Farming couple controlling their own destinies

SUE O'DOWD
Last updated 06:14 23/07/2014
Danielle, Hunter, Margery, Aaron, Karlin and Joseph Snowden and dog, Gumboot, are enjoying life on the Tariki dairy farm the family purchased last year.
SUE O'DOWD/Fairfax NZ
RED BANDED: Danielle, Hunter, Margery, Aaron, Karlin and Joseph Snowden and dog, Gumboot, are enjoying life on the Tariki dairy farm the family purchased last year.

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Taranaki dairy farmers Aaron and Margery Snowden have shown it's possible to buy a farm in the province without family financial backing.

The couple are now in their second season on their 60-hectare, high-altitude, flat dairy farm near Tariki, where rainfall exceeds 3.5m a year.

Before they bought the farm in June last year, average production was around 44,000kg milksolids (MS). Budgeting on 50,000kg MS last season, they actually bettered the farm's best production of 52,000kg MS by almost a third.

"We got 70,000kg MS, 480kg MS per cow," Aaron said.

They supplemented the herd's diet of grass and silage with 800kg palm kernel per cow.

"I wanted to feed my cows properly and that's what I did," he said.

"Once we build our equity, we'll look at pursuing other options. Now we're happy to be where we are. We'll get this farm up to scratch."

Already he's upgrading the races and fences and undertaking riparian planting on the banks of the two streams that traverse the farm.

The couple didn't quite follow the traditional pathway to farm ownership. Although they had previously been 50/50 sharemilkers, they were variable order sharemilkers when they bought the farm. So they also had to buy a 145-cow herd and some farm machinery because all they had was a farm bike.

After paying an average of $1200 per cow, they were satisfied with the production and empty rate of 8 per cent because some animals were unidentified.

"Cows with no statistics can still be good cows. I'm always looking to improve the herd."

Margery said the farm was a stepping stone for the couple.

"Unless you have parents to back you, buying a farm is difficult. We're at the bottom end of farm ownership.

"This is a small farm and maybe it's looked on as a bit of a joke and that we're lifestyle farmers. But we're happy to sit here and enjoy what we've achieved. Getting here was tough. This is home - somewhere for the little kids to grow up."

The couple, who are both 36, have four children, Danielle 12, Joseph, 10, Karlin, 5, and Hunter 3.

This season they're looking at producing 65,000kg MS.

"But it still has to be profitable. We have to farm it for three or four years before we know what it's capable of. It's a wet farm, so in the long-term we may look at a herd home," Aaron said.

As a schoolkid at Okato he used to join his father on relief milking jobs because he liked farm life. After leaving school, he worked on farms around the district and also did an automotive engineering course at what was then Taranaki Polytechnic.

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In 2002 when he was 22, he went to Ireland as part of a scheme that gave him a job as an assistant on what the Irish considered a large 140-cow dairy farm in Cork. When he arrived, the farmer was ill so Snowden ended up running the farm.

He met Margery on a weekend visit to London and the couple returned to New Zealand early in 2002 to begin their journey towards farm ownership in Okato. At first, Aaron Snowden milled timber for his father, who used to tell his daughter-in-law her husband should be farming.

Cue the coastal Taranaki grapevine and an invitation to the couple to become assistants on the farm of Bernie and Raewynne Lawn, who were looking for staff for their 420-cow farm after prospective employees unexpectedly rejected the job at the start of the 2002-03 dairy season.

As a city girl who grew up in Wellington, Margery didn't have a clue how to milk cows or how to do other farm jobs.

"Bernie let Margery go in the shed and learn to milk," Aaron said.

"She learned the ropes and once she felt confident, she was able to work with me."

The Lawns allowed his wife to learn at her own pace, so the Snowdens took the opportunity to find out as much as they could about farming.

Margery volunteered to help Raewynne rear calves.

"I wanted to learn, so we could do well and get good references to show the bank and to get other farm jobs.

"It was a great introduction to farming and a pivotal part of our journey," she said.

While there, they began buying rental properties in town to build their equity and spent their time off doing renovations.

"We went without so we could have something for our future."

After three years they were ready for a new challenge and wanted to progress in the industry, so they obtained a variable order sharemilking position on a Hawera farm with 180 cows. That was then they sold one of their rental properties so they could begin purchasing their own cows with a view to becoming 50/50 sharemilkers.

"But it was hard to find a 50/50 position. Against advice, we made the mistake of taking what we could get," she said.

Although they obtained record production on that farm and completed their two-year contract, their experience there put them off farming.

So they sold their cows, invested the proceeds in property and went travelling, taking their two children to Greece and Ireland before spending time in Australia with Margery Snowden's family.

"But we decided we were missing the lifestyle of farming. It was reflection time - time to think about what we wanted," Aaron said.

"Margery convinced me to go back dairy farming."

She was also missing the time her husband spent with the family because he was working in Brisbane all day.

"It just wasn't the same as being on the farm where the family could have lunch together or Aaron could take the kids eeling."

Back in Taranaki in 2009 they obtained a variable order sharemilking position milking 330 cows on the Lepperton farm of Steve and Rose Lepper.

"It was a great time for us," Margery said.

"We had four years there that were also pivotal to our journey. We had the opportunity to enjoy farming and find what we liked."

Their two younger children were born while they were working for the Leppers. All the time they had a goal of buying their own farm, but the next step of finding a 50/50 sharemilking position was difficult.

"There weren't that many 50/50 jobs available. We always wanted to progress," Aaron said.

After their earlier 50/50 sharemilking experience, they decided not to apply for a job they didn't want.

"When we were at the Lawn farm we felt we could become owners, but at Lepperton we felt the opportunity was slipping away."

Neither an equity partnership nor a move to the South Island appealed, although they acknowledged both options were great stepping stones for many would-be farm owners.

As a farmer for 20 years, Aaron said he'd done a lot of capital work.

"But if I was going to dig a hole or put up a fence, I wanted to do it on my own farm."

They followed up on a suggestion to investigate purchasing a farm in Northland but none of the farms on offer appealed.

Eventually they decided they could afford a small farm in Taranaki, so they sold the rental houses they owned for a deposit and bought the Tariki property.

Owen Mills, of First National Mills and Gibbon, said of the 46 dairy farms sold in Taranaki last season, 14 went to first farm buyers. The previous year the number was about 10.

"It's great to see younger people back in the market. It's good for the industry."

McDonald Real Estate rural consultant Linda McIntyre sold the farm to the Snowdens and said they'd bought it without family support.

"They did it on their own. They planned carefully to get themselves to the point of buying a farm and are living proof that it can be done when many people say it can't.

"Buying a farm has never been easy, but it is possible." Fairfax NZ

- Taranaki Daily News

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