After two intense days of competition which included hand-milking a cow on the back of a truck, constructing a garden shed from a pile of planks and developing an online heifer grazing system...
the 2016 Young Farmer of the Year is Athol New.
Edited interview highlights
Jesse Mulligan: Talk me through the practical tests you had to do.
Athol New: The practical was about an eight-hour day comprising a lot of physical exertion. It’s probably three days’ worth of full-time farming packed into eight hours… From fencing to pruning pine trees to setting up irrigators to driving a big drill. There’s plenty on and plenty to do. Nah, it was a good day.
Jesse Mulligan: Were there any women this year?
Athol New: No, there were no women unfortunately. It would be good to see [a woman] get to the grand final and win it one day, that’d be great.
Jesse Mulligan: Were you socialising with the other blokes or was it pretty competitive?
Athol New: No-one was really that ultra competitive in terms of trying to play mind games with each other. Everyone got along really, really well.
Jesse Mulligan: Where are you based?
Athol New: I’m based in Dunsandel these days, about half an hour south of Christchurch. I’m originally from Northland. I went to Kamo High then Lincoln University. I liked Canterbury and stayed in the region ever since.
Jesse Mulligan: So do you think of yourself as a Canterbury boy these days or more of a Northland guy?
Athol New: Probably 50/50. Depends who is playing rugby and who we want to wind up who’s watching it.
Jesse Mulligan: I understand you had to hand-milk a cow.
Athol New: That’s not a normal task for a dairy farmer these days, especially when they’re on the back of truck, either, with a big crowd cheering away. The cows were a little bit nervous, as were all of the contestants doing it, I think.
Jesse Mulligan: Tell me about this building challenge – the garden shed.
Athol New: I don’t think anyone turned into a garden shed – maybe a few walls of a garden shed. It was very challenging, it was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. By the time we worked out what we were actually trying to build we were pretty pushed for time. It was pretty entertaining for the crowd to watch that.
Jesse Mulligan: Did you have an instruction sheet, though?
Athol New: Nope, no instructions, just bits of wood pre-cut in a big pile. They told us we were building a shed and they had a prototype wrapped up in a tarp. Then about halfway through, after we’d all done enough work that we couldn’t pull them apart again, they released the prototype. There were some odd-looking sheds there, but most of them were still upright.
Jesse Mulligan: Did you have to build a chainsaw, as well?
Athol New: They supplied us with a chainsaw but they supplied it in pieces… That was one of the first tasks. If you didn’t build the chainsaw it would have been a long day.
Jesse Mulligan: Did you have people giving you advice from the sidelines?
Athol New: Fortunately not advice, because if you get advice you lost a few points… I spent most of the day in ear muffs, to be fair, just so you can stay in the zone of competing.
Jesse Mulligan: Were you always going to be a farmer?
Athol New: I probably was. Staying on farms I fell in love with cows from about the age of ten, I really enjoyed working with animals. So I just had to work out a path of what I wanted to do. Once I had that worked I’ve really enjoyed my career so far being a dairy farmer.
Jesse Mulligan: In your speech there was an old ag teacher from Kamo High.
Athol New: I did have an ag teacher who convinced me if I wanted to make a career out of farming I needed to go to university ‘cause farming these days, especially the scale I’m operating at now, is multi-million dollar business so you need some background in financial management and business management to be able to do those roles. So I’m glad I did that and glad I went to Lincoln – it got me to where I am now.
Jesse Mulligan: Tough times for dairy farmers. What do you think the future holds?
Athol New: The pay-out is challenging currently for dairy farmers and share-milkers and contract milkers and the like. But every good crisis has opportunities. It’s just trying to find those opportunities in an industry that is struggling. There are opportunities for young guys like myself to progress and move up. It’s been a great industry for New Zealand and I think it will continue to be. It’s in a bit of a slump at the moment, but it’s a cyclical industry as are all commodity prices. At some stage it will start to lift. It’s just [getting] in a position to catch those opportunities when they do come around.
Jesse Mulligan: Do you have any obligations for young farmer?
Athol New: I’m not sure 100% on the obligations… I’m looking forward to trying to convince more city boys like myself to give farming a go ‘cause it is a challenging career that needs smart, intelligent people to make the industry succeed. Trying to convince those people that it’s a viable career path with good rewards is my next year, I hope.
Jesse Mulligan: Did they give you a… sash?
Athol New: Oh, no, you get a big Cloak of Knowledge. It’s pretty amazing to have that. That’s sort of the one thing any New Zealand Young Farmer who competes wants - that gown. It’s only been been worn by 47 other people in the south. It’s a pretty elite club to get into so it’s pretty cool to be part of that now.