Maori agri-business woman slips seamlessly from paddock to office

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Ash-Leigh Campbell is one of the rising stars of Maori agri-business. Pat Deavoll finds out what has brought her from the farm to a desk.

Ash-Leigh Campbell is no fan of long term goals because "you never know what's round the corner."

"There are so many crossroads. I like to take opportunities as they arise," the newly appointed sustainability co-ordinator for Ngai Tahu Farming says.

Ash-Leigh Campbell has moved effortlessly from the dairy farm into the role of sustainability coordinator for Ngāi Tahu ...
Pat Deavoll

Ash-Leigh Campbell has moved effortlessly from the dairy farm into the role of sustainability coordinator for Ngāi Tahu Farming.

"For instance, until recently I was going back to full-time study. Now I'm hoping my contract role here will be extended and I'll be able to work part time and study part time."

Campbell is one of the bright lights of Maori agri-business and was named a finalist in the  2016 Ahuwhenua Young Maori Dairy Farmer Awards - the first woman to make the finals of the dairy category.

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She has been treasurer of Dunsandel Young Farmers for four years, and senior vice-chairman for the Tasman region of the organisation for the past two. She hopes to step into the chairman's role in a couple of months. A succession plan was created so, hopefully, this will happen, she says.

Of Ngai Tahu descent, Campbell graduated with a Diploma of Agriculture from Lincoln University in 2015 and a Diploma in Farm Management last year.

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The study came after several years working on farms, and she still harbours a love of farming that germinated when she was a high school student. 

"My parents bought me an old car and told me I had to earn my own petrol money. I didn't want to be a check-out chick or anything typical like that," she says. 

"The farm owner was a bit shocked to see me turn up to the interview but I said 'I can do it' and he took me on."

Campbell kept up her dairy job,  milking 200  holstein cows in a 24 aside herringbone shed, throughout high school.

She went on to work at an 800 crossbred dairy farm at Dunsandel for two years, climbing the ladder from calf-rearer to herd-manager.

"I remember thinking at the time it was a massive accomplishment for a 20-year old," she says.

"At that stage, I didn't really think 'this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,' but I was content because I was enjoying myself and a lot of my friends weren't enjoying their jobs.

"I liked being outdoors, I liked the animal interaction and had good employers who encouraged me to do some Primary ITO papers.

"I liked milking, didn't even mind getting up at 4.30am My friends laughed - they thought it hilarious that I was a dairy farmer."

In 2013 she was approached to manage a 500ha dry stock farm at Sheffield. The farm had been run down as a low-input sheep farm, but Campbell increased production and turned it into an intensive unit growing cereals, winter crops and baleage.

It wasn't all plain sailing, she recalls. 

"Some days I didn't enjoy the challenge. I'm not going to lie - there were some days that I would have a cry."

Campbell found out about her Ngai Tahu lineage when applying for a Whenua Kura Scholarship to attend Lincoln University after stepping away from farming at the start of 2015.

The two-year scholarships are a learning partnership between Ngai Tahu Farming and Lincoln University and look to grow Maori leadership in agriculture.

"I knew my mother was connected to iwi but otherwise I knew nothing of my Ngai Tahu side," she says. "I was brought up a pakeha on a lifestyle block near Lincoln.

"I won a scholarship and started the Whenua Kura programme in 2015  and through it discovered I linked through my great-grandmother to Puketeraki Marae north of Dunedin and that my family were once whalers.

The programme not only covered Campbell's tuition, but offered mentoring and a curriculum based on Ngai Tahu values - kaitiakitanga (guardianship and protection, especially of the land and environment), manaakitanga (hospitality, care and respect) and rangatiratanga (authority and chieftainship). The aim is to develop the participant's knowledge of Maori values when it comes to land use and management.

"I didn't realise how much significance this was going to have," Campbell says. "I feel like I'm grounded and know who I am now and it helped me grow and get more involved in Maori culture."

Campbell says her university studies also gave her a chance to discuss and debate hot-topic issues facing the New Zealand dairy industry.

"We talked a lot about water usage and water quality - such huge issues for Canterbury. 

"One thing I have noticed is that Maori have more awareness around sustainability and the environment and the importance of looking after the waterways and the effect on future generations," she says.

"There has been a significant forward shift over the last five years and the dairy industry is now looking much more deeply at its farming practices.

"Ngai Tahu Farming is  involved in sustainability research and development with Lincoln University and it's great to be a part of this process. 

"It's about things coming full circle - if we look after the land and waterways now we preserve them for future generations and the land will provide.

"I definitely feel that there needs to be greater awareness of kaitiaki tanga (guardianship and protection) in dairying, but change is happening.

"It's about education which is something Ngai Tahu does really well."

In her role as sustainability c-ordinator for Ngai Tahu Farming, she feels she can be a strong advocate for sustainability within the dairy industry. 

Her role is to implement the sustainability work Ngai Tahu is doing with ecosystems, waterways, nitrate leaching and environmental impacts, she says. 

"I work with a sustainability matrix and within that are 80 projects that the board has identified it wants to be established. I've pinpointed the ones that have the most significance or value. For instance drinking [water] quality testing - we have set testing in place to ensure the water on our farms is of regulation standard for all our staff.

"Pretty much anything you can think to put into a sustainability matrix. My role is to collect data and monitor it."

Is Campbell less attracted to the cow shed, more attracted to agri-business these days? It's hard to say. Her transition from paddock to office desk has been seamless.

"I'd like to get into governance positions in the primary industries. I guess my time with Young Farmers has sparked my desire for leadership. It taught me confidence with public speaking and presenting and how to work with others.

"The role with Ngai Tahu constantly challenges me but there are days I miss being out on the farm.

"Who knows what the future holds; maybe I'll stay in a agri-business role, maybe I'll end up being a hands-on dairy farmer."

 - Stuff

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