There’s a saying, that if you are standing still, you’re in fact going backwards. It’s clear when talking to Gabrielle Thompson, about all aspects of her life, that she’s certainly not content with ‘status quo’. This November, after nine years of excellent service, she will attend her last AGM as a Director of Ruralco. “I’ve given what I have to give, so it’s time for someone else, with different experiences, to have the opportunity to share” says Gabrielle.
Elected as the first ever female Director, and certainly as a younger voice, Gabrielle has witnessed much change within the Board. However, change she talks about isn’t gender or age, it’s about knowledge and perspective. “The Board has rotated nicely to achieve great diversity, attracting people with different farming backgrounds”.
Gabrielle Thompson has had an interesting career to date, and she’d probably be the first person to say, a somewhat unexpected one. Originally from the North Island, she didn’t grow up on a farm. However, an interest in animals, and an openness to opportunity, has led to a life firmly in agriculture.
Gabrielle knew as a young student she needed to have a job that allowed her to be outdoors and active. So, while interested in biology, she pursued veterinary studies over medicine. Ironically, as a small animal vet, and then practice owner, she found herself mostly indoors. Despite that she enjoyed significant success as a vet. Admittedly feeling unprepared, she took the opportunity to become the owner of a small practice just four years after graduating from Massey University. “I wanted the place to run differently, but to make the changes needed, I realised I had to own the business”. She learnt as the business grew, and the establishment of a partnership, saw the practice expand to five clinics. Eventually, in 2015, the decision was made to sell the business to VetEnt, with Gabrielle staying on for 18 months, running 20 companion animal clinics.
Selling the clinics meant that she and her husband could pursue their dream to expand their farming venture, and to concentrate on family. Together they own and operate farming properties in Dorie, and nearby Chertsey. They’re surrounded by ever changing crops (with rotations including wheat, kale, peas, potatoes, and clover) and thousands of store lambs.
The local community is clearly very important to her, with Gabrielle talking fondly about her neighbours, and their generosity. From regular meetings in the local hall, to establishing a Trust, and even mobilising with a minivan, she’s proud of their efforts; from planting natives and to helping families in need.
She’s also a fierce advocate for the industry. “New Zealand has a great story to tell. Our farmers understand sustainability better than anyone because their livelihood, and their intergenerational land, depends on it”.
Recently, the Government announced a free trade deal giving our country an important head-start in the post-Brexit British market. This agreement will facilitate significant growth opportunity for the export of farm produce, so Gabrielle hopes that a marketing effort focuses strongly on the quality of our farming practices, not just the quality of our products. “We’re leading the way in rotational grazing and water conservation - through variable irrigation and routine use of tools like moisture probes” she says. Gabrielle also acknowledges the role legislation has played, feeling that, water schemes have encouraged more progressive farming practices in Canterbury. “We’re probably a long way ahead with our environmental planning, benefiting from ten years of learning as a region”.
She also has plenty of advice for those thinking of about a life in agriculture; you need to be on your game! “I know people thought that the sale of my veterinary business to pursue farming was a step down – it wasn’t. They don’t understand that farming takes intellect, talent, and experience. Our mortgages can be huge, by comparison, so we manage exposure to real risk – with little room for error”. Warning aside, Gabrielle brings plenty of encouragement too. “Agriculture is a great career, if you’re young and seeking employment, look out for an employer who is adaptable. Someone embracing technology and striving for improvement every day. That way you’ll learn a lot!”. She herself confesses to being a knowledge junkie, attending webinars, reading a lot, and plugging in to podcasts.
As any chapter comes to an end, it’s natural to reflect. When asked about her time with our co-operative, Gabrielle readily talks about important milestones.
She remembers her first Board meeting very well, and she’s pleased to say that the organisation has continued to mature, with the Board now exploring a wide variety of opportunities together with the Executive team.
Arriving just as the Ruralco Card was launching, Gabrielle saw the brand change to Ruralco as a game changer - enabling the Ashburton Trading Society to expand beyond market perceptions and cross geographic boundaries.
She acknowledges the Board’s appoint of Rob Sharkie, as Group CEO, and his success in the role. “Rob has an excellent manner, and he’s built a culture of inclusion rather than centred on hierarchy. I’ve been pleased to see this work reflected in surveys completed by happy staff”.
It’s clearly rewarding for Gabrielle to step down whilst a feeling a great sense of confidence in the Board, and Management Team, as they navigate the next stage of Ruralco’s journey.
However, an obvious question remains; what’s next for her?
Firstly, she remains a Director with Silver Fern Farms and Lincoln University, both reasonably newly appointed positions in comparison. For Gabrielle each governance role offers unique responsibilities, challenges and learning opportunities.
Beyond those Directorships, life is all about family, friends, and farming.
In terms of their farm, there’s interest in expanding for greater diversity. And, like many farmers, Gabrielle and Peter see technology playing a big role in their day-to-day work. Although, they feel technology is just not advancing fast enough for their innovation appetite.
Drones and palletisers are of real interest. “We’ve always believed that the practice of organic farming would be short lived, as technology would find a way to keep your crop looking as it should be - free of weeds and pests”. Gabrielle talks about progress in Australia, with self-driving tractor drones, “We talk about the internet of things, but it does seem a slow journey”. Similarly, she’d been keen to put the right palletiser to work tomorrow (if it was available). As a wheat grower, Gabrielle is highly conscious of fully using the resulting wheat straw following harvest. “It’s used for growing mushrooms and as pig bedding, but we could do better - if palletised it could be burned (alongside wood chips) replacing coal as a fuel”.
Family includes daughter Francis, raised on the tractor, and downtime means outdoor pursuits like fishing and skiing. Gabrielle doesn’t like cooking, but she enjoys the preparation. “Pete’s a great cook, so when I’m finished chopping things up, I just turn to him and say - make that tasty”.
Her charity ‘Pretty in Pink’ will also continue to be a focus. Along with three friends, Gabrielle organises fundraisers (such as an annual ball, auctions, and high teas), for the Mid Canterbury Cancer Society. Successfully raising around $25,000 each year, the proceeds help families dealing with the impact of cancer. Taking the form of petrol vouchers, wood deliveries, meals and other help, these funds ease the load for those caring for a loved one.
Regardless of what the future holds it’s very clear that Gabrielle Thompson won’t be standing still - you’ll likely find her in the field, or at the board table.
On behalf of the Directors, the members, and all employees, Ruralco acknowledges a significant contribution. Thank you and good luck Gabrielle!