, was still learning farm practices and was shy and uncertain about speaking to the judges.
«Not being successful that year made us determined to be better and to prove to ourselves that what we were doing was right.» Rachel said.
«You also learn about your business as you assemble material for judging. That’s a process that makes you look critically at your business.»
Kenneth said the couple took judges’ feedback to their rural professionals and dissected it. «Pulling our business apart helped us understand it.»
They were the Taranaki winners in the 2014 and 2016 Dairy Business of the Year and won categories in the 2014 and 2016 Taranaki Ballance Farm Environment Awards. «Now more than ever, you have to look at and understand what you are doing. And you get the benefit of advice and feedback from the judges,» he said.
When the Browns won the contest, it had been running only four years and competition was stiff.
Among the 26 contestants were Trevor and Harriet Hamilton, whose family business now owns South Island, Hawke’s Bay and Bay of Plenty farms producing more than 3 million kilograms of milksolids.
The Browns were pleased to make the top six and were expecting only a fun night out when they went to the awards dinner. «Our parents didn’t even bother to go,» Murray said.
Although their win generated job offers, they had already bought their 41.5ha Paora East Rd farm, near Hawera, where they’re calving 105 cows this season.
Murray said their success was a catalyst that allowed them to pursue opportunities and to contribute to the industry. He represented sharemilkers on Taranaki Federated Farmers, was on the Taranaki board of LIC and chairs the Taranaki Veterinary Centre.
The couple said the industry offered young people exciting opportunities, even though sharemilker positions were now less available. «It saddens me that they miss the opportunities we had.»
Judy said farm managers had far less of a stake in the industry than a variable order or herd-owning sharemilker. A farm manager structure was stacked in the owner’s favour and offered less of a pathway to farm ownership.
Although they had kept their farming business small to focus on family life, they had offered employment to young people, some of whom had since progressed to farm ownership, she said.
Growing up, Mel always thought the Taranaki Dairy Industry Awards were prestigious. As she began her Bachelor of Business at Massey University, she was disappointed she would be unlikely to repeat her parents’ success.
Now she’s humbled to have the couple’s name on the awards trophy alongside other winners who have contributed much to the industry.
She and Rob are in their seventh season as herd-owning sharemilkers on the 64-hectare (effective) farm Kaupokonui farm owned by the J D Bashford Trust, now part of the newly settled Bashford-Nicholls Charitable Trust. They have two children, Sophie, 6, and Riley, 4.
Her husband said their win gave them confidence. «Knowing you have the skills and ability to do budgets is really helpful to manage the low payout. Success in the competition throws opportunities at you.»
The couple hope one day to own their own farm, although two seasons of low farmgate milk prices have delayed that process. «The money, prizes and sponsors’ products were helpful in a year like we’ve just had,» he said.
The competition gave contestants an opportunity to improve their business. «A bad financial year is the best time to enter because you can showcase how you will pull out of it and put measures in place to manage it. And you get free feedback,» he said.
Entries for the Taranaki Dairy Industry Awards open on October 20.