Successful farming partnerships are built around a connection between the land and those who work it and for Sandra Matthews that means ensuring women know they belong on farms and have important roles to play.
Sandra farms with her husband Ian inland from Gisborne in a partnership that can be traced back to their meeting 30 years ago at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, when they were on OE.
At the end of their travels they returned to their homes, Sandra to Australia and Ian to Te Kopae Station, the 536ha family farm that borders the Rere Falls, about 50km northwest of Gisborne, where the couple live today.
They stayed in touch, marrying 18 months later with Sandra moving to the farm that’s been in Ian’s family since 1910.
The couple are proud of the family’s history on the property, something that was recognised in 2016 with a Century Farm award.
That’s not to say it’s always been easy. Farming conditions have sometimes ben tough over the years and Sandra initially struggled to work out where she fitted in on the farm.
The first 10 years were the hardest because not only was Sandra in a new environment, there were no support networks for her.
Though she married into a very welcoming family Sandra was isolated from what she knew, coming from Goulburn in New South Wales, a country town about an hour’s drive from Canberra that’s similar in size to Feilding or Ashburton, where her father was a policeman and her mother a teacher.
She grew up in a town that services the pastoral industry but Sandra is the first to admit she didn’t know much about farming.
Though she studied agriculture at high school that was more to do with wanting to spend less time in a classroom than any future she saw on a farm.
After initially working for ANZ in Gisborne as a relationship manager Sandra’s first steps into better understanding how New Zealand farms work – and getting an appreciation of the life she had married into – saw her complete a two-year farm business management course, which was fortunately child-friendly because by then the couple had two young children.
What she learned on the course was about to come in very handy.
In 2003 she and Ian bought two-thirds of the farm from his parents and Sandra began taking a more active role.
Over the years they have settled into what they describe as a pretty good partnership, helped by their involvement in a farm monitor programme from 2004, something that strengthened not only the farming business but also themselves as a couple.
But there have been some challenges along the way, including farming through three droughts in a row along with some pretty average product prices at times.
Looking back, Sandra and Ian say there was an upside to the hard times.
“You’ve got to have challenging times to make you stronger.”
To put herself in a better place to help overcome some of those challenges in 2014 Sandra took part in an Agri Women’s Development Trust pilot course called Understanding Your Farm Business (UYFB).
Unsure at the start whether it was for her she finished the three-month programme with a completely different attitude and a knowledge of farm finance and business that opened up her world.
She’d been on the farm for 20 years but says, like many women, she didn’t really understand where she belonged or fitted in.
Buoyed by her experience on the course and the women she met Sandra helped set up Farming Women Tairawhiti (FWT), which aims to educate and connect rural women in the Gisborne area.
It’s a group that’s proved more popular than she ever imagined.
They expected about 25 to 30 women at its first event, which focused on health and safety. Instead, about 85 showed up.
It’s just grown from there and these days has more than 600 members and is an incorporated society with charitable status.
Sandra is also heavily involved with the trust, facilitating UYFB, co-ordinating its regional hub programme, coaching and mentoring leaders throughout NZ.
“I meet a lot of women around the country and the stories I hear are often the similar … they don’t feel valued, they don’t understand where their place is.”
She says there has been a lot in the media about farming men being isolated and not properly understood.
The stories are similar for farming women.
“That’s not a reflection on men, it’s a reflection of how women feel.
“The stories I hear are similar to what my story was. A feeling of ‘I’m not sure where I fit on-farm’.”
Sandra says it’s her role to help women understand skills learned before living on a farm are transferable.
Having the knowledge is one part of the equation but they need to know how to put it into practice, which is where the courses come in.
Women of all ages get involved and through the networks that are established, older women can provide support for their younger counterparts through the tough times, such as pressures from drought or high interest rates.
“It’s spreading knowledge through experience.”
Younger couples are often focused on production but as they get older the focus often turns to making sure environmental and social goals are not completely outweighed by the economic ones.
It’s less about maximising the profit and more about getting the right balance.
Whether it’s programmes run by the trust or courses by FWT, women tend to learn better from other women and can then grow in confidence before taking that knowledge out to the wider industry.
In a learning environment it is important women feel comfortable speaking up and asking questions.
“When blokes are there they don’t always have the confidence to do that.”
The idea is for women to use the programmes as a stepping stone so when they attend mixed events they will have the confidence to speak up.
“Opening the door and enabling them to come through.”
Historically, many women have not been acknowledged for the work they have done on farms though that is changing, she says.
It does not matter what role women take on.
“Whatever they choose to do, they make a valuable contribution to the bigger picture.”
Enabling the women also helps the men because it makes them more active listeners and communicators while discussion also provides a valuable sounding board for shared goals.
And, as in all partnerships, better communication among those involved leads to better results.
Having seen a need to help rural women achieve their potential Sandra is fortunate to have been given the chance to help.
She gets a lot of satisfaction from seeing women getting together and growing through their involvement in the groups.
“People come from far and wide. They want the human connection so they drive from all over because they know other women will be there.
“That’s what it’s all about. It makes it worthwhile.”
To further her own development Sandra did the trust’s Escalator governance and leadership programme.
One of 14 women chosen from around the country to do the 10-month course in 2017, it opened her eyes as to what she and others can achieve.
“It’s not about the person at the front, it’s how to get the best from people, how to get them to use their own strengths.”
Part of that is getting people to value themselves, to value what they have already achieved and can achieve in the future.
She says a good cross-section of women from a variety of primary industries took part in her 10-month course, which had a wide-ranging approach to leadership development, providing women with skills and support while also addressing barriers women can face when taking part in decision-making.
The confidence, growth and communication skills she gained gave her the belief she could do more, encouraging others to empower themselves.
“Many of the skills were already there but Escalator bought them out, adding more skills to my toolbox.
“Women coming onto farms often lack a lot of confidence. Escalator helped me realise my potential, realise that I have so much to offer.
“For me, it’s not about me, it’s about empowering others.”
It’s a far cry from the days before Sandra began taking the farm business courses.
In the early days of her marriage she did not want to go to social functions, the isolation she felt and not understanding where she fitted in almost self-perpetuating.
Today she can walk into a room and immediately network with the people in it.
Though she is passionate about connecting and enabling rural women, on a personal level being able to make a meaningful contribution to the farming business she runs with Ian provides Sandra with a lot of satisfaction.
“Being able to understand and deliver for our farm business, that really floats my boat.”
The property’s location on the east coast of the North Island means production can be limited by climate, with extremely dry conditions not uncommon.
They run 140 cows, which till recently were Angus, adding some R3 in-calf Hereford heifers in 2019. They keep the males to finish as steers or bulls and buy in 150 Friesian bulls at 100kg to finish as two-year-olds.
The property also carries about 1700 ewes, with the lambing percentage lifting after getting through the drought years and bringing in Hinenui Coopworth genetics.
The focus is on kilograms of meat out the gate, with a view to growing better quality lambs.
“We don’t want lots of little lambs,” Ian says.
“It’s not good for the flock or the sustainability of the farm.”
The last couple of years have been good ones but before that droughts made for challenging farming conditions, which meant they leaned towards trading out of cattle, he says.
For the Matthews, it’s not about pushing the envelope. It’s about knowing the land and the climate and learning from the past what could be coming so, where possible, they can see things before they arrive and prepare for them.
“The longer you’re on the land the more of a connection you have with it. You see the good times and the not so good and you farm for that.
“You understand the land and what you can and can’t do.”
Trying to be the biggest or the fastest does not mean you will be the best and diversification is important to provide options for when weather or prices don’t come to the party, he said.
They have a block of regenerating native bush they are proud of and enjoy taking time out in, appreciating the plant and bird life that are returning.
Like many farming families, Ian and Sandra put their children, Emma, now 24, and Jamie, 22, at the centre of their lives, a commitment they made from the start. Life’s too short not to, they say.
While Emma and Jamie are now making their own way in the world for Sandra and Ian the goal is to sustainably grow happy, healthy animals and enjoy quality time working alongside each other.
And for Sandra it’s to help connect farming women so they can share their experiences and see their own value – which will put farm businesses and the people in them in a stronger position to deal with future challenges while time appreciating the life they have.