Saturday, December 2, 2023

Shifting from the rat race to a cow’s pace

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From a high-paced lifestyle in the cutthroat fashion industry to South Auckland farmer and social media manager, a sharemilker knows the ups and downs of switching careers and finding her happy place.
South Auckland sharemilker Amber Carpenter swapped her stiletto heels and career in fashion for gumboots to work full time on the farm. She now also manages social media accounts for clients.
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This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.

On the surface, there don’t appear to be many similarities between running a dairy and beef farm – until you dig a little deeper.

“One thing I’ve been able to utilise from my career in fashion is the ability to remove emotion from the equation,” Amber Carpenter says.

“The fashion industry is cutthroat, you can’t have emotion, and you have to treat it like a business. Farming by nature is emotion, you’re attached to the land, the animals – all of it. But sometimes you have to make hard decisions and remove emotion from the equation to be able to push the business in the right direction.”

Carpenter grew up a beach girl and wondered why on earth anyone would want to live rurally. Today, she lives and works on a dairy and beef farm, milking 450 cows. The farm split-calves 100 cows in autumn and the remaining 350 in the spring, with autumn-born calves going to one of the two beef blocks nearby. The farm team totals five including Carpenter and husband Fraser.

Like many teenage girls she had an interest in fashion, and it led her to Auckland University of Technology for a Bachelor of Design majoring in fashion. As part of her degree she had to work at Fashion Week. Here she worked on some of Karen Walker’s shows, and eventually landed her first out-of-university job with the label.

“I loved working for Karen, she is very inspirational and knows her business inside and out. She works hard and is not afraid of a challenge. It was very much an entry-level job, so similar to the lead role on The Devil Wears Prada. It was a brilliant start to my fashion career.”

When not busy doing coffee runs, mending clothes, sorting clothes and everything else her role entailed, she made time to spend with friends. One such friend invited her to a party in Karaka, south of Auckland.

“At the time, I thought, why am I going to a party in Karaka of all places? But I went and that’s where I met Fraser. I thought ‘Oh yeah, he’s a bit of alright’ and that was that!”

Amber Carpenter often used to wonder why people would live rurally but she fell in love with the lifestyle and cannot imagine living anywhere else. Fraser with son Oliver and Amber with Noah get out on the farm.

Fraser, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, was working as a mechanic at the time but made the move back into farming not long after the two met. Shortly after, Amber became a country girl.

“Back then, gosh that was 16 years ago now, the commute from the farm we were on to Auckland wasn’t too bad. I ended up loving rural life, which is funny because I always used to wonder why people would live rurally.”

Her career in fashion was on the fast track and she was flourishing, and she and Fraser were making plans for their future in farming. One of his goals was to be a sharemilker before he turned 30. So they came up with a plan, hustled and made it happen. Their first year sharemilking was arguably one of the hardest years to start with a $3.90 payout.

“We had no retros and were waking up each morning to go to work to basically lose money. To survive I really had to put all my skills from my corporate career into action. A big part of role career was making money and making businesses successful, skills we really needed those first few years.”

That was almost nine years ago, and since then the couple have an award-winning careers as sharemilkers winning the 2017 Share Farmer of the year for Auckland/Hauraki in the New Zealand Dairy Industry Awards (NZDIA).

“I was a part-time dairy farmer and full-time corporate executive. But I really enjoyed it. There was a running joke though that no one in the farming space thought that I was real, that Fraser had made up his wife, because no one had ever met me. When there were events on I was often overseas or in town working. Then we entered the awards and people were like ‘Oh, you’re real.’”

That same year she gave birth to their first child, Oliver, and had every intention of returning to work when her maternity leave was up, but with a number of factors at play and a long commute to the city it wasn’t so cut and dried anymore. While the couple deliberated what to do next, Fraser, half jokingly, half seriously recommended she jump into the role of regional manager for NZDIA.

“We’d had a little bit to drink and someone was asking who was next in the role and Fraser said ‘Oh Amber will do it, she needs something to do.’  It was the best thing I did. He says I’m a bit like a caged lion when I’m not using my brain in a different capacity to the farm, so it was perfect.”

Carpenter has since moved into the role of executive chair with NZDIA, a role she’s done for the past three seasons, and says she enjoys being part of the incredible team who keep the awards alive for other farmers to make the most out of.

“The awards for us were just amazing, we got so much out of it and I love being part of that for other people.”

Eventually, they had to make a decision about her return to work. Weighing everything up, she decided the time was right to leave the corporate world and step, boots and all, into the farm business.

“I knew in my soul it was the right thing but I really struggled with it. I’d had a really successful career and was good at what I did, so it was a big transition for me.

“I’d lived on the farm for 10 years by that point but I’d never been there for long periods at a time. Then suddenly I left my job, had this baby that I didn’t know what to do with and was on my own. I also suffered badly with imposter syndrome.”

The farming community and the connections she made through NZDIA and Kellogg Rural Leadership helped immensely. She was astounded at how welcoming and open the industry was. 

“Coming from the fashion world where it’s a case of ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’, farming is just so different. Everyone wants to help and give advice and encourage you.”

A few years later and with another child, Noah, to add to their wee family, things were going really well. Until the lockdowns of 2020 saw Carpenter pacing again, so she decided to start looking for an off-farm job. Her requirements for a job were simple: work from home, flexible, creative. 

While Fraser was doubtful she’d find a job that would fit the bill, it wasn’t long until she received a message from Chelsea Millar, owner of Grass Roots Media (GRM). Having never done writing or social media before, she wasn’t sure if the role at the social media management company was for her. Turns out it was.

“The Auckland lockdowns were really tough and during my motherhood journey and journey to being a farmer I felt like I’d lost a little bit of myself I guess and in many ways getting back into a career outside of farming got me back on my journey to be fully fledged Amber again.”

Her role entails working with a number of GRM clients, who hail from all parts of the primary sector, to formulate a strategy and content plan for their social media platforms. She meets with each client every month to formulate the month’s content and align it to their wider business goals.

“Social media is this amazing platform for businesses and people to tell their stories. There is so much more to farming that people outside the sector just don’t know about, and part of my job is to help get that information out there into the world.”

The dairy and beef farm milks 450 cows on a split calving system with 100 cows calving in autumn and the remaining 350 in the spring. Autumn-born calves go to one of the two beef blocks nearby.

Keeping up with social media trends and communicating with others online on behalf of her client accounts plays a key role in ensuring success in the social media space, so while it might seem like an easy job, there’s a lot that goes on in the background to make sure every post hits the mark.

While lacking experience in the digital space, she bought to the table a wealth of farming knowledge and experience, which is crucial to being able to help clients navigate the world of social media and effectively communicate their message to the world. She said she’s learnt a lot on the job with the help of a supportive and knowledgeable team.

The role allows her to embrace her creative side by tailoring content to fit each client’s unique brand voice, and through creating graphics, something she lost touch with in the latter years of her fashion career. It’s not without a laugh or two along the way either.

“Having a team with GRM has been invaluable. On farm it’s often just me in the office while others are out on farm. So even though it’s all virtual, I’ve always got someone to chat to or share a laugh with. They’re a super talented team and honestly, I’ve just learnt so much.”

As a self-described type-A personality, organisation is the key to her life to fit in all the things she’s got on her plate. Google Calendar synced to Frasers’ phone lets them both know where they are each day and spending some time in the evenings to prepare for the next day usually keeps the wheels of their household turning nicely.

“Fraser is a huge part of being able to do everything. We work really well together and have complementary skills. While there are parts of the year where I am solo mumming it for a while we just roll with it. Kids and farming rarely go to plan so you have to give yourself some grace for those days when the shit hits the fan.”

From the city to the country, she has found her own way to forge a path in the dairy industry and says that now, she can’t imagine doing anything else. She has found her happy place.

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