Stepping out of a clean car in high heels and a skirt, Hashini Cooke quickly felt overdressed when she was greeted by a farmer fresh from the cowshed.
That first farm visit was a real eye-opener. Cooke had no idea what she had gotten herself into, taking on an agri manager role for ANZ in Danneverke.
But it was a pivotal move that led her to discover her true passion, dairy farming.
She is now back in Manawatū working with her dad, Sanath Samarawickrama, who is contract-milking 350 cows in Rongotea, and she has aspirations to join forces with her parents to buy a farm together.
“It’s been a big change going from wearing heels and dresses in the office and now I wear Red Bands every day,” Cooke says.
She had spent time on the farm when her family first moved to New Zealand, but she did not enjoy it and longed to live in town.
Cooke was born in Sri Lanka and moved to NZ with her parents in 2010 when she was 15. They came over for her mum, Gayani, to do her PhD in microbiology at Massey University.
Her dad had been in the army for 20 years back in Sri Lanka and went straight into farming when he got to NZ.
“Back then I hated it, I never went near the shed or cows. I just wanted to be in town, so when I was 17, I moved into town boarding while I finished school and then carried on to study at Massey too.
“But I had no idea what I wanted to do, I just googled what jobs make the most money and accounting was right up the list, so that’s what I studied.”
She had a partner at the time and together they had a daughter, Arya. After she finished studying, they moved to Feilding, where she worked as an auditor for Audit NZ.
She audited government ministries and councils, checking that they were doing their accounts right. She also started working towards her chartered accountancy, but she got an itch to get involved with farming somehow.
“I spotted a rural banking role in Dannevirke and was fortunate to get it, so I moved over the hill and had 200 farms to look after and I loved it.
“I really enjoyed working with farmers, so much more than numbers. They really are the best people.”
After falling in love with the farming community, Cooke decided she would like to go farming herself so she reached out to a friend to ask if they knew anyone who would take on a complete newbie.
She secured a fixed-term role on a System 5, split calving farm starting in February this year.
“It was full-on. I had to learn how to drive a manual and a tractor, I had never milked a cow before, and I went straight into calving.
“But I realised I really liked farming and knew that’s the industry I want to be in.”
Now back in Rongotea, looking back at her attitude as a teen makes her laugh.
“It’s been a big turnaround from hating the farm as a teenager, just wanting to be closer to my friends in town, and now I can’t think of anything better than living on the farm.
“And out here doing it is such a change from the bank, where I would see a farmer for half an hour in a meeting room most of the time. It’s a real eye-opener.
“Farmers have so much on their plate, they need to be electricians, vets, pasture managers, they have to know everything and I have so much respect for their knowledge.”
She has enjoyed getting involved with the community too. After the floods in February she became involved with the community during the clean-up. She has been dabbling in the local New Zealand Young Farmers events and is a member of the hunting and fishing club at Massey.
She is keen to enter the New Zealand Dairy Industry Awards and has immersed herself in studying for a Master’s in Agribusiness.
“I’ve got a lot going on but I love not being stuck in an office. My favourite part is driving the tractor and feeding the cows and I love milking. I know it’ll be worth it.”
She owns a house in town and her parents have some rental properties that they plan to sell to buy a farm together somewhere around Manawatū eventually.
Cooke cannot imagine doing anything else and Arya loves it too – she gets a calf every birthday and enjoys getting out in the fresh air.
“I’ve learnt that whatever you do, you really have to have a passion for it and farming is mine. It’s what the country is built on and the people are amazing.”
This article first appeared in the December edition of our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.