Words supplied by Annie Studholme, images by Annie Studholme and supplied
Despite uncertain times facing the agricultural sector with a mounting list of Government regulations and policies, impacts from combating climate change and more extreme weather conditions, young farmers Sam Dalziel and James Wright remain committed to forging a career in the industry.
Sam Dalziel and James Wright can’t imagine being involved in any other industry. They both could have done anything they wanted but found themselves drawn to the agricultural industry. It’s in their blood.
While farmers are protesting around the country, the pair remain passionate and enthusiastic about the future of agriculture in New Zealand, preferring to take the glass half full approach, putting a positive spin on the changes afoot. They see the biggest challenge as consumer perception.
Looking back over the generations, there’s been plenty of times when farming has faced unprecedented challenges, but it’s weathered the storm and they’re confident it will do it again.
During the 1980s farmers not only had to contend with the removal of agricultural subsidies but a skyrocketing New Zealand dollar hurt sales abroad, sending interest rates soaring and land prices plummeting, and there were also consecutive droughts. As a result, many farmers went bankrupt, and a generation of young people turned away from the industry completely. On the upside though, in the years since, those that stuck with farming have enjoyed unprecedented growth in production aided by the change in farming practices and technology.
Much like the 1980s, the changes on the horizon will likely define this generation of young farmers, but Sam and James are not about to let it that put them off. “We’ll definitely stay in the industry or move more into the environmental side as that’s where so much is heading,” says Sam. “The passion is just too strong,” adds James. “You just have to put a positive twist on it and roll with the punches. It’s here, and it’s here to stay, we just have to be innovative. I don’t think it’s necessarily all bad, but there are going to be a lot of challenges.”
While they initially got into the industry with aspirations of farm ownership, it’s no longer their primary focus. As a wider industry, there are just so many opportunities to be involved and so many different pathways. Farm ownership is not the only route these days, says Sam.
Both Sam and James grew up on the land. Keen hockey players, they met at Lincoln University where they were both on hockey scholarships.
Sam grew up on a 360-hectare rolling hill country, sheep, and beef in North Otago. She attended boarding school in Dunedin before going against the school’s advice, heading to Lincoln University to study a Bachelor of Agricultural Science.
“The principal (at the time) was dead against me going into the agriculture industry,” explains Sam. “I was massively into sports and looked at going down the physiotherapy route, but I could see a lot more of a career in agriculture. I enjoyed the sciences and I enjoyed learning new things. My brother had gone to Lincoln, and I saw it as a way forward.”
Unsure what field she was heading into, towards the end of her degree, Sam went on an exchange to the Netherlands, spending six months studying at Wageningen University and Research. It is the only university in the Netherlands that focuses specifically on the theme on ‘healthy food and environment’.
Initially attracted to the Netherlands because of hockey (they’re the best in the world), Sam found the whole experience a huge eye-opener. “They are so focused on sustainability. The Dutch are outstanding in that area. They take in aspects from all over the world. We went to a lot of different farms. They were intensive but were all centred around protecting their land.”
After finishing her degree, Sam started working at Ruralco as an on-farm account manager with a focus on agronomy. “I really enjoyed working with the farmers. They are always going to know more than you. So, I tried to gain as much knowledge as I could from them. But I missed the practical and physical side of the job. I never felt like I was getting right into something. I wanted to go back to farming, utilising all that knowledge I had picked up.”
Sam returned home to help her parents and she couldn’t wait to be more hands-on. Her home farm is now an intensive dairy grazing block. Currently, she is splitting her time between North Otago and Forest Creek, where James is stock manager. James, meanwhile, grew up on a 350 hectare sheep and beef farm at Cave in South Canterbury. “We were very fortunate. As kids, we spent every day on the farm. We just loved it,” he says.
After finishing high school at Waitaki Boys, he went to Lincoln University and completed a Bachelor of Agricultural Commerce. “Going to Lincoln was the best decision I ever made,” says James, who could have easily got a job straight from school as a shepherd. Looking back, he can’t emphasise enough the benefits he gained from his time at Lincoln. It doesn’t matter whether it’s going to Massey University, Lincoln University, Telford or studying through the AgITO, it’s been around likeminded people that makes all the difference.
“It’s not just the learnings that you take away, but the networking and people you can tap into. I still keep in contact with a lot of the people I went to university with, and they are now working in different parts of the industry and on different farms nationwide. It’s about being able to utilise all those people you have around you.”
While James could have done anything in the agriculture industry, after three years of study, deep down he still yearned to become a farmer. “About halfway through my third year I decided I really wanted to do something that I loved.”
He started his first farm job less than a week after finishing university where he stayed for two years, before a short stint up the Rakaia Gorge. The he landed on his feet in his current role as stock manager at Forest Creek Station in the heart of Lord of the Rings territory in the Rangitata Gorge. He’s been there for the past three years. “It’s an unbelievable place to work. It doesn’t get much better than this. On a clear day it’s outstanding, looking right up to Erewhon,” says James.
Forest Creek covers 5000 hectares, combining what was previously Tui Station and Forest Creek Stations. It comprises of 2000 hectares planted in Douglas Fir, which is overseen by a forestry manager, 2000 hectares farmed and the rest (1000 hectares) in un-utilised high-country tussock and riverbed country.
Owned by Canadian interests, Fairlight Station Limited, the company is a vehicle for Mari Hill Harpur and her husband, Douglas. Their holdings also include about 3400 hectares near Kingston in Southland. Mari Hill Harpur is an author and photographer who exhibits in Canada, the United States and New Zealand. She was bought up in the American Midwest driving a tractor before a car. Her wealth comes from her father, who was the son of James Hill, and American financier and railroad builder. The couple have a deep connection to New Zealand through Douglas’s father, who was born in New Zealand, and he has a sister living in Christchurch. The farming operation at Forest Creek runs more than 9500 sheep, including 5500 mixed age, 2000 two-tooth ewes and 2000 hoggets, beef finishing, deer velvet and a small herd of goats.
Unlike many high country runs, Forest Creek is intensive, with a tractor put over more than 95 per cent of the property, driving up production. All the beef calves are bought up from the property in Southland for fattening through to two years of age. During the cold winter months all stock is fed on crops. They lamb from early September through to mid-October.
In recent years they have moved to dual-purpose composites, running a Headwaters flock. Headwaters were established in 2006 by Andy Ramsden, assisted by Errol Holgate, geneticist Aimee Charteris and a number of farmers. It’s foundation breeds include Texel, Romney, Perrindale and Finn. “They are good sheep in how they perform in our system,” explains James.
While James loves the high country, he enjoys the added challenges intensification brings. Forest Creek is a difficult place to farm. It has an annual rainfall of 800-850mls and is traditionally dry in the summer. But it’s the spring winds prevailing from the northwest that have the potential to cause havoc.
James says during his career he has been incredibly fortunate with the people he has been employed by and worked with. “I have worked under some really good people, who have given me the chance to keep growing and plenty of opportunities. When I came here, I was still pretty green and was probably a bit out of my depth.”
At the end of the day, it all comes down to attitude though, he says. “I wanted to grow, and I asked the questions and showed an interest in what was going on. I have taken the opportunities as they have come about and never been afraid to face the challenges. If you are employed under the right people and they take you under their wing, the opportunities in the industry are massive.”
James has also noticed a swing in recent years with more females joining the industry. Being female is no longer an excuse. “In the past the perception was that it was a very male-led industry but that’s changing. I have worked with a number of females, and they can do the job just as well. They are very tactile thinkers. What they may lack in brute strength they make up for in other ways,” he says.
But though there are plenty of opportunities out there, Sam says farming is not something you should pursue if you don’t have a passion for it. Nowadays it’s not just stock work, you have to be good at everything. There is a lot of paperwork. “It’s a lifestyle. It’s hard. Rain, hail or shine you have to be out there. It’s not like a 9-5pm job. You live and breathe the workplace, and you take it all home with you.”
But neither of them would change it for the world. They’re committed to making their futures on the land.