Ashley Waugh and Catherine Steffert bought their 90 ha farm, on rolling country near Te Awamutu, in 2011 and they are loving the change of lifestyle.
“We almost bought this farm by accident,” says Ashley. “We were on our way to look at a property in Taranaki and we just called in because we told an agent we would. We had only driven half way down the hill by the farm and I said to Catherine, “We are going to buy this farm.” It had a good feel straight away.”
For Ashley it was a watershed moment in his career. “I was 55, I’d had thirty-five years of corporate life in senior executive roles. I loved my business career but I looked around one day and thought, “Let’s go do something else”.”
Ashley started his career at the Ford Motor Company, then worked his way up the corporate ladder at the NZ Dairy Board to end up as chief executive for the Australia/Pacific/South Africa region. He then went into Australia’s National Foods to build their cheese business, finishing up as CEO.
“When I left my corporate career,” says Ashley, “I thought I would just go on a few boards of interest: where my skill-set related, where I could make a significant contribution, and I would enjoy it. But, having always been associated with dairy farming, I thought we could also buy a farm. We always thought we would come back to New Zealand, we had family here, and our parents were getting older, so we wanted to be closer to support them.”
Eddie Krielen had already been on the farm for three years when Ashley and Catherine bought it, and is now employed as their lower order sharemilker. “When we started I said to Eddie, for us it is about the cows: cow condition and animal welfare are our number one priorities,” says Ashley. “We have zero tolerance for animal welfare issues on the farm, and he has the same philosophy. When you get people that can work together because their values and farming objectives are similar it just works.”
Why a smaller herd?
“We wanted to have a farm big enough to have a sharemilker on it (a 2 person farm), a minimum of 200, ideally 250 to 300 cows,” says Ashley. “We were very fortunate to find this farm.”
“In the good times three families can get a living off this farm,” says Catherine. “It is nice to think this place ticks on, year in, year out and continues to exist as an entity, not as part of some big corporation.”
What do smaller herd farms bring to the industry?
Ashley is a firm believer in the positive role smaller farms play in the industry and believes they are essential to its future, particularly as a nursery for up and coming young farmers.
“Smaller herd farms are where we grow our future farmers. I think the corporates are good at what they do, but they don’t tend to grow good farmers. If you go and work for a corporate farm and you are the herd manager you don’t get the same total farm immersion and learn the same capability.
“If you go to Taranaki their questions tend to be “What’s the future of our family in this farming business?” They are thinking of the next generation, “What are we going to look like in 10 to 15 years, or more?” If you go to mid-Canterbury they say, “Show me the money. What’s the payout going to be?” It is a different sort of culture.
“So, I don’t think we ever want to lose the family farm, it is the place for growing young farmers who can then go on to make their contribution.”
What has he gained from SMASH events?
Ashley is equally supportive of the role SMASH plays. “I have been to quite a few SMASH meetings and I think SMASH is great. As someone said to me at one of the events “It is easy for small farms to feel that they are lost in this big corporate industry.”
“I think having a vehicle for smaller herd owners is really good. The events I have been to, those are the things that smaller herd owners walk around their farm thinking every day, and there is a group of people standing around saying “Well, we are thinking the same, we’ve got the same values and the same issues.” So, it is a good place to go and get moral support and understand that there are other people like you. Especially at the moment, because it is tough.”