Look before you leap

SERIAL SUCCESS: Lower-order sharemilker Tangaroa Walker checks the grain in the silo.
SERIAL SUCCESS: Lower-order sharemilker Tangaroa Walker checks the grain in the silo.

Progression in the dairy industry requires hard work and finding the right employers. Reporter Shawn McAvinue talks to an award-winning Southland dairy farmer about doing your homework on potential employers before signing employment contracts.

Kennington dairy farmer Tangaroa Walker, 22, came to Southland with little money but plenty of drive.

Nothing has been handed out to him.

By the age of 5 he had been adopted twice.

His second adoptive parents owned a beef farm in Tauranga, but he took an interest in dairy farming.

When he was 13, he biked to a dairy farm to hose out the sheds before and after school.

In his final year at Tauranga Boys' College he was a prefect and openside flanker in the First XV, but left halfway through the year for a second-in-charge position milking 120 cows.

After calving, he knew he had to make a move to progress his career, so he cold-called Agribusiness consultant Ivan Lines and asked him to circulate his CV. He wanted a position on a family-owned dairy farm that would welcome him and his partner, Simone Groosman, 21, who Mr Walker met when he was 16.

He got several job offers, but Winton farmers Debbie and Wayne Little's offer sounded like the best step to enter the Southland dairy industry.

Before signing an employment contract, Mr Walker did his homework. He called the Littles' neighbours and previous farm staff for character references on his potential employers.

"I had to. It's a long way to turn around and go home."

So he and Miss Groosman packed up their truck with their dog and two cats and drove the 1500 kilometres to Invercargill to start work in October 2009.

He went from milking 120 cows in Tauranga to 450 cows in Winton. In the North Island, he got a weekend off every month, while in Southland it was a better 11 days on and three days off.

In his time off in Southland, he goes pig hunting and diving. He doubled the thickness of his wetsuit to dive in Southland, and says he did not see half-eaten seals up north.

"The sharks here are the ones that kill you. [They don't] just have a look."

North Island farmers worked staff longer hours because it was the accepted norm, but it did not mean the farms were more productive, he said.

The next season he was offered a $70,000 salary to manage a Winton farm, but took a much lower offer from Graham and Glenda Haines for a lower sharemilking position in Kennington, near Invercargill.

Mr Walker's homework on the couple told him he would learn more milking the couple's 570 cows.

The Haines' guidance honed his farm skills, but the AgITO Farming to Succeed programme in Christchurch focused his business sense, he said.

He redesigned a monopoly board, so each property would be updated with a life goal of the couple.

By the end of the board, they would have three children, a bach in Mt Maunganui, a crib in Queenstown, a dairy farm in Southland, and a beef farm in Whakamarama near Tauranga, where friends and family would visit, he said.

Ms Groosman's brother, Jordan Groosman, 24, followed the couple down after Mr Walker found him a job on an Otautau dairy farm.

Going from the Tauranga party scene to the middle of nowhere was hard, but Mr Groosman progressed quickly and now manages the Kennington farm.

Mr Walker said he wanted to help as many New Zealanders get into the dairy industry as possible.

"A lot of Maoris would click with dairy farming, because you are working the land and not stuck in an office."

Although young New Zealanders working in the dairy industry were often seen as soft and work shy, much of the blame came back on the bosses of dairy farms, he said.

Farm bosses often worked staff too hard and New Zealanders wouldn't stand for it, unlike migrants, who had fewer options, so stayed on, he said.

Bosses should take more of an interest in the career progression of their workers, he said.

"Some treat workers like a tractor. They'll put gas and oil in, but they never give it a full service.

"If Kiwis don't feel appreciated, they will exit the industry."

Working for people who cared about his progression had helped him move on his monopoly board. The couple were about halfway around their board, just before free parking, Mr Walker said.

Since Mr Walker won the inaugural Ahuwhenua young Maori trainee award in Auckland earlier this month, the job offers had come in from around New Zealand, he said.

The better opportunities were still in Southland, because North Island farms were generally smaller, needed more feed input and more staff, and produced less, he said.

He had been involved with other national dairy awards, but the Ahuwhenua awards got the best out of him, he said.

Mr Walker was booked to travel around the North Island in a few months to talk to iwi about what could be achieved in the dairy industry. "It's going to be awesome."

The Southland Times