National portrait: Katie Milne, first female Federated Farmers president

New Federated Farmers president Katie Milne with dog George on her dairy farm near Lake Brunner on the West Coast.
JOSEPH JOHNSON/STUFF

New Federated Farmers president Katie Milne with dog George on her dairy farm near Lake Brunner on the West Coast.

Before Katie Milne decided to put her hand up for national presidency of Federated Farmers, a few people needed to approve.

The decorated farmer is referring to her partner Ian Whitmore, daughter Andrea and son-in-law Simon and whether they could handle the 220-head dairy farm in the high rainfall-zone of Rotomanu, near Lake Brunner on the West Coast, without her at the helm.

"I checked with these guys, 'Is this going to work for everyone, because you can't rely on me'," Milne says while preparing a snack of pizza bread and salami.

Katie Milne cleans a milking shed on her farm as George the dog lurks nearby.
JOSEPH JOHNSON/STUFF

Katie Milne cleans a milking shed on her farm as George the dog lurks nearby.

"I can do book work. If I'm here on weekends, yes, I can help. Planning and that sort of stuff on the annual calendar, yes, that's cool, but day-to-day stuff, do not ever book me in for anything and rely on me, because it's probably not realistic anymore."

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Katie Milne and husband Ian Whitmore on their farm near Lake Brunner on the West Coast.
JOSEPH JOHNSON/STUFF

Katie Milne and husband Ian Whitmore on their farm near Lake Brunner on the West Coast.

In June, the new Federated Farmers president became the first woman to be elected to the position in its 118-year history.

She said her work was about running a "rural lens" over all sorts of Government legislation and regulation.

"It's a lot of advocacy for farming. So, trying to make sure that compliance costs get down for farmers and that farmers can perform their business, with less impediment, within regulations," she says.

Katie Milne won the dairy award at the Westpac Women of Influence Awards 2015.
JASON CREAGHAN

Katie Milne won the dairy award at the Westpac Women of Influence Awards 2015.

Her roles have progressed. Last year she became a director of Westland Milk Products, and she previously helped establish sustainable farming in the Lake Brunner Catchment Project and helped steer the formation of the Lake Brunner Community Catchment Care Group.

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Milne takes pride in tackling issues close to home. She hears plenty of weka and ruru, but wants to hear kiwi from the swamp when she opens her back door.

"Often it's having someone to drive things in a catchment or in a valley and we're getting more and more people who are willing to do that," she says.

Katie Milne is Federated Farmers' first national female president.

Katie Milne is Federated Farmers' first national female president.

"There are lots of projects going on all across the country and different ideas, whether it's about water, or whether it's about pests, farmers are taking the lead on that and getting stuck in. Often it does take one person to be a catalyst and say, 'look, we need to this, how are we going to go about it'."

Milne is the middle child between two brothers. Her parents owned a small farm when she was "very small".

Her family's farming legacy stretches back to pioneering days and Milne recalls fond memories of visiting her mother's family near the Mahitahi River, south of the glaciers in South Westland, in school holidays or on long weekends.

Her extended family still run beef farms in the river valleys. "It's the sort of broadacre, open farming down there. So we used to run around and have a great time. There was no electricity down there, that was where they had to crank the generator so it was very old-style and self-sufficient. You've got to look after yourself."

She remembers big "family gatherings" to get the jobs done. Dogs, stock whips, horses and swimming in rivers came with the territory.

Milne says it was "pretty idyllic" to visit. "It was great, as a kid, to be able to run round. There were lots of horses to ride and there was big musters you had to do. There weren't enough horses for everyone. Often you didn't get to ride, but as you got older, you had seniority and you could." 

Her mother, Dianne, and father, Bob, bought a bigger farm for sheep and beef at Aratika, outside Greymouth, when she was 11.

It was there that Milne became accustomed to the day-to-day rigours of running a farm. It had 1200 ewes, a "reasonable size" for a West Coast farm at that stage.

"When you got home from school there was a list of jobs you all had to get through and get done because Mum was the farmer and Dad worked in town.

"He was home after 5pm, so after dark in the winter. In the weekends he was the free help I guess. But the rest of the time, after school, us kids were the free help."

Milne and Whitmore bought their current 100-hectare property, about 50 minutes drive south-east from Greymouth, from Whitmore's family  early in 1992.

The back porch looks over low-lying trees in swampy land. Lake Kangaroo can seen behind the trees before the view ends at the mountains.

The "bit of gravel" between the house and front paddocks is an airstrip, fit for a small fixed-wing plane.

Their black-and-white terrier, George, comes to the back door to see who is inside. Later on, mudstains can be seen on George's coat when he is found to be running laps in the shallow moat behind the house.

The property has been in Whitmore's family since 1918, and Milne notes that farm succession can be "quite a difficult" process.

"People don't inherit farms as much as people think that they do. It might have been a very old heritage thing that happened, but it doesn't anymore.

"The price of land and where it has got to for some farms, it's something that really has to be thought out and planned. Tracts of land are worth quite a lot of money and you've got to have a plan to get there."

Milne, who was New Zealand's Dairy Woman of the Year in 2015, says she learned farming tricks from her mother, but also paid tribute to Ian's grandmother Harriet, a "lovely, older dairy farming lady" who was a great mentor to have in her early days.

Despite living in a place where the average rainfall is 3.5 metres a year, Milne says she enjoy the temperate climate of the West Coast.

"I've got a photo of myself sitting out there in a singlet three weeks ago and you're like 'really? It's the middle of winter'." 

The couple are in to their "earthy stuff" and enjoy picnics with friends on the shoreline of Lake Brunner.

"We used to do an awful lot of wakeboarding on the lake. We used to go a couple of days a week, when we could with the neighbour and when we were younger and fitter," she laughs.

"I like knocking around in the bush and Ian does a lot of hunting."

Milne is now splitting her time between the dairy farm and her advocacy work in Wellington.

"[Work] does take me right throughout the regions as well. Not only to visit farmers, but there might be different industry people, or different meetings industry bodies are having."

She is also a volunteer firefighter and on the executive of the Rural Health Alliance Aotearoa.

 "Getting out the door" when she returns home can now be quite difficult, with a backlog of emails in her inbox.

However, she will make time for a visit to the calf sheds. Getting back to the basics is the grounding feature of her work.

"You've got to remember this is hard work for people, they enjoy it. But, they need to have good leadership and advocacy through the government and through New Zealand to help them to be able to continue to do that and the things they like.

"Running a farm is a job and it's actually the biggest job in the world because you're feeding families all over the world."

 - Stuff

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