Ash-leigh Campbell didn’t set out to have a career in dairying.
Instead, she stumbled into the industry, starting out relief milking for a local farmer to earn extra cash for her first car while still at high school in Canterbury.
She was an accidental dairy farmer, she says.
Ten years on the 29-year-old has had a meteoritic rise, capped off by being the youngest person to become Fonterra Dairy Woman of the Year at the Dairy Women’s Network Awards.
Hours after she said she had a quiet reflection on what she had achieved over the past decade.
“I remember thinking wow. Who knew that I could get here.
“You do it because you love it and you work day in, day out and as New Zealanders we don’t really sit back and reflect on our achievements.
“I’m actually proud of what I’ve done and If I can do it, anyone can.
“I’ve been involved for 10 years now and I’ve had various roles and various opportunities and it just shows how widespread the sector is and the opportunities that are there for us to uptake.”
Her journey from viewing dairying as just a money earner to a career occurred after she finished high school and went to university but then dropped out after a year.
Campbell returned to the milking shed full time.
“That’s where my passion for the industry started. I remember thinking in my early 20s that I really like what I do.
“I enjoyed doing what I was doing – getting out there in the environment working with Mother Nature and with animals. That’s what started my passion.”
In her mid 20s she returned to her studies at Lincoln University to get the qualifications to further her career.
“I knew practically I could do the job. I wanted to get some paperwork behind me to give me another reason to prove that I can do it.
“I was there for the right reasons second time round,” she said.
She completed diplomas in agriculture and farm management and a commerce degree majoring in agriculture.
At the same time she got involved with Dairy Women’s Network, becoming a regional leader and the driving force behind the network’s Lincoln group, which has now merged into Selwyn.
She is a long-standing Young Farmers member and now chairs the organisation.
Being involved with the two organisations let her to connect with other farmers and influential industry people.
“Having my foot in both doors is awesome. I get to throw the net wider and meet and connect with more people.”
She said there are a multitude of people and groups who have helped her on her journey over the past 10 years including friends, family and her involvement with organisations including Young Farmers and the Dairy Women’s Network.
Former Pamu chairwoman Traci Houpapa has also been highly influential as a mentor.
“Especially from a Maori perspective in regards to farming. I’ve gone on a journey of self-discovery as well in my 20s around connecting with my Ngai Tahu heritage.”
After graduating she did a summer internship at Ngai Tahu Farming then became its technical farm manager, a position she’s held for the past three and a half years.
Over the same time she switched from full time study to part time study to complete her qualifications.
At Ngai Tahu Campbell helps run eight dairy and dairy support farms with 8000 cows.
A big part of her role is ensuring the farms are doing their best on environmental auditing.
“I’m pretty proud to say our farms were the first in the Waimakariri catchment to receive A-grade audits.”
That was a result of hard work by everyone across the team, she said.
“It’s a dual effort. It comes from working with the regional council, educating our farmers, it comes with educating the community so we can all upskill and be stewards of our land.”
Campbell says she is incredibly fortunate to work for Ngai Tahu Farming.
The iwi takes a holistic approach to farming and environmental protection and there is a big focus on ensuring it is protected for the next generation along with its people.
“It’s such a unique and special lens they put over stewardship and environmental. Sometimes there can often be tensions between environmental and farming and I’ve seen how we can work together to bridge that and bring everyone together on that journey.
“Often you hear business plans for companies where they’re looking 12 months ahead or looking two years ahead.
“Working for Ngai Tahu Farming we’re looking forward 50-100 years because what we are doing in today’s environment to look after the land, it’s going to impact tomorrow’s generation so we need to look after it today so we can reap the rewards of the future.”
Campbell wants to use the platform the award gives her to advocate to get more young people into the dairy industry while unemployment and displacement are growing.
Her advice for anyone in that position was simple. “Please join us.
“There’s a lot of unsettlement right now with covid-19 going on and what implications it’s going to have but also what opportunities it’s going to have.”
“We are in a unique position right now where we can showcase everything that we are doing to grab not only women but men as well.
“We have the opportunity to inspire them, to excite them and bring them on the journey with us. I hope I can bring some people along the journey as well.”
Winning Dairy Woman of the Year means Campbell gets up to $20,000 for a professional business development programme, sponsored by Fonterra.
One of her long-standing ambitions is to understand where NZ dairy sits on the global stage and she hopes to eventually use the scholarship to further that knowledge once overseas travel restrictions are lifted.
In the meantime she will focus her energy to see what she can do in conjunction with Fonterra and the network to advocate for the industry locally.
The other finalists were Auckland microbiologist and biochemist Natasha Maguire and West Coast dairy farmer Heather McKay.