For Donna Cram, leadership means connecting with people and collaborating with them for the best possible outcomes.
It also brings the best out of people, the Dairy Women’s Network 2023 Fonterra Dairy Woman of the Year said.
“I’ve been told I’m really hard to say no to,” she laughed.
“I love a good discussion and I think we don’t do that enough. For innovation and good ideas, quite often it comes from four different people and I think that’s really important.”
She is heavily involved in her community as the Taranaki Catchment Communities Inc chair and founder, part of the DairyNZ Dairy Environment Leaders, an ambassador for Federated Farmers, a councillor on the Taranaki Regional Council and a trustee at Dairy Trust Taranaki.
She was announced as winner of the award at the Dairy Women’s Network’s (DWN) annual conference in Southland.
Cram said she knows that not all of her ideas are good ideas – but through listening to others she is able adopt ideas she learns from others, and collaborate with them.
“Some of the good things that have happened, chances are that other people have been involved. You never lead alone.”
Winning the award has made Cram reflect on the people who have assisted her over the years, including the late Chester Borrows.
The former National cabinet minister was a mentor when Taranaki Catchment Communities was first getting established.
“We had a coffee every month and gosh it helped. It was huge.”
Others include farmers from the Dairy Environmental Leaders Forum and fellow regional councillors, she said.
“There’s a lot of people and while they have all done something small but it’s quite massive in support.”
Cram is a fourth-generation dairy farmer from Taranaki, farming 107 effective hectares plus a nearby 42ha runoff, milking 290 cows for the new season.
In the past week Cram has been back on the farm covering absent staff, and with husband Philip in the United Kingdom.
It’s made her remember how much she loves the work.
“I haven’t been going out on the farm as much since council came along,” she said.
Cram always wanted to be self-employed and she and Philip worked hard to get into a position to be able to do that.
The pair started farming in their late twenties as lower-order sharemilkers for Donna’s parents. They leased another farm for three years before leasing the farm they eventually purchased.
That farm was the neighbouring farm to Donna’s parents’ land, and they purchased part of that farm to grow it to what it is today.
Cram, who trained as an accountant, said she always felt like she received a free education and it incentivised her to give something back to the community.
“I’ve always had that feeling of being a little bit responsible and you just start taking on roles because you see what needs doing or what could be done.”
Cram has since upskilled herself, completing a Diploma in Agribusiness Management and courses in nutrient management and farm environment planning to better understand the legislation being introduced by central government over the past few years.
In July, she plans to complete a further course on greenhouse gases.
Cram presided over the local playcentre, which led to a place on the Board of Trustees for the local school. She served on this board not long after the then Labour-led government closed rural schools. She witnessed four neighbouring schools being shut down.
“We had a lot of work to do but gosh, we turned that school around. It’s probably the biggest rural school in Taranaki now.”
Back on the farm, the Crams had undergone a major riparian planting project, which saw them receive the Taranaki Regional Council’s environment award for stewardship in 2016.
Cram was then invited to DairyNZ’s Dairy Environment Leaders Forum in Wellington, which left a huge impression on her. She cites farmers such as 2023 Responsible Dairying Award winner Cameron Henderson and DairyNZ board member Tracy Brown as providing inspiration.
“The whole group was amazing and it’s an incredible support network,” she said.
Brown’s talk about how the Agri-Woman’s Development Trust Escalator programme assisted her on her pathway left a huge impression on Cram.
“I decided I will find out what that was because it sounded pretty good, and I ended up doing that in 2021.”
Another theme emerging from the Forum was farmers setting up catchment groups, which motivated Cram to establish her own group in Taranaki, using her connections from the Forum and Federated Farmers to help set up what eventually became known as Taranaki Catchment Communities.
Its function now is to help Taranaki farmers navigate the coming environmental regulatory changes.
Last year, Cram received an unexpected call from Taranaki regional councillor Michael Joyce, who told her he was retiring and urging her to run for his seat.
Cram said she had contemplated running for local government in the future and while she is “no politician”, she believed she had the skillset and felt it was important that the council had farmer representation. She was elected in 2022.
The DWN 2023 Fonterra Dairy Woman of the Year award comes with a scholarship of up to $20,000 for a development programme, or professional/business coaching and/or learning experience.
Cram said she is still deciding how best to use the opportunity.
“It will definitely be around leadership and governance, and I would like it to be on a world stage rather than local,” she said.
Cram said the numerous messages of support since she won the award have been humbling.
“The next morning, I was thinking that I can either make this about me or try to continue to do all of the things I have been trying to do up until now.”
To that end, Cram has started compiling a list of things that could be potentially accomplished through winning the award while still retaining values that she cherishes.
For now, that list includes supporting and enabling farmers on their journey to become more sustainable.