Family firm

Julia Dawkins
Julia Dawkins

When Julia Dawkins visits her family farm at Kaituna she returns to the land that four previous generations have called home.

It is managed these days by her brother, Francis Maher, the latest in a long line of family owners, starting with Julia's great-great-grandparents Michael and Nancy Maher in 1849.

Past, present and future times for farming families are being celebrated on Sunday at the Carluke Domain in the Rai Valley.

Organised by Rural Women New Zealand, the event marks the United Nations' declaration of 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming.

Julia belongs to Rural Women and says it helps link otherwise often isolated people in the farming community.

Contact with others is extra valuable in hard times, such as after severe drought, floods and earthquakes, or when families are hit by health crises.

Julia married Chris Dawkins in 1979 and she joined him on the 480-hectare (1,186-acre) drylands farm his father had purchased in 1954.

Named The Pyramids and located beside the confluence of the Avon and Waihopai rivers, it is one of the remaining stock farms in Marlborough.

Vineyards cover much of the region these days but Chris has always shrugged off suggestions he should convert some of his own sheep and cattle pastures.

"Chris is a stock farmer, he is not a grape grower, . . . but one is always open to an opportunity."

When Marlborough's reputation as a wine region rose, so did land prices, making it harder for farmers' sons and daughters to take over the family farm.

The Dawkins' four adult sons have all moved out of the region, one working as a dairy farmer in Southland, another in Perth where the lucrative mining industry generates high wages. Julia hopes one or more of them can eventually take over The Pyramids but she notes 21st-century farmers are not ready to retire as early as their forbears did 40 to 100 years ago.

Chris will be 60 on his next birthday but still feels as fit as he did in his 30s. "He has no intention of retiring [yet]."

Family farming is a tradition she hopes can continue in New Zealand, though. "Managers on corporate-owned farms do their very best," she says, "but with family farming you have that long-term association with the land."

Chris might not have turned The Pyramids into a valley vineyard but he constantly looks at new ways to keep it profitable.

After watching Julia have an ultrasound when she was pregnant with one of their sons, Chris decided ewes would benefit from the same procedure. So in 1992, the Dawkins' sheep were the first in Marlborough to have an ultrasound. It is now a regular practice. Ewes that are not pregnant are sold off and any carrying multiple lambs are given extra feed.

Other developments under Chris' watch include the introduction of quad bikes for easier movement around the farm; electric fences to break-feed crops, direct-drill seed sowing to save on the time and fuel costs of ploughing and traditional grasses replaced with lucerne and other new pasture species.

Julia helps out where she can but, as in any business partnership, she and Chris have identified what each one of them does best.

She grins: "And Chris is best at most things."

Julia was the boys' main caregiver and, with all of them mad on sport, drove them in and out of town to attend practices and matches.

These days she has her own sporting interest, a dragon boat team she joined seven years ago. Last weekend it won its first gold medal in the 2000-metre South Island Championships' race at Lake Hood, near Ashburton.

"And I have a large [vegetable] garden. . . and I do volunteer work for Presbyterian Support, the Cancer Society and stroke support.

"I think we all need to put something back into the community we belong to. I've had cancer myself and if you expect these things to support you, you need to support them.

"You can't be an island into yourself, you are part of your community."

The International Year of Family Farming event is on from 11am till 4pm on Sunday at Carluke Domain, Rai Valley. Entry is $5.