Food and Fibre Youth Network chair Cheyenne Wilson (Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngati Awa) is keen to encourage more Māori into agriculture (ahuwhenua) and is calling for fresh thinking and approaches.
What’s your background in the industry?
I worked in the dairy industry for a number of years, from calf-rearer through to farm manager and as a young stock manager, then studied at Lincoln and now I work as a rural (taiwhenua) professional. Last June I was appointed to the Food and Fibre Youth Network, which was set up to enable young people across the primary sector to raise industry issues and provide input into critical decisions to shape the future of the food and fibre sector.
Tell us about your new social media initiative.
I’m really passionate about seeing more rangatahi (young people) in the primary industries and making sure the sector is fit for rangatahi to thrive in. So it’s a two-way thing. To advance those goals, I’ve started an Instagram and Facebook page called Te Kaharangi. That translates roughly as “the strength of the skies’’. The idea being that the light that fills us up is something we can draw down from the sky.
Why did you start Te Kaharangi?
I realised a lot of what I was posting online professionally were the highlights of working in agriculture, never the challenges. I thought to myself, our rangatahi are going to be reading this and thinking, “wow, she’s got it all together!’’, when that is not always the case [laughs]. We all know working in agriculture can be a real roller coaster ride sometimes and I wanted to do something that was more authentic and relatable and showed the challenges as well as the opportunities. I also want to share my experiences as a young Māori woman working in the industry and talk about the things that matter to me.
What sort of challenges are you talking about?
Well, a big one for me has been relocating to new areas. That can make you feel very unsettled, finding somewhere to live, trying to make new connections and friends. It can be daunting.
That’s something a lot of dairy farm workers face every year, isn’t it?
Exactly. We move to a new area, and it can take six months just to get everything unpacked and over a year before we feel really settled. If you’re single and don’t have children it can be difficult to meet people, because the usual avenues, such as schools, aren’t there for you.
So, is Te Kaharangi a way of connecting people too?
Yes, I’ve already had people contacting me who recognised me through Young Farmers and reached out to me and invited me along to events once they realised I was new to the area. That’s the beauty of social media.
How important is that social connection to managing the pressures of farming?
It’s vital because it’s so easy to just battle on alone in farming, and I’ve experienced that too. It is great when we can actually create a whānau environment on farm, so people feel genuinely supported. That makes a big difference to how someone feels about the industry and whether they stay.
I want our rangatahi to see the possibilities in farming, but I also want to help them and the industry to deal with the realities. There are great opportunities in farming, but if you want to attract people, they need to feel valued. I want to start discussion around that too.
What needs to change to attract younger people?
One thing I would like to see is for us to work together across sectors. If we’re going into schools we will have more impact if we talk about the whole of the food and fibre sector, avoiding making people choose between dairy or horticulture or other industries.
Well, a lot of the Māori farming operations I see are so diversified and so connected to our tupuna and how those people lived off the land and the sea, that approaching things from a single sector point of view doesn’t work. That’s not how Māori think about farming.
How do they think about farming?
The heart of what we do on farm is manaakitanga – feeding and looking after our people – and kaitiakitanga – looking after the environment and improving it. So that could include any sector. For me personally, it’s about my wairua and reconnecting with my whānau and whenua.
What other aspects of Te Ao Maori are helpful?
Creating a sense of connection is a huge thing for Māori. When we do our pepeha [introductions] as Māori we don’t just do it to share our name, we do it to properly connect with others in the room. In my experience in the industry, that doesn’t need to happen in Te Reo Māori for it to be a really valuable thing. It’s about making the effort to connect with people in a workplace and make them feel seen and valued.
How will the industry benefit from this sort of thinking?
Well, the biggest asset on a farm is ourselves – the people. There might be millions of dollars tied up there in assets and animals, but they hold no value without the right people in the right shape to make it all happen. That’s why placing a value on our own physical and mental wellbeing is so important.
Knowing your why is also vital – the values that drive you. I’ve always prioritised those when I’ve chosen jobs in the industry. If the person I’m working for shares those values, it’s a better outcome for everyone. When we share an understanding of each other’s needs and motivations it makes it a lot easier to deal with the day-to-day challenges like weather or new regulations or labour shortages.
Are any of these ideas gaining traction in the industry?
Yes, I think there’s been a big shift thanks to things like Farmstrong raising these issues about the importance of people’s wellbeing and their ability to cope with the pressures of farming. Farmers are much more open nowadays to talking about how they look after themselves and their teams.
You’ve had a number of roles in the industry on farm and at sector level. What makes a good employer?
I think the best employers support you as a person. For example, I had one who acknowledged the fact I was a single woman on farm and if I got home after a long day, I still had to go home and cook myself dinner, so they’d cook extra food and drop it off to me which was a real help. Something as simple as that took the pressure off.
I was helping another farmer manage stock and even though I was studying and wasn’t on farm all the time, when he was making decisions, he would always ask for my opinions. That meant so much to me. He made you feel part of the team. Valuing people for the experiences they bring is a big part of attracting and keeping people.
How are we going to get more Māori involved in farming?
I think it’s often about relatability. It’s a lot easier for someone like me to connect with young Māori and start the conversation. The other thing is that we already have a lot of our own whenua we’re farming and yet our own people aren’t working there. So that’s a good place to start too.
Overall, I think we need to create workplaces where our people feel comfortable. They’re around their own people and they feel valued and supported. Where it’s a place they can shine.
Farmstrong is a nationwide, rural wellbeing programme that helps farmers and growers cope with the ups and downs of farming. For free tools and resources check out www.farmstrong.co.nz