Christopher and Siobhan O’Malley of Ashburton are newbies to the dairy farming industry. With just eight years’ experience, you’d expect them to be still in the early stages of learning the ropes, but earlier this year this hard-working couple were recently announced 2017 NZDIA Share Farmers of the Year. SPIRIT Magazine set out to discover how a couple of townies won the country’s top share milking award.

Let’s not beat about the bush. How DID they take out the top award? Was dairy farming always their goal? “I’d never even set foot on a farm,” Siobhan laughs. “The closest I ever got to farm animals was a visit to a Willowbank Farmyard Experience in Christchurch! I had zero experience!”

Christopher’s extended family though, do have a history in dairy farming, and as a youngster he spent many of his holidays on the family farm at Kokatahi, on the West Coast. “I loved the lifestyle, but I’d always looked at my uncles and noticed how tired they always were. I was pretty definite that farming was not for me.”

So, there they were, Christopher, an adventure tourism guide, and Siobhan with a university degree in classical studies. The big wide world was their oyster, and they grabbed it with both hands, heading off to the UK and Ireland, where they both have strong family ties.

When the recession hit in 2008 they decided to return home to New Zealand, find jobs and get married. Siobhan returned to teaching, and Christopher began working on a dairy farm.

Did Siobhan take some convincing? “Possibly! Not really,” she laughs. “I did have moments. I’m a city girl remember; Christchurch, London, Dublin. I loved the city life, but you have to go with the opportunities that present themselves.  We’re a pretty tight unit together and when your husband and business partner is so passionate about what he’s doing, it’s not hard to know you’re doing the right thing. To own a business as a young couple is incredible. We can see amazing progression in the dairy industry. We’re in charge of our own destiny, and that’s what drives us.”

From their first share milking position, they’ve been living a gypsy lifestyle, moving every couple of years. From Darfield North Otago, Ikamatua, back to North Otago and to their current location at Lauriston, where they 50:50 share milk 500 cows on Graham Brooker’s 138ha farm on Thompsons Track. “You train your mind not to settle. Each move we’ve made we’ve grown the herd, and grown the business.”

Christopher says that they’ve made up for being latecomers to the industry by asking a lot of questions. “If we don’t know something, we have no qualms about asking for advice, and we’re lucky enough to have really good support behind us; the bank, the farm owner, the vet, more experienced farmers, we’ll ask whoever we need to, to help us make the right decision.”

Siobhan says that the skills they learned in their previous occupations were easily transferable. “As a teacher, you’re required to plan ahead, document everything and keep good records, and that’s where my strengths lie. Christopher loves the outdoors and has great time management and people skills. We joke that we have an inside-outside work split. I do everything inside, and Christopher does everything outside. We have complementary strengths and we always know what the other half is doing. We make a great team.”

The O’Malley team has grown over the last few years, with the addition of three children, Finnian, aged five, Aisling, aged three and a half (she’s at pains to point out that extra half!), and Ruairi. Unlike Mum and Dad, the young O’Malleys are typical farm kids, loving their rural life. Finnian has started playing rugby in the local Methven rippa team, and the whole family are on the side-line to encourage him. Aisling is in charge of the half-time oranges.

Promoting positive images of dairy farming is a shared passion, and just prior to their win they started a Facebook page, Pukeko Pastures NZ, which they hope will balance the negative media stereotype, and portray dairy farming in a more positive light. “Townies never see the hard work and dedication that goes on 365 days a year, they just see the odd ugly story and assume it applies to everyone.”

“We entered the awards so we could recognise where we are professionally, so the win has given us a huge amount of confidence,” they say.  In addition to the national title, they also won three merit awards: the DairyNZ Human Resources Award, Fonterra Farm Source Interview Award and the LIC Recording and Productivity Award.

So, where to from here? “Just more of the same. There are always new things to learn, and smarter ways of doing things.  We’re open to whatever opportunities come our way. We’d love to own our own farm one day. That’s the big goal.”

 

 

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Judy McAuliffe is a writer, and publisher Essence Mid Canterbury. Her experience in media is extensive and includes approximately 15 years as Creative Director for The Radio Network, writing, and managing the writing of radio advertising, mainly in Invercargill and Greymouth. In the late 1990’s she transferred to Christchurch, moving into an Account Management role with 91ZM. In 2007 she and a business partner set up Essence Mid Canterbury, very quickly adapting her radio-writing skills to print media. Judy became sole owner of Essence Mid Canterbury in June 2014. Judy is a ‘people person’ and has found her niche writing feature stories about the community she lives in and the people who live there. She is also available for freelance writing assignments.