A woman valued and connected within the dairy industry
Anne Boswell talks to an Atiamuri dairy farmer who can't sit still, busy with family, friends, land and organisations helping farming women succeed.
Connection – to one's family, friends and like-minded people – is fundamental to personal wellbeing but can be challenging for farmers, says Atiamuri dairy farmer and Dairy Women's Network trustee Karen Forlong.
"Fundamentally we are hard-wired to need to belong to something, to feel a connection to something over and above 'I am what I work at'," she says.
"Farming's a business, but it's so much more than that, and equally, the success of my farm does not define me as a person."
Forlong has been dairy farming at Atiamuri with husband Maurice since 1995 and says before they bought the farm they shifted community no fewer than six times.
When she attended the Dairy Women's Network inaugural meeting in 2000, it was at a fitting time in her life.
"Our children were moving into college so those connections we had formed with our local primary school and community were starting to fragment," she says.
"DWN gave me a connection. I credit a lot of my growth and personal wellbeing to being part of the organisation, and as a woman feeling connected and valued within the industry."
Forlong and Maurice both grew up on family farms, but their parents had exited the industry by the time they joined the workforce.
Both became bankers but after only a few years they decided farming was the place to be.
"Maurice was a bank manager with hands that always looked like they belonged to a farmer," Forlong laughs. "We were a lot younger than a lot of the professionals who are making the transition to farming today, but the principles remained the same."
Maurice started on the first rung of the farming ladder as a farm worker and the couple gradually worked their way through management, contract milking and sharemilking roles around the greater Waikato until they bought the Atiamuri farm.
"We got in by the skin of our teeth, really," Forlong says. "That year cow prices dropped by half, as did the milk payout, so we effectively lost $80,000 equity before we even started.
"But our bank continued to back us, and we dug deep and we survived throughout the first five-ten years. We probably could have challenged the place sooner but we felt we were financially hamstrung by our debt."
The farm was initially 125ha, with an additional 80ha block leased across the river, and today the property is 205ha in one parcel with a 135ha milking platform.
"To be fair, it's only been in the last seven-eight years that the farm has started to move ahead," Forlong says. "That was the result of investing in a Class 1 bridge across the river, and making a commitment to the owners that when they were prepared to sell the runoff, we would buy it.
"The bridge was put in eight years ago and we bought the land three years ago."
This year the couple also bought two small blocks of land – 12ha effective of lucerne and 15ha of grass - which are used as cut and carry support blocks.
"We've already carried two cuts of silage and lucerne to the cowshed and there is about 180 tonnes of silage in the stack, which has just started to be fed out," Forlong says.
"We had very little rain in December and this free-draining pumice soil doesn't hold on too well with hot, howling winds."
The 220 cows they started with have grown to 400 jersey/jersey-cross cows this season, and they hope to produce 170,000kg/MS.
The Forlongs have had in-shed feeding since 2010 but some good advice in 2012 revitalised the farm business.
"We had an 'aha' moment some years ago when our bank manger introduced us to Allfarm nutritionist Andres Reidel," Forlong says. "Under his tutelage we moved from 100,000kg/MS to where we are today, on the same amount of effective hectares.
"We feed a custom meal mix year-round, which is tweaked relative to the season or the demands on the cow."
The Forlongs have had to overcome several farm challenges including steep contour and limited infrastructure.
"In 1995 the farm had only been converted to dairy for six years, and only had a 20-aside herringbone," Forlong says. "We have split the herd into two, 200-cow herds – old girls and young girls – and brought in a labour unit for the first time over and above Maurice and me, and our son Grant.
"One labour unit milks one herd and the second milks the other, so everyone only spends 1.5 hours in the shed each. This has overcome the infrastructure problem in the short term."
The Forlongs introduced angus cross cattle to manage the steeper areas of the farm and are looking at running a mob of about 40 of each age range.
"It's a relatively new aspect but the cattle will complement some of the rougher country," Forlong says.
She says her family is a big driver to the "what" and "why" of farming for her.
Son Grant is in his third season working back at home, with wife Vanessa and daughters Phoebe (1) and Holly (2).
Daughter Laura, a designer, also recently moved closer to home from Auckland with her partner Nick, and Karen's mother, a passionate former dairy farmer, also lives in her own home on the farm.
"I'm the conduit between the generations on the farm," Forlong laughs.
She admits she is not one to sit still for too long, and enjoys a challenge.
Forlong has completed two Agri-Women's Development Trust programmes: First Steps in 2012 and Escalator in 2014, and is also in training to become a communications facilitator for the AWDT Understanding Your Farming Business programme.
She says DWN is a multi-faceted network that is many things to many people.
"It can be whatever you want it to be, whether you are looking for social engagement, learning opportunities, personal or professional development and support, or a connection with like-minded women," she says.
"It fits a lot of different people in different stages of their farming career."
When asked about off-farm hobbies, Forlong's answer is unexpected but makes perfect sense.
"I don't need one. After all these years, I can still fill my bucket doing what I'm doing," she says.
"When I've got my multiple hats on and my finger in a few pies – plus I'm still very actively involved on the farm – I don't get a lot of time for off-farm activities, but I don't really need them.
"If you can't see the wood for the trees or are getting bogged down in daily life then you probably should get away, but I believe in creating a moment in your day when you sit and take stock of what you have to be grateful for.
"Farming is a great industry and New Zealand is a fabulous country, and we mustn't ever lose sight of how fortunate we are to be one of the few million lucky enough to be born here."