Sunday, March 3, 2024

Fifty years of standing her ground

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Helen Miller emerged from tragedy to build an enviable Hereford stud.
Helen Miller has been breeding Hereford cattle for 50 years. Photo: Natasha Chadwick
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This article is part of Famers Weekly’s annual Land Champions series. Read the full series here.

Determination, perseverance and just a hint of stubbornness – whatever the traits, it has been a successful formula for Helen Miller.

The 84-year-old  has just notched up 50 years as a Hereford cattle breeder out of her Pyramid Downs Stud, near Riversdale in Northern Southland. 

She and farm manager Geoff Speden have forged an enviable reputation for their quality stock,  and regularly sell bulls to clients throughout the South Island. 

But for Miller, success has come the hard way.

In 1968, while in the maternity hospital with her week-old son, she learnt her husband John had been killed in a road accident, not that far from the family farm.

It was a huge shock, Miller said in her typically understated way.

A widow with two young children – Rachel and John – in tow, Miller had to decide whether to make a go of the farm or cut her losses and move on .

She said pressure came from some quarters to sell the property. 

“The more the pressure was on, the more determined I got that I was not leaving my new house.

“One of the worst parts was I had no car. We had an old 47 Chevrolet truck here. My family tidied it up for me to get around in.”

Helen Miller remains active around her 240ha farm.  Photo: Natasha Chadwick

Miller and her husband had met at a local dance and after a three-year engagement they married. By that stage they had already bought the farm and built the home that Miller still lives in today – “but in those days you didn’t live together, you got married”.

They spent their honeymoon following the rodeo circuit in the North Island, where her husband competed as a bronco rider.

Miller’s world was turned upside down after the accident in late 1968. But she had no option but to regroup quickly and make some life-defining decisions.

Once the decision was made to stay on the property, Miller went in search of a farm manager. Two managers came and went in a relatively short time before she employed Speden in 1972.

He had previously worked on a Hereford stud and, with Miller keen to get cattle onto the property, it seemed a good match.

“I wanted to do something with the farm. My father had Angus cattle and I never trusted the blighters,” Miller said.

She initially purchased 10 in-calf Hereford heifers, which weren’t registered. Over the years Miller added to her stock numbers by hand-picking quality animals and creating the well-respected stud she has today. She said Speden has been invaluable in helping develop the line of Hereford cattle.

“I’ve learnt a lot. But I have had to learn a lot.”

The key to a good bull is its “structure, temperament, good feet and I’m very particular about them having length of neck”.

Helen Miller with her dogs Bob, left, and recent arrival Camy. Photo: Natasha Chadwick

Miller said it was at times tough finding a balance between raising children and running the farm.

“It was more difficult when they got to be teenagers. They wanted to go and do the things that their friends were doing.

“But I just had to manage.”

Over the years the farm has fluctuated in size, from about 320ha at its peak to the 240ha  it is today. Alongside Hereford cattle, they run about 800 Perendale ewes. The Waimea Plains Railway ran through the property up until its closure in the early 1970s and Miller was eventually able to obtain the rail corridor, which became part of the farm.

Most people in their 80s would be eyeing a quieter life, but that is not for Miller.

“I belong to a women’s club simply because the people that nominated me said that I live in a male-dominated world and it would be good for me to go to club functions.

“But I find it a bit boring. Everyone knows what one another is doing. That drives me mad.

“I never tell anyone what I’m up to. I do what suits me, when it suits me.”

The grandmother of four remains active and sprightly. She is still quite capable of clambering over sheepyards or jumping in the ATV  to inspect the farm. The only concession is “I don’t have the energy to mow my own lawns any more”.

Part of her secret to keeping fit, she said, is shying away from alcohol.

“Some people think it’s fashionable to have a glass of wine when you’re out or at home in the evening. I tell people I haven’t had an alcoholic drink in 15 years, although it’s probably 20.”

Outside of farm life, Miller has a passion for antiques. 

Helen Miller has a passion for antiques and runs a shop from her farm. Photo: Natasha Chadwick

She purchased her first piece – a Victorian sofa that still takes pride of place in her home – when she was 21, and was hooked. There aren’t many antique stores in the South Island Miller hasn’t visited, or purchased from. 

She now runs a small antiques and collectables shop from her own property, admitting that she has “far too much” stock.

Through the good times and bad, Miller has embraced her time on the land and, at this stage, has no plans  to move from her farm. After all, she said, “life has to have a purpose”.