Wednesday, April 24, 2024

New venture to train women in agriculture

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Southern girl Laura Douglas is bubbling with passion and enthusiasm as she heads up an exciting new venture aimed at giving women a leg up into New Zealand’s agricultural industry. She shares her story with Annette Scott.
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Laura Douglas grew up on a deer and sheep farm in Southland.

She always loved farming but admits she ignored her gut passion growing up and pursued a career in the corporate world.

After gaining a BSc at Otago University, which she has never used, and Business Masters (MBA) which says has actually been kind of handy, Douglas landed her first job with Deloitte as an analyst in their corporate finance division in Wellington.

From there she worked in Ireland and South Africa, and several places around NZ in many different roles in finance and business.

“The problem was I was never satisfied or fulfilled and although I was making excellent money, I was far from happy,” Douglas said.

So, she quit it all and in September 2016 left the corporate world and moved back to rural Southland.

“I had a dream to launch a business that helped people build confidence and showed guests what real rural NZ was like,” she said.

While juggling part-time minimum wage jobs in tourism, Douglas started Real Country; a unique agritourism business based near Queenstown.

Fast-forward to summer 2019, and Douglas had grown Real Country to the point where she could employ a full-time staff member.

Tourist bus contracts were coming to watch Real Country farm shows every week.

“I had so many guests visiting the farm and was starting to really grow a successful tourism business,” she said.

In 2019 Douglas also launched her passion project, the Southern Girl Finishing School, a one-day farm skills workshop for young girls.

“This was for girls to build their confidence by learning a range of practical skills like fencing, working with horses, shooting guns and changing tyres,” she said.

These workshops morphed into also catering for boys and adult women.

“It was obvious to me that practical farm skills are for everybody, not just farmers, and they are a great way to show people that just because you haven’t done something before doesn’t mean you can’t,” she explained.

“Then covid hit and my whole world was crushed, well that’s what it felt like anyway.”

The business that Douglas had sacrificed so much for, poured all her money into and that had been her whole world for three years, disappeared overnight.

“Not only did I have no income for the foreseeable future, I had fixed ongoing business costs that I had to cover, like land rent and animal food bills,” she said.

A temporary role as a vet technician teat sealing dairy cows and casual shepherding in the area helped to make ends meet.

“All the time I was hoping the borders would open and my business could resume,” Douglas said.

“Obviously the borders are still a long way from opening so I decided to come up with another plan.

“I am bloody passionate about helping women build their confidence as well as encouraging more women into farming.”

Douglas started looking at ways she could do that on a bigger scale.

“I drew on my experience where I learnt basic farm skills growing up on a farm – drenching, rousing, stock-handling – and I am lucky because I have great local farmers that give me a chance and have taught me a lot in recent years,” she said.

Douglas realised that many females do not have that opportunity.

“So I started doing research and while there are several farm training colleges in NZ, and some great ag courses teach you practical skills, most of these practical courses are very male dominated and are not always the ideal environment for females to learn in,” she said.

Douglas has launched a female-only, practical farm training course in Northern Southland.

“I want to make it clear, I am not doing this alone, I have some amazing foundation partners who are helping me fund and run this initiative,” she said.

Douglas acknowledged the support of her foundation partners Fairlight Station owners Simon and Lou Wright and Mari and Doug Harpur.

“Without these amazing people I could not be doing this, we are all working together, and they are funding it and they are trusting me with it.”

The Fairlight Foundation Board has been established with Douglas as the executive director.  

The world had fallen back on its feet for Douglas.

“Tourism had gone for the meantime, I had this great idea to set up this farm training venture for women, but how was I going to fund it?” she said.

“Then Simon (Wright) approached me suggesting a non-profit foundation.

“ I couldn’t believe it,” she recalled.

“We had this conversation about how to do it, where I picked up the reins and we moved ahead from there.”

In an effort to “remove all barriers, including financial ones,” the venture will operate as a charitable foundation with no cost to the women attending.

From her own experiences, Douglas had her own assumptions of what the course should be in terms of structure and qualifications, but she has reached out through a social media survey to the women of NZ to gather their views.

“I have had 380 women message me and so far, 270 completed the survey,” she said.

“This is all about me trying to get my head around the pathways they want to take to get the roles they want.

“I am in the process of working my butt off to get the curriculum right, to get the right team on board and find sponsors who are willing to support and donate to this cause so we can advance more women in the NZ agriculture industry.

“That’s the core focus for the Fairlight Foundation and the most important thing is making sure the course is what rural women want.”

The course will start small, taking on just three women in 2021 but with three farm stations on board, the plan is to grow over the years.

The groups will grow year by year but Douglas wants to keep the training groups small.

The course will also deliver formal agricultural qualifications, exactly what these will be are still being worked through with formal training institutions.

Suitable applicants will fit the good people with good attitude criteria.

“We are looking for women with a mature head on their shoulders, women who know for sure they want to get into farming roles and women that are happy to be a part of our rural community, volunteering their time in local clubs and community groups, and be willing to take part in a health and wellness programme as part of the course,” she said.

“Both the Foundation and I are strong believers it all starts in the rural community you live in, so we expect the women to be contributing members of our community.”

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