Rotary NZ held an international conference in Invercargill in October last year, at which Tangaroa was a speaker. Following his address he was invited to tour the country to deliver similar speeches to encourage youth into farming, a mission supported by Federated Farmers and government departments, along with the organisers of the Ahuwhenua Trophy. That will be coming to a town near you soon and this young man is worth listening to.
Tangaroa Walker: "I try to get them out of the idea it's a dumbass job with no career prospects."
Tangaroa is of Ngati Pukenga and Ngati Ranginui descent, tribes from the Tauranga area. As a toddler he was shuffled around in foster homes, where he was not always treated well. Eventually he was taken in by an aunt and uncle on their lifestyle block at Whakamaramara. At 11 he walked down the road asking for a job at nearby farms and was taken on by a piggery owner, moving on soon after to work for the pig farmer's brother on a neighbouring dairy property.
"I started out hosing down the runs, then helping with the milking, then by the time I was 14 I was the relief milker on weekends and making $140/week. I didn't come from a wealthy background and that was a fortune at that age."
He was sick of school, saying, “I only went there to play rugby and for the girls".
When he was 15, Tauranga Boys' High started a work/school programme to transition students into jobs and Tangaroa began working three days a week on a farm, with three days at school.
"It allowed me to play in the First XV and be part of the school social life and I made it to 17 still at school, went to the ball and all that. It worked out perfectly."
He thanks the school’s careers adviser for steering him in the right direction.
“When I was 17, I was deciding if I wanted to be an architect, an auto-electrician or a farmer. The careers guy asked me what I wanted in the future. I said I wanted to be self-employed and have $200,000 by the age of 22. We did the maths and electrician was ruled out straight away. It was going to take way past 27 as an architect and so it was obvious."
The adviser plotted a course for Tangaroa through the AgITO training programme.
"I'm in my fourth year with them now."
And the goal is revised to a 50:50 equity partnership by age 27. At the end of 2007 he took up the second-in-charge position at the farm he'd been working on.
Rugby was also looking a possible career option, with Tangaroa making the Bay of Plenty under-20 team for three seasons as an openside flanker.
"I wanted to try to crack into the (provincial) development side but rugby was the only thing keeping me there and I knew there were better dairying opportunities in Southland."
At 16 he'd met Simone Groosman. "We used to sneak down to the Girls' College at lunchtimes."
The couple packed up his old Isuzu ute, their dog Chase and two cats, Bessie and Blackie, found abandoned on the roadside by their property, and drove south.
"The farm manager had painted Just Married on the box on the back of the ute, so we got quite a few toots and waves on the way down."
He'd asked Southland farm consultant Ivan Lines to jack up a job for him and began work for Wayne and Debbie Little on a 400-cow farm at Winton. After a season and a half, Little advised him he couldn't learn any more on his farm and that he should move on and so the young couple shifted to a property contract-milked by Graham and Glenda Haines in Kennington, near Invercargill.
He got the job, apparently, because he asked his future boss for a reference.
"I wanted to know that we were going to a farm where we'd learn and where we'd be made to feel welcome."
They did, and remain friends with the Littles and the Haines.
"They taught me so much. I took that year off AgITO because I couldn't have taken in any more anyway."
He rose through the ranks with the Haines operation, became their manager on Toa Farms, and was then offered the milking contract by the farm's owners. Now he milks 570 Friesian cows on 196ha, producing last year 243,000kg milksolids (MS), which went to Fonterra.
The land is relatively easy to farm, mostly flat and low rolling, and the high rainfall means the stock is mostly grass-fed. He uses meal in the shoulder periods, according to advice from a dairy nutritionist, and is fast becoming a fan of condensed distillers' syrup (CDS).
"The owners' goal is to get to production of 95% of body weight," he said.
To that end he is breeding towards the Kiwicross cow, with the help of one of the equity partners Murray Hewetson, a sheep and beef farmer from Waimumu.
Snow can be a problem, and not just for the animals.
"It was a bit of a shock at first," Tangaroa said of the temperature drop between Tauranga and Southland. “But you just chuck on a couple more coats and say goodbye to the brown skin. I had to get a thicker wetsuit but I tell you what, I don't even bother looking for paua when I visit back home any more, not after the size you get them down here."
When time allows he also enjoys pig hunting and fishing. But there's not much free time and last year he had to forego the rugby.
"I'd just taken on the top job and I was too busy with work, so the rugby had to go on the backburner. I've played every year since I was 10 so it was pretty hard. But I just couldn't afford to get injured and be off work."
When he arrived from the north he joined the Invercargill Marist club. Over the following three seasons he was chosen in the NZ Marist Colts, the Southland 7s team and the Southland Maori team. He'd still like to make the Southland provincial side and to that end he will be back with Marist this season.
"We have a lot of potential. The average age is only 23 or 24, so a bit of commitment and some good coaching might get us up there."
For Tangaroa, it's a matter of putting in more training time to impress the Southland selectors.
"I don't feel like I've ever trained as hard as I should do to be my best on the field. It's always been a balance between work and sport – you have a 12- or 13-hour work day six days a week and you have to maintain a relationship too. You can't be selfish – you can't just go from work to training, then expect a hot dinner when you get home, then go off to sleep."
He's taken on staff to allow himself more time to train and play this year.
“I still like to think I can make an NPC team but anything higher has probably gone now. You have to be steeped in the programme to go onwards (to Super Rugby or the All Blacks)."
The Ahuwhenua awards, launched by Sir Apirana Ngata with the support of the then Governor-General Lord Bledisloe in 1932, are the highest honours awarded to Maori in farming. The competition acknowledges business excellence in the pastoral sector and entrants are judged on the efficiency with which their property is farmed relative to its potential, financial performance and market returns, as well as environmental condition. After Tangaroa won the cadet section last year doors started to open for him in several directions.
"When I went up to Auckland (for the awards ceremony) I got offered jobs. The awards people asked me to do a speaking tour to encourage young Maori into farming. And I met the mum of a guy from Matakana Island (near Tauranga) and he wanted to get on a farm, so now we've got him trying out down here."
Simone's brother Jordan Groosman, 24, moved down to a job on an Otautau dairy farm and two more of Walker's friends have since made the transfer south.
"People are down here because they want to be really successful in the industry and it pushes you when you’re surrounded by success. It's been bloody good moving down here.”
Simone follows her passion for horse riding and is doing AgITO courses on farm business management.
When Tangaroa talks to young people about the opportunities in farming he’s clear in what he’s trying to do.
"I try to get them out of the idea it's a dumbass job with no career prospects.”
He also assists at the Invercargill youth centre, talking to troubled youth and trying to pass on life skills advice.
"Some of them are just no good but some of them want to change, so it's good to support that. I just want to show them what's possible."
He's on target to achieve the 50:50 partnership goal and he and Simone have talked about having children, "but we both want to travel first". They are planning a three-month trip next year to see Europe and Asia at least. Rearing about 90 beef calves on the side has kick-started the holiday account fund.
Tangaroa has goals that stretch into the future – his own businesses, holiday homes, more travel.
"I want to be the most successful Maori in the world," he said after his Ahuwhenua Trophy win.
Proof that he might just make this goal came in mid-January, when he signed a contract to advance his career, running 900 cows on another property near Invercargill owned by Wayne Foster.
"It's pouring down rain here," he said. “And I'm running around outside getting wet and celebrating. I've been given some awesome opportunities and it looks like I'm going to make my target."