For a quarter of a century the Dairy Women’s Network has been a haven for fostering education, connection and leadership opportunities in the dairy sector.
Its focus has always been on people and connecting and empowering those in the sector.
Dairy Farmer asked four agribusinesswomen throughout New Zealand what the DWN and its 25th anniversary means for them.
Barbara Kuriger has had a longstanding involvement with DWN. She is a regular at the Network’s conferences and functions. Kuriger also knew the DWN’s founders and served on the DWN board.
She still keeps in contact with DWN and just last month met up with members in Te Awamutu for coffee and a chat.
“I’ve kept that relationship pretty strong,” she says.
The MP for King Country/Taranaki says it is great that the DWN is celebrating 25 years because of the impact it has had on women in the sector and how it has strengthened the dairy industry.
“They have touched thousands of women across the country in 25 years and I find that women in farming like to get together and discuss options that they may not want to do in a mixed [sex] group and that has given heaps of women the opportunity to learn new things but more importantly make new friends.”
Kuriger congratulated DWN for reaching the 25-year milestone and predicts it will only get larger.
“If you look at the wellbeing of people and farmers, women play a big role in that wellbeing and having a connected network certainly helps because 25 years ago, we weren’t dealing with the issues we are dealing with now in terms of regulations and the expectations around climate change and the environment and all of the things people are dealing with on a day-to-day basis.
“It’s so important to have friends and networks to be able to cope with that.”
Kuriger was the inaugural Fonterra Dairy Woman of the Year, winning the title in 2012. It gave her the confidence to enter national politics.
Along with the subsequent programme she did with 24 other women, it helped lay the groundwork for her parliamentary career.
“It shaped me into the person I needed to be to go into politics.”
For Kuriger it was more than just a prize, it was a message.
“There was an opportunity to do something with this, and what it did was that it gave me the courage and confidence to stand up and go, ‘I’m going to have a go at parliament’.
Kuriger says she recalls being in board meetings for the organisations she was involved with, and thinking how few people in Wellington understood what was going on in rural NZ.
“It was the Dairy Woman of the Year that launched me into the political space.”
Another former Dairy Woman of the Year is Katie Milne, who received the gong in 2015.
Milne is also a former national president of Federated Farmers and Ag Communicator of the year and has been the Oceania representative on the World Farmers Organisation board for the past six years.
She says winning Dairy Woman of the Year opened many opportunities for her.
“I really encourage anyone who gets the opportunity to take it up, certainly involvement in Dairy Woman of the Year raised my profile, and opportunities arise.”
Over the past decade Milne has been shoulder-tapped for a number of key leadership roles.
“I’ve felt very humbled at the notice that’s been taken, opportunities that have evolved that I never really thought about, but that have given me great satisfaction in making a difference and not just in farming.
“There are a whole range of other things around food producers and in the community in general, it’s not just about farming, even though it’s been farming, I guess, that has initially brought me to the fore.
“People are not aware of who is out there and there are opportunities and approaches that have come completely from left field.
“For me it really has surprised me how many other entities are seeking not just necessarily a farming voice in leadership and directorships, but also rural community representation.
“So many things can fall in your lap through recognition and they may often be humble, under the radar, but they are making a big difference for New Zealand.”
The Westland dairy farmer is currently on the board of West Coast Conversation, Predator Free 2050, Asthma NZ and the Todd Foundation.
“Rural representation is not just about agriculture but what you can do for wider society from a rural perspective.
“When you’re in the throngs of doing the business, you sometimes forget how important that is.”
Dairy Women’s Network Northland hub leader Sue Skelton says DWN is more valuable now than it was when she joined over 10 years ago.
That is because many more challenges face DWN members, who have a greater need for informed decision-making.
Skelton has a contract position as Northland hub leader and a voluntary position as the coast-to-coast business group leader with eight members.
She looks after three Northland regional leaders: Dianne Wright of Matakohe, Kylie Beatty at Tangiteroria, and Robyn Wilderman, Maungakaramea.
Further regional leaders are needed in the Far North, the Mid North and in the Rodney-Helensville districts of greater Auckland.
Business group leaders co-ordinate each small group, prepare the agenda and encourage shared facilitation.
Skelton said the events are a mixture of practical, financial and social catch-ups, such as a recent Paint ’n’ Sip gathering.
The Northland yearly plan, to be discussed by the regional leaders in late November, contains approximately five events per region in regions that have a leader, and they are both self-organised topics and network partner events.
Events can be full days, half days, evenings or webinars, most of which are recorded so members can watch at their convenient time.
Skelton and her three leaders are working farmers, therefore events are not scheduled for the busiest times of the dairy season.
“DWN is open to everyone, and values inclusivity, and so we have sheep and beef farmers and lifestylers as members along with rural professionals.”
Pouarua Farms chief executive Jenna Smith was appointed as a DWN director in 2020.
Smith says one of the reasons she feels so strongly about the Network’s role in the dairy industry is that she wishes she had known about it earlier.
“I wish I had known about that network or that group of people that was out there with that support.
“It’s why I want to now champion the network but also give my time back too, so if there are women out there who are starting their careers, there is someone there to help them with support.
Smith describes DWN as a network that wraps around you. It’s inviting and warm and full of like-minded people championing other women in the industry.
Smith, who is a current trustee on DWN, says it is a huge accomplishment to reach 25 years.
It is a testament to the need for the Network in the community that it has evolved and stayed relevant for 25 years.
“That need from the community has changed over the years, but the fact that it is still needed speaks volumes to the dedication of the team.”
Looking ahead, Smith believes DWN’s core purpose will stay relatively the same, connecting and empowering women, but the opportunity for the next 25 years will be to evolve to stay relevant to match what is a fast-paced industry.
“What dairy means is ever evolving – does it mean dairy sheep, dairy goats, synthetic dairy? Those are all things we need to consider going into the future.”
This article first appeared in the December edition of our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.