As Matt Bell gets shakily to his feet, steadies himself and feels the whitewater propel him to the beach, he raises his arms and lets out an unbridled shout of elation.
His search for a better lifestyle is officially complete.
It’s a midweek summer evening in Raglan and Matt, Federated Farmers Waikato sharemilker chair, has just caught his first wave ever at a Surfing for Farmers event – and it feels good.
“This is why me and my wife came to Raglan – for a better life. I’m so bloody happy to be here,” Matt says.
After contract milking 1800 cows in Mid Canterbury for four seasons, managing 12 staff at peak, Matt was running on empty and desperate for a fresh start.
“I love farming, but we needed a change. It wasn’t sustainable what we were doing, and it wasn’t fun,” says the 2015 New Zealand Young Farmer of the Year.
Matt, his wife Sam, and six-year-old boy Blake wrote a list of what they wanted from their next farm: money was on the list, but great people and a great location were higher.
They were thrilled to secure a 50:50 sharemilking role on 430 cows just inland of Raglan.
Six months into the job, Matt’s like a man reborn and says he’s never been happier in farming.
“We have an amazing farm owner, the view is incredible, and I have so much more time during the day.”
Getting along to Surfing for Farmers has been a long-held goal, he says.
“I grew up in Morrinsville and spent my summers at the bach at Whangamata. I used to surf a lot but that was years ago, and I’ve been wanting to get back into it for ages.
“I’ve known about Surfing for Farmers and have been so keen to come along.”
Matt and a diverse group of farmers, some who’ve driven more than an hour to be here, meet in the carpark overlooking Ngarunui Beach at 5:30pm. The friendly Surfing for Farmers organisers and local surfing instructors kit the farmers out with wetsuits and boards.
“As you can see, I’m an athlete,” Matt jokes, showing off his wetsuit-clad body, “so it’ll come back to me pretty quickly.”
The group then head down for a warm-up and surf lesson on the black-sand beach.
“When you feel the wave hit you, you’re going to give it three more strong paddles before you start getting up to your feet,” local Raglan surfer Deli Kaukau instructs the farmers before they head into the ocean.
For the next hour or so, Matt and the other farmers get stuck in, the day’s small swell making it ideal for learning.
The soft-top longboards are stable, buoyant and forgiving of falls, meaning nearly everyone experiences the thrill of standing up.
Later, back on the beach and beaming, Matt reckons he’s hooked again.
“It’s actually coming back to me really quickly. I’m going straight out to buy a board and I’ll be back here next week.”
And although the actual wave-riding part is a buzz, Surfing for Farmers is about much more than that, Matt says.
“It just feels really good to be here at the sea, you know? It’s good for the soul, good to get off the farm.
“I don’t know what the words are for it, but it’s a lot of that stuff people talk about, how it replenishes you and makes you feel alive.”
Matt says initiatives like Surfing for Farmers are incredibly important – but the onus is still on farmers to take advantage of them.
“Us farmers are useless at getting off the farm and very few of us have real balance in our lives.
“We’re really good at making up all sorts of excuses for why we need to keep working, and why we can’t afford to leave the farm. But when you actually do it – when you come and do something like this – you realise the farm didn’t explode while you were away for a few hours.”
Afterwards, spirits high and back in dry clothes, the farmers gather with sponsors like Rabobank, and organisers, at the Raglan Surf Lifesaving clubhouse for a hearty BBQ and drinks on ice.
Some farmers know each other, others are meeting for the first time, but they’re united by the fact that they’ve tried something out of their comfort zone.
With the Tasman stretched out behind him and the sun dropping, Matt reflects on a cracking afternoon away from the cows.
“That was so choice. I loved that. Look at me surfing again.
“I don’t think I’ll be moving from Raglan anytime soon.”
Surfing For Farmers runs from December through to late March across 16 regions. It’s free and no surfing experience is needed.
Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.