Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Raised to shepherd and nurture the land

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Recently named Wairarapa Shepherd of the Year, Hannah Vallance shares her story.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Hannah Vallance has an infectious passion for farming which has been nurtured and shaped by her family. Shepherding has taken Hannah from her upbringing in Puhoi, a small community 50 kilometres north of Auckland, to South Canterbury’s high country and beyond.

Now settled in the Wairarapa, Hannah is head shepherd at Bush Gully Station, and was recently named Wairarapa Shepherd of the Year.

“From the word ‘go’ farming has been it for me. Mum and Dad have always encouraged me to pursue my love for the outdoors. When I was little I would go to the saleyards with my dad, Brian Titford. He gave me a notebook and encouraged me to work within a budget to buy my own sheep. From about fourteen, I raised my own beef calves to sell on as weaners for extra pocket money. I also showed them and other young stock at the local Puhoi, Helensville and Warkworth A&P shows. It was a great way for me to learn responsibility and organisational skills, ” Hannah says.

“Caring for animals, learning to budget – those things were really instilled in me and my three siblings from a young age. Those animals were truly my responsibility. If I wanted to go to a friend’s house, I had to negotiate with my siblings to get them to feed them for me. We weren’t just given things. Our parents taught us from a young age that we had to work hard for what we wanted.”

Given her upbringing, it’s no surprise Hannah is the sixth generation of her family to care for the land. Hannah laughs as she explains her mother, Sheryll Titford, is “obsessed with genealogy” and has traced their family roots on both sides, some of which go all the way back to the small village of Dol in Croatia and Bohemia, in what’s now the Czech Republic. “Dad’s side of my family were Bohemians who made their way to New Zealand. They found themselves in Pūhoi, where my parents still farm today. The farm is only 500 acres, but it was enough to build my passion. Growing up I was always the first to put my hand up to go with Dad, no matter what we were doing. Actually, maybe not so much fencing! But I was keen for anything. I used to wag a bit of school when there were big things happening on the farm, like hay making or shearing. But lambing and docking was my favourite.”

Hannah in her element on farm. “We have such great people around us in the Wairarapa. I’m really proud of our little friend group.”

Hannah, 26, met her now-husband, Callum, while studying a diploma in agriculture at the agricultural training centre in the Wairarapa. Studies completed, the couple’s shared love of agriculture took them to the South Island, where Hannah landed herself a job as a shepherd at Four Peaks Station in South Canterbury. After three years, they sold up their dogs and utes, and headed off on an eighteen-month stint across the United Kingdom, allowing their appetite for learning to lead them. A series of diverse jobs followed – working on a sheep and beef farm in the Scottish Highlands, indoor lambing and a contract pressing 300 tonnes of wool for a wool buyer.

“It was cool to compare New Zealand farming to overseas,” Hannah recalls. “When we got back to the Wairarapa, we found ourselves looking at how we farm and considering ways we could integrate what we’d learnt into how we do things at home. And now we have some awesome friends for life over there. Travelling is a must-do thing.”

Hannah had just moved in with Callum, who had just started a new job at Drumcairn in the Wairarapa, when the first Covid lockdown hit New Zealand. She rang around the area to find herself a job, and landed a shepherding gig at Bush Gully Station, a 1,400 hectare sheep and beef farm in Hinakura, near Martinborough, owned by brothers Matt and Dan Nicholson. “Matt and Dan are awesome supporters. Coming to a job without dogs isn’t ideal, but they helped me get a team going. They encourage a farm-life balance, though my idea of fun outside of farming is dog trials,” Hannah says.

The idea of entering Wairarapa Shepherd of the Year – an intensive competition that tests theory and practical skills – had been brewing in Hannah’s mind for two years. “One of my girlfriends finally convinced me to enter. I’d thought about it for so long but never fully committed – I would just hover over the submit button. This year my friend sent me the link and said, ‘C’mon Hannah, do it for the girls!’ She joked about shouting dinner and a beer if I won, so I ended up entering.”

The competition is based on the day-to-day tasks of being a shepherd. After applying, Hannah was interviewed by a panel of judges. From there the challenge is whittled down to four contestants, who compete over the course of a day on a series of different tasks like general knowledge, fencing and stockmanship. “I’m quite confident in my livestock handling, so with my daily work I felt well-equipped. For the general knowledge I read over the farming papers. But I did practise my fencing, as I knew that was my weak point. I probably talked too much to the judge during that section!”

In the competition’s ten-year history, Hannah is the first woman to win. “This year saw the most female shepherds ever enter. Three out of the top four were women, which was really cool.” And in April this year, as promised, Hannah was shouted her dinner and beer at the local pub in Gladstone.

Hannah is the sixth generation of her family to care for the land.

Hannah has big goals. First, there’s the natural progression of moving from head shepherd to block or stock manager. “Day to day, I’ve taken on more of a leadership role – delegating jobs to our junior shepherd and casual workers as well as running the farm when the bosses are away. Both are new challenges, but I’m absolutely loving it.”

Further down the track, she wants to own her own sheep and beef farm with her husband, and also start a family. “People always say to us to go dairy farming: it’s where all the money is. But we aren’t about money at all, we’re about enjoying our lifestyle and caring for and working the land. Every day is different on a sheep and beef farm mustering, dagging sheep or lambing. There’s such a camaraderie in the sheep and beef industry, everyone pitching in to get things done. We love to take a weekend off and go fishing, or have a beer at the pub with friends.”

From a little girl at the saleyards, notebook in hand, to the hills of Wairarapa, Hannah’s clear on where she’s been and where she wants to go. “Tagging along with Dad to the saleyards, all the old fellas would say, ‘Where’s your son; which son is going take over the farm?’ And Dad would point to me and say, ‘There she is!’ There’s never been anything else I’m more passionate about than farming. It’s beautiful. Heartbreaking, too, but beautiful. I just love it.”

Story written by Jessica Dermody and photographed by Tess Charles for Shepherdess magazine. Shepherdess magazine was started around a kitchen table on a dairy and beef farm in the Horowhenua. We continue to come to you from this kitchen table, and from many other farms, home offices and lounges across provincial Aotearoa. The magazine is here to connect, empower and inspire women across rural New Zealand, by offering a place to tell stories of our rural communities. Find out more about Shepherdess here shepherdess.co.nz

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