Kevin Mitchell enjoyed a 40-year career as a sheep and beef farmer at Te Pohue in Hawke’s Bay.
Born and raised on a steep hill country farm he fondly remembers being brought up in a rural bubble.
“As kids we just roamed the hills and loved it. It was our natural environment. We wouldn’t have wanted to do anything else.”
After completing boarding school and his agriculture diploma at Massey University Mitchell took over the family farm with his brother.
“The 1970s were great years.Prices were good and the climate was reliable. We continued the development of the farm that my father and his brothers had started.”
But the 80s weren’t so kind.
“Our first serious drought ws 1982 and that was a doozy.
“We’d been brought up on reliable summer rainfall and it didn’t rain until mid April. We all had to change our farming methods through the 80s because we had a succession of droughts.
“Cyclone Bola made an absolute mess of us in 1988. We got 75cm of rain in three days. It destroyed our infrastructure and we lost 162 hectares of land that either slipped away or was slipped onto. That woke us up to what Mother Nature was trying to tell us about breaking into marginal land.
“New Zealand lost 20% of its farmers in the 80s. The times were that tough.
“The commitment of my wife Rae during our tough farming times was amazing because without her and thousands of other farming wives a lot of us wouldn’t have stayed on our farms and our children wouldn’t have had the opportunities they got.
“In 1986 Rae answered an ad to be prison officer in a male prison, only the second woman to work in a male jail. She continued this work for 24 years, latterly as a unit manager and then a contract consultant. Her work gave us some financial certainty in very uncertain times and enabled us to send our three boys to boarding school and university.”
On the farm Mitchell and his brother adapted too, planting blocks of pines and by the 1990s had over 200 hectares in forestry. That combination of farming and forestry proved a winner and saw them through until 2012 when he decided it was time to retire.
“We decided to put the farm on the market because we don’t want to be old, crippled farmers. We wanted to have a life after farming. My brother and I were married to sisters and we’d had five sons and a daughter but none of them want the farm so we put it on the market and sold it to a forestry company in end.”
Mitchell says as hard it was leaving the job he loved it was the right decision.
“Our deal meant we were able to stay there. So we kept the houses and a few paddocks, which lessened the shock of having to sell the farm.”
He stayed involved in farming too.
“I started mentoring a young couple up the road. They came from Auckland and had never been farming. The owner of the property they bought recommended me and I just loved it. We got together a plan, started right from the basics teaching them everything from how to hold a shearing handpiece through to stock rotation policy, ways to make money and ways not to make money. I got a real kick out of it. You don’t realise how much knowledge you pick up in a 40-year career in farming.”
Mitchell says the key to making a smooth transition to life after farming is preparation.
“If you’re farming and want to retire early planning is crucial. Get all your ducks in a row, whether it’s family or finance or your next moves or what the market’s doing.”
“Communication with your family is where it all starts. The earlier you have those conversations, the better. Sometimes farmers are not so good at this. I’d recommend that you get an independent person involved because often they’ve got information and knowledge about other options that they can put on the table.
“It also just depersonalises the whole thing because often there might be a family member sitting back there who is working in a different industry but always had a hankering to have a go at farming. They might be the quiet one who never speaks up. But they will come forward to an outside person.”
The other essential ingredient is to have a plan on what comes next.
“Selling the farm is one thing but where are you going to go and what are you going to do? You need to plan your next move.
“You’re still pretty valuable in a rural community even if you don’t want to work full time. The first year that I sold the farm our neighbour’s head man had a bad accident so we spent the best part of a year working for him. It was a drought year so we jumped on our bikes and took our dogs and helped out.”
Mitchell says it is also important for older farmers to let go when younger family members take over.
“Micromanaging can be a real issue, that reluctance let the young ones have a go. Because if you kill their enthusiasm they will soon start looking elsewhere. My dad was 50 when he retired, he’d had a crook back. He’d been managing the farm since he was 15 so he was worn out and wanted a rest. I was 22 and my brother was 20. We were as keen as mustard and just went for it. But we were pretty lucky. Dad stepped right back. He still had an overview from a distance but he let us have a go. He realised that if you don’t make your own mistakes, you don’t learn.”
Since he retired Mitchell been active in the Hawke’s Bay Rural Support Trust.
“That was another way to stay connected to the industry, which I’ve still got a real passion for,” he says.
Now’s he’s getting behind Farmstrong as well.
“Farmstrong’s extended the work the trust has done since the 80s to support farmers by getting ahead of the problem and helping farmers to get some balance in their life. That’s vital.
“Farming’s hard yakka even when times are good. There’s big hours and big commitments. The stakes are higher now in farming, too. The numbers involved are bigger whichever way you look at it. So, yes, you’ve got to get stuck in and you’ve got to have a passion for it to be successful but make time for yourself, your family and friends, too. Work hard but make sure you make time for a bit of play too. We’re only here once. Enjoy the ride.”