Connecting people with different lifestyles is vital for breaking down the rural-urban divide, according to Eyrewell farmer Michelle Maginness.
“That’s the only way to bring people closer together. We need to reach out and understand people who are living different lives and may not have ever been on a farm before which is a real possibility these days.
“We’ve got this disconnect between what’s being reported in the papers about “dirty dairying” which is a tiny minority of farmers and what’s actually happening on farm. Would you splash paint around your house or office and ruin it?
“Farmers care about their animals and land because they’re their greatest assets but we haven’t been good at communicating that and I think we need to show the public through our actions what we’re doing to improve the environment.
“Be proactive and talk to people in your community when you hear complaints about farmers and let them know what you’re doing on your farm and invite them to visit. Let’s show people what we’re really about which is caring about animals and the land.”
Michelle’s passionate about Lake Ernmor; a 220-hectare dairy farm which is her fourth farm since starting out as a sharemilker after graduating from Lincoln University. She says people are often surprised to learn that she runs the farm and manages the milking of 740 cows, not her husband. However, the situation has improved since her younger years when she was regularly asked to direct visitors to the farm owner.
“I used to get really annoyed about it. People would ask to speak to the boss, not imagining that it could be me. These days I make a joke out of it and point them to the nearest man, who is often one of my staff. The look on their faces when they come back to talk to me is priceless.
“We still get some older farmers stopping for a chat on the road and asking my husband, who’s a printer by trade, about the cows. He’ll say, “I have no idea, you’ll have to ask Michelle”, which sometimes creates an awkward pause.
“Things have improved heaps though since I started out over 20 years ago. More women are active in running farms and there are lots of women working in a wider range of farming and farm consultant roles which I am really happy to see.”
Michelle’s husband Mark takes care of all the farm maintenance and was the primary caregiver for their two daughters when they were babies.
“I was back milking a few days after having my girls, so he did the childcare when they were little because I start at around 4am. My girls have grown up around animals and love being out on the farm. They don’t use technology much which is rare for their age group, but I think that’s fine as they’re just happier being out and about doing stuff. It’s great having the storage lake on our farm for water-skiing, paddle-boarding and swimming because we’re outside most of the time.”
Having access to irrigation via Waimakariri Irrigation Limited (WIL) has made a huge difference to Michelle’s farm, along with advances in technology.
“We’ve been with WIL since the start and it’s evolved so much over the last 18 years. We used to order water by fax in the beginning and now everything happens electronically. Without access to irrigation you wouldn’t be able to farm here.”
“They’ve been progressive about technology with tools like Regen and you need to keep up with the pace of change to make the most of these tools. It’s all about adapting to changes and using technology to make life easier.”
Good Management Practice (GMP) is something Michelle believes all farmers should be doing on their farms already. She views the Farm Environment Plan (FEP) audit process as the most valuable GMP tool for her farm.
“To be honest, when GMP first came out I was pretty appalled. I mean, was that not normal practice anyway for farmers?
“What I do really like though, is the auditing system where you pick up on little things you need to fix which might have been on your list for a while. It prompts you to get those things ticked off.”
Michelle is excited about the future for herself personally and for farming in New Zealand. She believes that people from different backgrounds will be able to meet in the middle and create a more balanced view of farming.
“I see myself stepping back from a physical role on farm at some point in the future and when that happens, I am keen to be on boards related to agriculture and farming. I’m president of the Oxford Netball Club and involved with the PTA so I want to continue to be part of the wider community.
“Looking at farming on a wider scale, I think we can bridge the rural-urban divide by finding a way around our differences and reaching common ground. Farmers and non-farmers have more in common than we think. We all want to improve our environment and play our part and I think we can work more closely together to make that happen.”