Since 1985, Manor Farm at Teddington on Banks Peninsula, has been home to the Carter Family of David and Heather and children, Sophie 25, Laura 23, Isabella 19 and Morgan 15 years old. Coming up the hill and through the creek to the house, green pastures border the long driveway. On arrival Heather’s spring bulbs and early roses are blooming. The two-storied stone homestead is built to face back down the valley and even on a rainy day there is a pull to keep looking at the view of Lyttelton Harbour.
Dressed in earth toned work wear and looking as though he just stepped out of the yards, David is quick to check there’s no mud on his hands and introduce himself with a handshake. He and Heather are the kind of down to earth people you feel like you’ve met before. Not far behind David is daughter Laura, who is home from Auckland where she studies Chinese and political science. With David and Heather heading overseas next week Laura is home to support David and pick up the day to day farm work for him.
Stepping into the spacious, open plan kitchen and dining room, there are large windows to capture the light and views, and a collection of vintage and family memorabilia. Under the table is a unique designer woollen rug which was produced by the Banks Peninsula Wool Growers, a company creating New Zealand made high quality, designer floor coverings. Around the table Heather serves strong coffee and delicious date scones with generous helpings of butter. David remarks, “These are really good Heather”, she jokes back “are they usually not?”
David’s story begins in the city. He was born in Christchurch and recalls, “I never wanted to be a farmer. I boarded at a small rural primary school for a few years and decided early on that I didn’t want to leave the city again.” From primary school he went on to attend St Bede’s College, then at age 12, David went to stay in Auckland for the Christmas holidays with relations who happened to be farmers. Something changed for David, “After that holiday I knew that I wanted to be a farmer. It really was a road to Damascus moment for me” David acknowledges.
From St Bede’s David went on to complete a Bachelor of Agricultural Science at Lincoln graduating in 1973. Exposure to farm work came through the practical work requirements of the degree. David spent his university summers experiencing various agricultural systems and about this says “I asked a lot of questions. It came quite naturally to me as I was eager to learn and it’s what I really wanted to do.”
After finishing at Lincoln, David says he was lucky to have a loan from his father and vendor finance to get started. Through this he purchased a block at West Melton. David then found a niche in the cattle market and set up the first commercial embryo transplant clinic. Due to a biosecurity risk at the time, none of the exotic European cattle breeds could be imported directly into New Zealand or Australia. However, ‘the rule at the time in New Zealand was if the stock had been isolated in the UK for one generation then the progeny could be imported into New Zealand.’ Australia’s huge cattle industry was the end market for the European cattle. Seeing this opportunity farmers and investors imported the first-generation UK born stock into New Zealand. Under contract to these farmers, David’s West Melton facility then surgically transplanted the embryo’s from the European breeds to other cows and the subsequent pregnant heifers were live exported to Australia. Through this project David established the well-known Avon Park Simmental stud.
David wanted to farm at Banks Peninsula so took the opportunity to sell West Melton and head over the Pass, buying and selling a couple of blocks before finally settling at Manor Farm at Teddington.
At this time Heather was working as a Christchurch based international flight attendant for Air New Zealand. Alongside her shifts, which were sometimes short trans-Tasman routes, she worked part time as a waitress at a restaurant owned by David’s family. “There was a strike and many staff hadn’t shown up, so I was called in. I don’t believe in strikes, so there I was one day when David came in.” Heather smiles, “as they say the rest is history.”
Alongside Manor Farm, which is 360ha, the Carter’s own Cat Hill a 1,400ha hard hill country block at Cheviot, which has its own manager, and Burnt Hollow which is nearby to Manor Farm. The farms work together with finishing done on the Peninsula. Currently at Manor Farm David is running 1,600 Perendale ewes, finishes 2,000 – 3,000 lambs and fattens around 150 one and two-year-old Angus cattle.
David has three working dogs, Mist, a heading dog, Sam, a huntaway plus young heading pup, Max. The Carter’s run a low-cost operation, employing casual labour when needed and doing much of the work themselves. “The week after next we are off overseas again and Laura will come home and run the farm. The country is a wonderful place to bring up children. I enjoy the stock work, especially mustering and the challenge of improving stock performance” David said.
All the farms David has purchased have required capital and development. “I took the opportunity to buy run down or undeveloped properties as my intent was to develop them and achieve scale. I enjoy the redevelopment process and seeing how hard work can turn a property around. When we bought Burnt Hollow, it had a gorse block you couldn’t walk through, now it’s been cleared it is fabulous country” said David.
Burnt Hollow has its own special story as David believes it is home to the only working Blacksmith in New Zealand. Established in 1889 the Teddington Forge is maintained by the Governors Bay Heritage Trust. It is open three days per week and operated by Blacksmith Les Schenkel. With working bellows and a furnace heating to over 2,000 degrees, the Forge is a step back in time. Through the medieval process of heating steel then hammering it out, called forging, the metal becomes pliable for working. Once fashioned into shape the metal is carefully cooled and then set. The Forge is located on David’s land and when he purchased the block David gave an undertaking to support the Forge by continuing the long-standing lease arrangement.
In the mid-1980s New Zealand was battling under financial reform. Farmers were still struggling with the hangover of Rogernomics and the removal of subsidies. More rural people were shifting to town and David saw a need for farmers to have political advocacy at a government level.
With backing from Heather, David knew his next move was into politics. A first up defeat running as a candidate in the long held left wing Lyttelton seat, David’s narrow loss didn’t deter him. The following year Ruth Richardson stepped down in the Selwyn electorate and David won the Selwyn by-election. With a changing tide David began his political life in the last, first past the post (FPP) government.
What was evident in David’s maiden speech to Parliament on 30 August 1994 is his passion for agriculture and commitment to it. With his farming background and day to day experience of the hard graft of farming, from the outset David has advocated for rural people and communities.
“Rural people must not be disadvantaged simply because of the gradual population reductions in their communities. We must not forget we still derive more than 57 percent  of our exports from our rural base. It is the people who work in this rural base that have special needs. I will be an advocate of those needs during my parliamentary career.”
From 1996, and under the new mixed member proportional (MMP) representation system, to 1999, he represented Banks Peninsula. Since then David has been in the House on the party list, junior whip, chairman of the Finance and Expenditure Committee, Minister outside Cabinet for Senior Citizens and held several Associate Minister roles: Revenue; Food, Fibre, Biosecurity and Border Control; and Education.
In Opposition his spokesperson roles have included Finance, Agriculture, Tourism and Housing. His more recent ministerial portfolios have been as Minister of Agriculture (2008-2011), Minister of Biosecurity (2008-2011), Minister of Forestry (2008-2011), Minister for Primary Industries (2011-2013), and Minister for Local Government (2012-2013).
On 31 January 2013, David was elected Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives, the highest office elected by the House, and the third most important constitutionally, after the Governor-General and the Prime Minister. The role of the Speaker of the House is to communicate with the Sovereign on the Government’s behalf. “It has been an absolute privilege to serve New Zealand” said David. He served in this role until 2017. He is now a List MP based in Christchurch; and is the current caretaker MP for the Port Hills electorate. David will not be seeking re-election in 2020. “After 26 years in politics I know I’ve had my time” said David, who believes in letting the next generation like nephew Matt Doocey, current MP for Waimakariri, continue.
“Of my political career I am most proud of our achievements in agriculture, especially around irrigation and the successful Canterbury Plains Irrigation Scheme. In our tenure we [referring to previous National government] improved people’s standard of living. Around biosecurity there have always been challenges, but we got government and industry working together. I think it’s a brave decision by the government to eradicate M. bovis, ultimately we are all paying for it.”
With politics, farming and family, the demands on David and Heather seem relentless. David’s definition of work life balance is different to many. “This is the perfect work life balance. Leaving the farm to go to the House and have the adrenaline flow, there is a lot there to excite me. I come back to the farm and I’m on my own walking in hills with the dogs or doing the stock work. Now, we are feeding out baleage every day, we have a mob calving, and we are drafting lambs every other week. I enjoy what I do and that’s what’s important.” David is also very pragmatic “If you want to be a farmer you just have to get out there and do it. Over the 40 years we’ve certainly made a few mistakes, but that’s farming. Keep costs down and enjoy what you do.”
Eldest daughter Sophie was three months old when David was first elected to Parliament. “It was tricky” Heather confesses, “but I just got on and did it. Life got harder with a toddler and a new baby, but I’ve been able to have help from people around the Peninsula” she said. The children all attended Diamond Harbour School and then went over the hill to Christchurch for secondary school. “This means I’m in the car and often back and forth to follow children’s sport and activities, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Nowadays I help on the farm when needed.” Heather has off farm interests too, she’s a marathon runner. To date she’s completed 13 races and next month heads away to Chicago for another one.
To David the future of New Zealand agriculture is positive. “We have a world class, grass fed, outdoor, no subsidies model. New Zealand is super-efficient at agriculture and not many counties can compete. I believe the challenges around coping with climate change, and the environment will be solved with science. In the next 50 years we’ll get the solutions, but we’ve got to give science time.” David believes farmers really want an opportunity to adapt to best practices “these will be found in our science and research programmes. Farmers don’t disagree with what needs to be done to protect our environment, they just want the opportunity to do it at a pace that is not only environmentally sustainable, but financially as well” said David.
“To a young person looking to make a career in agriculture I would say the future is bright. Farm ownership may not be as easy as it was but there are many avenues to have a successful career in farming and be a caretaker of the land.”
Through Cat Hill farm manager Shayne Amyes’ contact with Ruralco Group CEO Rob Sharkie, David joined Ruralco just three years ago. This year he attended his first Instore Days and was judge of the supplier stand awards. David was surprised by the scale, atmosphere and community spirit of Instore Days. He sees a bright future for co-operatives. “There is huge potential in the co-operative model. Run properly they deliver the best returns for their shareholders. To do this they must constantly be keeping an eye on the beneficiary - the farmer shareholder. The number one benefit for buyer groups must be around pricing; either through nett cost or via a rebate, this is what will help ensure economic sustainability in agriculture.”
As a husband, father, farmer, politician and former Speaker of the House, David appears to still have plenty of energy and there is no doubt he won’t be retiring in the traditional sense. For now, the immediate future involves finishing his political career. After this he is keen to put his energy into the continued development of the farms, following his children’s sports and interests and travelling with Heather. He would also like to pursue directorships in agribusinesses where his skills in governance and passion for agriculture can be utilised.