Southlander a winner
Southlander Katrina Thomas knew "absolutely nothing about cows" when she and husband James Dixon converted to dairy farming.
But she turned that lack of knowledge around by joining the Dairy Women's Network (DWN) and volunteering her time to the community.
It is this generosity that saw her win the 2017 Dairy Women's Network Dairy Community Leadership award.
She was one of three finalists in the award, which recognises the voluntary role dairy farming women have in leading their communities and sharing their time and skills beyond the farm gate.
"I do find it difficult sometimes to say no to people when they ask for my help or time," she says.
"It was wonderful to have my time and commitment as a volunteer to my community acknowledged in front of my peers, family and friends."
She received the award for her active participation and leadership within her community. She is DWN's Southern Regional Hub leader for the network, overseeing Otago, Central Otago and Southland.
"I get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing newcomers settle in and enjoy rural living," she says.
"I was once in that position so it is a wonderful feeling to give back and help. I enjoy working with and welcoming new people to the region."
Thomas says she has come a long way since first joining DWN and attending her first conference in 2011.
"That was my first introduction to cows and dairy farming and I felt out of my depth.
"I guess the biggest thing which struck me was that dairy farming is a multimillion-dollar business – not just a small family run corner store."
Attending the workshops and modules during the conference, gave her a greater insight into the dairy industry and what goes on behind the farm gate and on a wider scale.
"I knew nothing about the topics being discussed.
"But the group were so fabulous and welcoming. DWN has helped me a great deal and I probably wouldn't have got to where I am without them."
Her potential as a leader was evident and she was asked last year to step into a leadership role.
"I started as a regional group convenor in 2012 and in 2016 I took on the new role as the Southern Region Hub leader."
"My role is more strategic. I work with 12 regional convenors and help them market DWN and the events we hold as well as working closely with our network partners. The role has been challenging and I feel I'm always adding to the job description."
It was the call of the land that saw Thomas return to the farm after 21 years working in the tourism industry in New Zealand and abroad.
The daughter of a sheep farmer who she says was not a fan of cows, spent her days helping on their family farm at Tuatapere while competing with her younger brother, Glenn Thomas, to see who could open and close the gates the fastest without their Dad having to stop the farm ute during lambing.
The family managed three blocks at Tuatapere as well as the family farm at Bluecliffs which is now owned by Glenn and his wife Tracy. They also manage Katrina and James's young stock.
In the early 1980s when subsidies in the sheep industry were lifted, her father forbade her to marry a sheep farmer.
"Dad was keen on aviation and held a private pilot's licence, so growing up I wanted to be a commercial pilot.
"My teachers didn't think much of that idea. In those days there were strong stereotypes and girls were expected to go into office work. Actually, at the age of five I wanted to be a go-go dancer but neither eventuated."
Her mum and nana were always busy volunteering in the wider Tuatapere community and she thought it was just something everyone was expected to do.
During her summer holidays, she spent time in Queenstown so when she left school in 1984 she went to work in tourism.
"I did meet some pilots while working for Fiordland Travel (now Real Journeys) and Dad was quite excited that I might become a pilot.
"By then I had been bitten by the tourism bug."
She went to work for Tourism New Zealand in Queenstown, Wellington, Christchurch and then Los Angeles where she spent four years marketing and selling New Zealand in North America.
"Those were the days of no Internet so you had to know everything about New Zealand. You knew it all from experience.
"During my four years in Los Angeles, I saw everything from floods to the Rodney King riots. When the big earthquake hit in 1994, I decided it was time to come home."
She did a four-year stint in regional tourism with Destination Lake Taupo, marketing the Central North Island in Asia, India and the US. She hosted travel agents and media and also attended trade and consumer shows within New Zealand and offshore, being away from home for about 100 nights a year.
"The job was interesting, but a challenge as I was dealing with people who only spoke English as a second language, especially in those early days when we were looking at the Chinese market."
She then went on to work in Invercargill with Laker House of Travel as the conference and groups manager where a lot of her clients were rural. She met James, a sheep farmer from Wreys Bush, at a birthday party.
Her 21-year career in tourism ended with the birth of their son Lachlan in May 2006 and her new venture of volunteering began.
"I became involved with playgroup, kindergarten and was the branch president of Central Southland Plunket."
In 2010, the region was hit by severe snowstorms and was the catalyst for conversion from sheep to dairying.
"It was carnage. The paddocks were a mess, the Invercargill Stadium roof collapsed and we were in the middle of lambing.
"We were getting little returns so we made the decision to switch. Fortunately, James' brother Kevin Dixon lived next door and had converted about 15 years earlier so he helped us every step of the way."
By 2011, the shed and farm were ready for the first milking but neither of them had dairying experience although she had joined DWN by this time and attended a conference.
"I knew absolutely nothing about cows or growing grass.
"Kevin remained involved and in the second year we employed Patrick Oostveen as a contract milker and he has been with us ever since."
Thomas heeded the advice of others and never really learnt to milk their 840 cows but looks after the administration, budgets and doing all the "off to town" jobs.
"I can definitely drive a tractor. I learnt on a little Massey Ferguson when I was a kid so it isn't hard work."
She also pitches in with calf rearing from August until December and manages the 200-300 replacements while also volunteering with DWN. She is also president of the Takitimu Primary School's PTA and the Western Tennis Association, produces the monthly Takitimu Community Newsletter and runs its Facebook page.
During the summer months she is a member of the Takitimu District Pool committee and is responsible for the communication (via a Facebook page), sale of pool keys and bookings for the volunteer-run coal-heated community swimming pool.
"I do enjoy helping where I can but as I am getting older, I need to be a bit more strategic with my time and perhaps start delegating a bit more."
She has been voted onto the DWN board and is looking forward to working with and learning from the trustees. "They all have an incredible amount of experience and knowledge about the dairy industry and I feel privilege to be able to work with them.
"I will be bringing grassroots to the board – what our regional group convenors and members want to learn about.
"There are always things popping up so I hope to add a new or different perspective."
As the winner of the Dairy Community Leadership Award she won a scholarship to the Community Enterprise Leadership Foundation leadership programme, delivered in conjunction with the University of Waikato's management school.
"I am grateful for the opportunity and it is wonderful to be acknowledged. It just goes to show how important it is to have volunteers."