“I was basically burnt out, almost an alcoholic, pretty unhappy.” Michael Pearce, 35, was taking a break from calving to squeeze our conversation into a small midday gap between chores on the family dairy farm, 174 hectares near Ashburton. The weather recently had been cold and wet, but on this day it had relented. On the farm—“flat, like everything around here”—the eye is dragged in the direction of Mount Hutt, then glistening in its winter-white finery. Pearce, though, was recalling the feelings associated with the time—almost a decade ago—when he decided to leave Christchurch and head south, home to the farm.
Pearce, a bassist who had previously completed a Bachelor of Music, was at the time well into an engineering apprenticeship and, despite having not yet finished it, was managing a team of 10. His father had previously mentioned offhandedly that if he ever wanted to give farming a go, it should be sooner rather than later. Stressed by his professional life, and recently married too, he concluded that he had nothing to lose. The couple put their Christchurch house onto the rental market. “We might as well go give it a try and go farming for a bit and see what happens,” Pearce remembered thinking at the time.
‘Try’ being the operative word. When Pearce was born, his dad was dairy farming in the Waikato, then when he was four the family moved to a sheep farm, which his dad duly converted into a deer farm, in the Manawatu. Ten or so years after that, the family—and the deer—moved across the Cook Strait and halfway down the South Island. As a boy, Pearce never had any interest in farming—“it didn’t appeal to me at all.” And, besides, by the time he had left home to follow music to Christchurch, the farm hadn’t yet been fully converted, after the collapse of the deer industry, into the dairy operation it is today. Consequently, he had next to no knowledge of dairy farming. “I knew nothing. I’d never milked a cow before… I really had no idea about dairy farming, about feed and pasture management, about animal health. I was really, really green.”
Joel Townshend, 36, wasn’t quite so inexperienced when he returned. He is now the operations manager for the Townsend Group, which operates five Mid Canterbury dairy farms, but as a 17-year-old he was encouraged to roll the dice on a non-farming life, having watched the variations of a farmer’s fate—drought, the stress of managing staff—at work on his dad. “I just saw how much pressure he was under and thought there must be a better way.” In order to find it, he left the farm.
A year in Tauranga, studying electronics, followed. But his re-origin story perhaps sticks to a more familiar script. “I felt like I was in a bit of a rat race. I just realised that I was a farmer at heart.” The grass, as he said he soon realised, wasn’t greener on the sun-baked Bay of Plenty streets. He knew from his childhood observation that a farmer’s life was stressful, but the scope for opportunity proved too alluring. He returned to work on the family land for a year, then on another farm for a further two. Then followed a Bachelor of Commerce (Agriculture) at Lincoln University. When we spoke, he’d been back (again) working the family land for a decade. He thought for a few seconds, dredging memories from half a lifetime ago, to distil what it was that had dragged him back: “I just missed the simpleness of getting outside.”
Other aspects of the equation, of course, are not quite as simple as the feeling of grass underfoot, or the pre-dawn chill of a frosty morning. In the modern industrialised world, few professions require you to learn the trade from people with whom you share an already charged emotional relationship: your parents. If there is a profound difference in worldview between the Baby Boomer and the Millennial, this might be where those two tectonic plates grind most forcefully against each other. Townshend, for instance, called his dad “more of a doer than a teacher. He would basically give you enough rope to hang yourself. He was quite a fiery fella at the time [I returned].”
With farming, Townshend said, “there’s no set way of doing something. There’s no code.” And he was lucky that any generational discrepancies in attitude never caused conflict. The basics of dairy farming were instilled when he was young, but other than that, “I don’t do it the same way as Dad did it. And I think that has been beneficial.” He has, he says, “definitely failed at a few things” but that in the long run the failures his father let him endure had helped him develop as a farmer and as a businessman. “I don’t just jump into things now.”
He said the operation—7000 cows across those five farms and 1500 hectares—was big enough to absorb bigger and newer ideas, whereas a single farm might not be. And his dad had no problem with those ideas—although he said he “had the wrath” when he had got things wrong. Under Townshend’s urging, all five farms had installed feedpads where the cows receive supplementary feed—a result of Townshend’s own research into the dietary requirements of the animals under his care. “Now Dad stands back and goes, ‘Yep, that was actually the right thing to do.’” Townshend “I knew nothing. I’d never milked a cow before… I really had no idea about dairy farming, about feed and pasture management, about animal health. I was really, really green.” thinks, now, that the farms are running at something approaching maximum efficiency.
He feels real sympathy for those taking over smaller operations, for whom the process of succession doesn’t run as smoothly. “It’s really hard for people who are on the one farm with their father, and they are trying to run it and his father, he’s got a lot of emotion involved in it when it’s only one farm, and that emotion can take over the efficiency and the practicality of something. It’s really hard that mindset of ‘that’s how I did it so that’s how you should do it’.”
For Pearce, the hindrance of his lack of experience was almost instantly compounded when a junior worker quit almost as soon as Pearce himself had returned. He remembers those first months back on the farm, in the spring of 2012, as an admixture of driving rain and 14-hour days, 13 days out of a fortnight. “But I suppose I was so busy that you just had to get on with it. It was pretty stressful.”
He took classes and read everything he could in an attempt to catch up, but remained “really reliant” on his father. Even though that reliance has ebbed over the past decade, it remains a not-always-easy aspect of the handover. “It’s been a pretty rocky ten years really, relationship-wise and business-wise. We don’t communicate very well, we’re very similar and pretty poor communicators. So we’ve butted heads a lot. Part of it is Dad not wanting to let go, and part of it is me thinking I know best.”
Pearce, new to farming and reliant on what he was learning as he learned it, didn’t have the deep institutional knowledge baked into him by life-long interest—like Townshend. His father, instincts honed by experience, farmed on “his gut feel about things.” For example, Pearce would consult the moisture meters in the ground and say, “We need to irrigate.” His dad, however, would “go out and poke a fence stake in the ground and go, ‘Oh nah, the ground’s soft enough, we’ll be alright.’” There was a generational divide, exacerbated by the history of Pearce’s relationship to farming. “Dad was still farming based on his experiences from 20 years prior, and I was trying to learn all the new stuff and do things differently. I felt like there was a lot of time trying to force change that was just so slow to happen.”
Pearce, after a couple of years, entered a new business relationship with the farm: contract milking. “Dad was pretty hard to work for, so I wanted him to back off and let me do things my own way.” Unfortunately, having set up his own business to do it, he employed “a couple of the wrong people” and as a result had to “basically” work for six months without a day off. He nearly had a nervous break- down. “[I] went on antidepressants and Mum and Dad gave me some time off… A lot of that pressure was still me not knowing enough to run the farm and the staff well.”
After nearly a decade, that knowledge deficiency has been rectified. For much of that time, the idea of heading back to Christchurch where he could play music, lurked in the recesses of his mind, and his passion project—a Mk1 Ford Escort he’d built from scratch—was half-regarded as a “functional CV for when I finish farming and go back to engineering.” But now, after getting a foot in the land-owning door by buying an adjoining 20 hectares when it came up for sale, he is two-thirds of the way through buying his father’s cattle from him. His wife is able to devote her time to the three children, as she wants to, and his eldest has started at the local school. Like Townshend, who credited his father with teaching him the virtues of patience—“sometimes you waste five minutes and sometimes you save yourself hours”—Pearce owes his father a lot. “I don’t think I’d still be farming if I wasn’t on a family farm working with Dad. I don’t think I would’ve carried on after those first few years, after
His dad, the majority of knowledge now passed on, is increasingly happy to let his son make the decisions: “I’ll try to talk to him about something and he’ll not really want to think about it.” He’s never expecting to own the farm—the land is too expensive, and he has other siblings to be considered when his parents die—and in that sense it’s “hard to look at the really long term.” But in another, he is finally settled. “Probably in the last year, for the first time, I can’t see myself going anywhere.”