FARMING near Atiamuri in Bay of Plenty Karen Forlong has been a Dairy Women’s Network member since it began in 2000 and this month stepped up to head the organisation.
At the annual meeting she took over the role as chairwoman, a position she feels privileged to be in.
“When I first heard I was being given the opportunity it was very overwhelming.
“I was lost for words and that’s not common practice for Karen as anyone who knows me will tell you.
“It’s a privilege to find myself in this situation.”
A self-described inclusive person who brings a wealth of farming and leadership experience to the role, Forlong said it’s all about teamwork.
“I see myself as the conductor of a great orchestra. I’m not actually playing an instrument, I’m just there to bring all of the fabulous components together.”
And having experienced various roles in her almost two decades with the network, Forlong well knows the components across all levels of the organisation that gel for success.
She has done the Agri-Women’s Development Trust Escalator programme, a leadership and governance programme for women involved in primary industries and rural communities and is chairwoman of Vetora Bay of Plenty, an incorporated society vet club with a 75-year history in the Rotorua area.
That’s all on top of being hands-on in the family farming operation with husband Maurice and their son Mark and daughter-in-law Vanessa and their two young daughters.
While they have been dairy farming 230 hectares milking a 400-Jersey cow herd at Atiamuri for 25 years, Karen and Maurice are first generation on the property.
“We grew up on farms but both went into banking so by the time we decided to go farming the family farms had moved on.
“You could say we have a good grasp of budgets but that doesn’t make them any easier to look at sometimes.”
Her new role means a little more juggling to fit everything in.
“But I do like to be busy. There’s not too many moments when I sit twiddling my thumbs. I’m an active relaxer and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
After years of working in regional and management support roles with the network Forlong was elected to the board.
“I really appreciate what a great privilege it is to find myself in this position now.”
She says women in dairy can find their sense of belonging in the network.
“It was a phone call from Pattie O’Boyle in 2000 asking me to be part of the first meeting of the regional group for Rotorua that gave me a place to land, a tribe, somewhere that was safe and was a place of trust.”
The network realises life is not a series of silos but is the complexity of many things coming into balance – family, people, the team, the community, animals, environment and financial wellbeing that are all reliant on each other.
“Connection is the cornerstone of a strong culture and our rural communities and the network is a connector as it delivers through face-to-face connections and through technology and online engagement.”
And as place to land it is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago.
“That place needs to feel inclusive, that it will stand with you on your journey, support you, bring to the table the truth and separate the noise from the facts and impart clear and concise knowledge.”
She says the network needs to grow leaders, to be the enabler and the cheerleader behind the voices of the future taking on the role as storytellers.
“The industry needs an engaged, full noise voice and one that is consolidated, unified, loud and proud.
“We, as a network, need to be part of the collaborative approach for our future and as women we are intrinsically wired to function in this state so we have a responsibility to use this skill and drive it unrelentingly.”
She knows what it is like to be new to a farming community, having shifted many times in her early years of sharemilking.
“This is why the network is such a brilliant network.
“It’s a great way to meet women in your community who are on your level, women you can really connect with because they are farming, have similar drivers and are often facing the same challenges.
“The network is very inclusive and that support can’t be underestimated during stressful and difficult times.”
Dairying women who put their hands up to run the network’s regional groups are hands-on farmers themselves with busy workloads that include juggling farming and family responsibilities.
“We are incredibly respectful of the fact that they give their time freely to the network and other women in their communities to run these groups.”
Forlong has no plan to lead dramatic change.
“It’s not broken, it’s working really well. We are constantly fine-tuning the operation and placing more and more importance on targeting need and adapting more quickly as need arises.
“It’s all about the people and how we do things slicker and smarter to support them.
“Our key strategy is creating deeper engagement with the people. It’s about extending a hand, not pointing a finger.
“We are world leaders in care of the environment and food production. We need to stand together.
“We have done the best we can for 150 years in farming and all of a sudden there’s change. That doesn’t mean we are going to run off and play golf.
“We refocus, rebuild as a team, we move on. Farmers didn’t set out to lose an environment battle – the game plan has changed.
“We need to be louder, prouder, stand as a unified voice and tell New Zealand what we do, why we do it and how we do it.”
At home Forlong regards getting out on the farm as like having a day off.
“It allows for balance. I head for the hills – work and play, it’s like one big playground.
“I don’t need a gym sub, it’s all rolling hills. I go out to spray a few weeds, get a sweat up – it’s good thinking time too.
“I also have a big garden I do like time to enjoy and I love family time.”
Living the empowerment values of the network prompted Cathy Brown to step down after three years as chairwoman to let Forlong have the same opportunities to grow.
“It’s been such a privilege to be chair of this wonderful organisation that is full of so many passionate, hard-working women,” Brown said.
“It’s the people who really make a difference as we walk alongside our farmers and I’ve experienced such tremendous personal growth in the role it’s now time to vacate knowing the talent in the network has us well placed for the future.”