Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Bring on the tough challenges, a Taihape farmer says

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Being the boss isn’t easy and it’s even harder going solo on tough hill country prone to long, cold winters and dry summers. But for one Taihape farmer it’s a dream come true.
Like many Kiwis her age, Mairi Whittle packed her bags and left for her OE but eventually longed for home and to get into the world of sheep and beef farming.
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The Taihape to Napier highway is a sometimes snaky road surrounded by vast landscapes and prominent landmarks. 

Clean, green hills stretch as far as the eye can see and this strong farming country produces sought-after stock. 

But it can be a brutally challenging environment to farm in too. Winters at this altitude are long, cold and punctuated by snowfalls. Summers are becoming increasingly dry with rain far less dependable after the holiday period. 

And it’s the stuff of Mairi Whittle’s dreams.

She returned to her family farm last year, set up a lease from her parents and has realised her goal of becoming a sheep and beef farmer in her own right. 

The farm, Makatote, is 607 hectares with 580 hectares effective. It straddles the Taihape-Napier road about 20 minutes east of Taihape and rises to 840 metres above sea level. There is about 200 hectares of cultivable country with the balance being rolling hills and steeper sidings that drop down to the Moawhango River. 

Mairi headed south on leaving school to enroll at Lincoln University. Like many others she didn’t really know where the study path would take her but enjoyed her time working towards a commerce degree. In her final year, she was offered a rural banking graduate position and moved to Nelson to start her new career. After a stint there, the then National Bank offered her a transfer to South Taranaki, which she jumped at because it took her closer to home. 

Though she enjoyed her time with the bank, Mairi, like many young Kiwis, had designs on an overseas adventure and set off on her big OE. She worked in Scotland, where her family originated, as a rousie and shepherd then spent six months as a jillaroo on a million-acre station in outback Australia. 

But her inner self was longing to get back to her home country to try to get into the world of sheep and beef farming.

“I always knew this was what I wanted. I just didn’t know how to get into it.”

One of her first jobs back in New Zealand was at The Doone near Kaikoura, which taught her how a South Island high country run operates. She was exposed to the wonderful world of stock work and also began to build her practical farming skills.

Through the farming grapevine Mairi heard about a job as a shepherd on a Pukeokahu farm near Taihape. Manager Rob Stratton had a reputation of being a great boss, teacher and mentor and when Mairi was offered a job she jumped at it.

It was the break she was hoping for. Rob was a patient and knowledgeable teacher who invested time in Mairi despite realising her heart was set on returning to her home farm. He encouraged her to try to form a solution so she could realise her dream and reinforced the fact there is no such thing as the perfect time to take over a family farm, so it was as good a time as any.

In the past few years Mairi has used Instagram to capture images of her farming life and connect with the outside world. 

She admits her lifestyle can sometimes be lonely but uses social media to stay in touch and share the stunning scenery she sees daily. 

The instant medium allows her to see first-hand the impact her chosen occupation can have on those who live in urban centres. The comments on her photos quite often express wonder, awe and longing for the life she has chosen and Mairi wants to expand that in future if possible. 

She recognises there is a rural-urban divide and would love to be part of the solution. 

“I guess it’s about telling the positive stories but also getting the people that are not interested in reading those stories, interested and engaged with farmers.” 

She also has some advice for her fellow farmers. 

“Farmers need to be a bit more open-minded as well and get better at telling our stories. We need to engage more with people outside the farm gate and show them the positive sides of farming.” 

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