Jeanette - Farmer & Board Member / Kaiahuwhenua

When I was at primary school I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher. When I was at high school I either wanted to be a dietician, or to study art at Victoria University in Wellington. I missed the boat on all three. I was too young for my year group and couldn’t gain entry into the courses I wanted to do because I was only 17. So I took a gap year.

I started to design and make large kites which helped me realise I didn’t need to do a degree to get a job. I did, however, eventually train as an advertising artist. Then I went to Otago to retrain as a vet nurse. That’s when I met Alistair. We got married, which brought me here to this farm.

In 1994, we had our first child. At that stage, Alistair’s mum was really ill. She had renal failure and I took care of her - needles didn’t phase me. She used machine dialysis, so I helped with that and I did bits and pieces around the farm, as well as being a mum. We brought up all three of our children on this farm.

There’s no free lunch in this family. My kids have to be motivated to do their own homework, clean their own rooms, and put out their own washing. From a very early age, the kids were taught to be fairly damn independent.

From the age of ten they had to do a certain number of hours work at home to get money. Their ‘needs’ money bought them undies, socks, and clothes. We paid for the school uniform and shoes, etc., but if they wanted Levi’s, they paid for them themselves. Sometimes they worked extra hours to get money for their ‘wants’. The aim was to teach them that when you leave home, your ‘needs’ money is your rent, your power and phone bill. All too often, kids receive pocket money as their ‘wants’ money and mum and dad pay for everything they need. They go out into the real world and suddenly, “Holy smoke, I’ve gotta learn to budget!” When our kids were growing up, their friends thought they came from a really rich family. But they didn’t see all the hard work they put in at home. George once bought a really nice pair of jeans. What no one else knew is that he wore cruddy undies and holy socks for months afterwards. It was a good lesson. Better than him having a blow out on a credit card.

We’ve tried to teach our kids to be the best they can be. If they go to school and stuff around they know we’re not going to prop them up. Other parents tell me I’m tough, but I just don’t want to teach my children to accept mediocre.

I used to be involved in a heap of committees and sports teams, as you do when you’re a parent. I became involved in Federated Farmers, but I was spreading myself too thin. With all these committees came a ton of different responsibilities, all of which took up time. In 2006, I took a role within the leadership of Federated Farmers. It was a good move. Believe it or not, the step up into leadership meant I actually got to do less work. I was able to choose what I could work on, instead of doing everything for everybody.

A year later, I was voted in as the Meat and Fibre chairperson. I was the first woman to become a Mid-Canterbury executive. In that same year I was voted into the National Executive. Later on I also became the first female chair of a national industry group, and the first women to go on their board.

On the farm I’m the spare lady. There are times of the year that are really busy, so that’s when I work full-time. Right through Spring and Summer you’re sewing crops, drenching, making hay and silage. It’s full on. Whoever can work, works. Our kids muck in through their holidays because we need all the labour we can get; we’re lucky enough to be able to do that. During winter, it’s mostly about getting the feed out and fixing fences. With all the snow on the ground, there’s not a hell of a lot else you can do.

Our bodies wear out, just like the male farmers. While I can physically do the jobs, I’m not really the right shape. Nobody’s back is designed to have a five litre drench pack on it all day! Having said that, there’s an opportunity for someone to design products that benefit both genders, products that would help them to do the job well.

Like a female builder, she might use a different weight of hammer because it’s better suited to her physique. She does the same job at the end of the day, but with slightly different tools. We could have better shaped drench packs that are suited to our bodies. It’s little things like that that add up and it’s no wonder some women are put off.

There aren’t clear pathways in to sheep farming like there are in dairy. You can come in and be a shepherd or a manager your whole life, but you could never make enough money doing that to own the farm. It’s the nature of the game. In dairy, you can come on as a worker, then manager, buy cows and go share-milking.

Cows live for a lot longer than sheep, so if you build and sell that equity you can get into ownership. If your ultimate goal is farm ownership, then get a degree. Absolutely. These are multi-million dollar businesses and you need that education.

I’m the chief financial officer for our business. I control the cheque book. There’s a massive component of paper work in farming now. You’ve got all the finances, compliance - environmental, budgets, management plans, health and safety. All that mass of paper work has to be done by someone. A farm makes money only when you’re out working on it, so it’s better to have Alistair out there doing that. Besides, on average, Federated Farmers has me up in Wellington two days a week. That’s a lot of time away from the action.

From the day I left school, I’ve always worked with men. I’ve never been in a female dominated area of work. Other women would probably tell you I’m pretty tough, that I’m to the point, frank and pretty damn honest! I don’t play mind games. I’m straight forward.

I think it’s because I’ve always worked with men, but I’m conscious I come across differently when I work with women. I need to act softer and use positive reinforcement. Having said that, the real world is a hard place. Especially for women going up through the ranks. The reality is that once you leave school, the world doesn’t automatically think you’re wonderful or that you’re worth $40,000 straight off the cuff. You have to fight for your space and prove your merits. It’s hard for both men and women, but it’s especially hard for women. From my position, it’s a challenge balancing the reality of the situation with encouragement.

My mother was very tough. She grew up with brothers, and so did her mother. I was the eldest child in our family. At one stage, five of us kids were all under the age of five. When my little sister started going to school, mum went back to work. I was 10 years old and was responsible for my siblings when mum was out.

Us sisters had to do everything. Our parents never watched our sports games. We took ourselves and they’d go watch our brothers. One day, I was chopping kindling and missed the wood and the axe went into my shin. I was sitting on the back door step in pain and dad got home from watching my brother’s rugby match. I didn’t get asked, “Are you ok? You put an axe in your shin!” It was more like, “You’ve put a hole in the gumboot!”.

The suburb we lived in in Wellington was really rough. Dad’s job meant we had to live there, but it was detrimental to our family. Nowadays, people take one look at me and say, “What? You grew up there?”.

Without going into too much detail, I had a tough childhood but it’s given me a strength of character and made me who I am as an adult. I’ve chosen to take the lessons life has given me and build on them. It doesn’t help to think, “Woe is me, life is hard!” Weakness like that can lead you down a bad path. We’ve had quite a few alcoholics in our family and some really compulsive personalities. I could drink every day too - it would be so easy - but I make a conscience effort not to. That’s what I mean by strength of character.

Lots of people made a song and dance about me being the first woman to be board member, but I’m not phased. I didn’t do any of it to become the ‘first women’ - that was never my intention or motivation. It was about my passion to make the industry better and the challenge of the job. It’s about respecting people for what they bring to the table instead of focusing on their gender. Who is the best person for the job?

 We should be putting up the best possible combinations for organisations and committees. That’s how I look at it. I have a skill set that Federated Farmers likes. If they’d elected me because they wanted a woman, I would have been so disappointed.

Man or woman, we’d all like to think we’re where we are because we’re good at what we do. Because we’ve worked hard and earned it.

How do I get into this career?

There are so many different jobs within the farming industry, from accounting to manual labour:

- Try the Careers NZ website, the link will take you straight to more information about the different jobs within farming.

- Another idea is to research local farms, call them, and ask if you can go in for a day or a week to see what the job is actually like. This will allow you to quickly figure out if this sort of job is for you. This is called 'informational interviewing' and there are some greatonline resources on how to approach this.