A year on a New Zealand dairy farm
‘My early 20s is the time to travel – I have the rest of my life to be in the green hills of Derry’
Growing up in north Derry, I never had a massive urge to move away or travel the world. I was happy on my father’s sheep farm. Agriculture was not just a job for him and my uncle, but a way of life for our whole family.
I had thought about going straight into working full time on the farm after finishing school, rather than paying the large tuition fees necessary to go to university. I thought if we could invest that money straight into the business, to buy more ground or new machinery, we’d be better off. But my parents insisted on investing in my education, and at the age of 18 I began a degree in agricultural technology in Queen’s University in Belfast.
I never thought then that I’d be sitting here in New Zealand, three years later. The opportunity to do my year-long work placement abroad was one I couldn’t pass up. If farming was to be my career, my early 20s was the time travel and try something different; I had the rest of my life to be in the green hills of Derry.
After applying to farms in Canada and Australia last summer, I finally arranged a job on a dairy farm outside Invercargill at the very south of New Zealand. It couldn’t be further from home on the Earth’s surface.
I had been to England a few times and to the US on a community exchange when I was 14, but I’d never been abroad on my own before. Getting on the plane was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. My heart was broken in Dublin Airport. It was the day of Seamus Heaney’s funeral, and the coverage on the airport TV screens just added to my sombre mood.
I came here the cheapest way I could, which took three days. I was really nervous as the plane was readying to land. The woman beside me couldn’t get over the fact that I was only 20 and had come all that way on my own. She gave me her number in case it didn’t work out, and said she would help me to find another job or something. For a stranger, she was so kind.
The farm manager came to meet me at the airport and after a day’s rest I got straight to work. He’s from Co Cork, the other farm hand I work with is from Co Waterford, and the man who owns the farm is from Co Meath. He owns a few farms in the area. We are famous around here – people arrive at the farm and all they can hear is Irish accents.
There is a serious labour shortage in dairy farming in New Zealand. Even though I didn’t have any previous experience in dairy, my boss was happy enough to get anyone. The fact I was willing to come this far for 12 months was proof I was keen to work hard and he took the chance.
A lot of seasonal farm workers come here from Ireland and Scotland, particularly machine operators. There’s a lot of Irish in Invercargill generally, working in all sorts of jobs, like the girl I met in the motor tax office this week from Co Clare.
We have 800 cows, on 600 acres. Our day starts at 3.30am, to have the first cows milked by 4.30am. It takes about 2½ hours to get them all milked. We don’t have many staff but the farm is very new and very labour efficient, so we can get through them all very quickly. We milk again at 2pm, and are home every evening by five.
For my first month here we were calving cows, and the second month was breeding season, so we were really busy then too. The cows have been dried off now for the winter, so it’s a little quieter.
Being a farmer, I am very in tune with the weather, and the climate is very similar to home. It’s great grassland for dairy farming. My mother and sister came out in March and couldn’t believe they were so far from Ireland, because the countryside is so green. But two hours’ north, there’s very little rainfall and they grow grapes to make wine. There’s great variety.
It has been a great year weatherwise for farming. Our farm had the highest production since its establishment nine years ago with record profits for the owners. Being part of that has been great.
Although the agri-food industry at home has done well in recent years and is set to continue to do so, the growth of dairy farming in particular in New Zealand is incredible. The structure of the farming sector means it is easy for young people to progress and make money, even those who are not from a farming background.
Farming is seen as a business here and not a way of life like it is in Ireland. Workers can buy shares in the business, and the system of milk sharing used on 40 per cent of dairy farms allows managers to earn a percentage of the milk sales, encouraging them to increase productivity. There are no government subsidies available either, so everything has to be financially feasible and if it isn’t, it isn’t done.
I was very sad leaving Ireland, but I think I’ll be just as upset leaving New Zealand to return home next month. I’ve learned more this year about grassland and dairy farming than I could have in years of college. I’ve made some money and travelled in one of the most scenic countries in the world. I’ve become much more adaptable, too. Coming out here I knew no one, but now I have a great circle of friends.
All this makes me consider returning after graduation next year. It would be a great place to start a career and live; the friendliness of Kiwi people and the low crime rates are an added bonus. I can see why young people come out and stay. There is just one massive disadvantage – it is incredibly far from home.
– In conversation with Ciara Kenny
Agricultural placements abroad
Agricultural technology students on the four-year programme at Queen’s University Belfast are required to arrange their own 46-week work placement for their third year of study, in Ireland or abroad. Students this year went to work on farms in New Zealand, Australia, the US and Canada. See qub.ie.
University College Dublin also offers students the opportunity to learn about agriculture and food science from another country’s perspective through a semester exchange programme with a number of universities across Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the US. See ucd.ie/agfood.
This article appears in Weekend Review today. For more about emigrating farmers, read Macra na Feirme president Kieran O’Dowd’s piece earlier this week on how rural areas have been decimated by outward migration in recent years.