Friday, December 8, 2023

Old values and new practices

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Richard Cookson and his wife Louise Cullen studied at Lincoln University but then went overseas for work at scientists rather than heading for the farm. However, 12 years ago they answered a call to return home and now run a cow and goat dairy unit.
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They not only enjoy it but are proud of what they are doing and want all New Zealanders to be proud of farmers as the keepers of Kiwi values. They are leading by example, not just on the farm but also by giving back to the sector and community and setting environmental standards.

The Cookson family farms between Morrinsville and Te Aroha are all about people, co-ops and embracing change, Richard Cookson says. 

His family moved to the small community of Springdale in the 1920s buying 30 hectares on the corner of No 1 and No 4 Roads.

Richard’s grandfather was attracted to the area because a soldier he fought with in World War I lived nearby on No 5 Road. 

Pop Cookson had three children, twins Fred and Phyllis and brother Jack, who were all involved in the faming business while Jack was also a Dairy Board and New Zealand Dairy Company director.

“Although our business seems quite diversified now my dad Fred was a farmer, stock agent, agricultural contractor, owned three butchers shops and a fish and chip shop at one stage while my mum, Jeanette, also operated a catering company while raising four kids,” he said.

“They worked very hard to build a better future for their children. Dad always said he wanted us to stand on his shoulders, not start where he started.”

The next generation of the Cookson family is also involved in the dairy farming business with older brother Robert and sisters Joanne and Margaret managing family properties. 

Richard and his wife Louise Cullen share a role overseeing the home farm, supplying milk to Fonterra, Tatua and the Dairy Goat Co-operative. 

“It’s a real privilege to have the opportunity to supply three different dairy co-ops,” he said.

“All three have incredibly talented people working to maximise the value they can extract from our milk and what we do on farm and return that value to the farmer.”

Richard wasn’t always interested in farming and after college headed to Lincoln University for an agricultural science degree then a doctorate in soil science supervised by Jacqueline Rowarth and Keith Cameron. 

“NZ has outstanding scientists and I was extremely fortunate to have Jacqueline and Keith as mentors,” he said. 

At Lincoln Richard met Louise, who was doing her doctorate in forest ecology. NZ and Australian government post-doctoral fellowships provided a chance to work at the University of Western Australia and Rothamsted Research in the United Kingdom examining the relationships between soil microbial diversity and the resilience of nitrogen cycling. 

“It was a wonderful experience and again I was fortunate to surround myself with amazing people who made the job a pleasure” he said. 

But 12 years ago his brother Robert asked if he would come home because their father’s health was declining.

“Both Louise and I thought why not?” he said.

Richard Cookson and Duncan Mclane with their goats.

“It has a great culture that makes you want to give 110%. The company works very hard for their farmers and as a co-operative we are proud of our independence and strong connection to why we exist.”

She’s also still involved in the local kindergarten board despite their sons Finn and Liam being 11 and eight. Richard is on their primary school’s board of trustees as well as enthusiastically coaching cricket and hockey teams and serving on the regional council catchment committee.

Louise believes farmers are reconnecting with the idea they produce food and she’d like to see more emphasis on science as the basis for making good farming decisions.

“We’ve got to get back to trusting scientists who can give us a range of tools and knowledge to tackle many of the farming challenges ahead of us,” she said.

Richard believes in some ways farmers are the keepers of  Kiwi values.

“As an industry I want all of New Zealanders to be proud of us,” he said.

“Farmers will earn that by continuing to do a better job and it’s absolutely happening.”

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