By his own admission the step up in range and complexity of challenges from regional to national grand final in the FMG Young Farmer of the Year contest suited this year’s winner.
Athol New, a dairy business manager running four herds through three sheds for Purata (formerly Synlait) Farms in mid Canterbury became the 48th young farmer to take the title following a three-day finale in Timaru in early July.
Although Athol didn’t win a single section he scored solidly throughout to finish 10 points clear of runner-up Tony Dowman, who also works in a corporate operation running nine farms for Landcorp in Wairarapa. Tasman farmer James Hoban was the third-place winner.
Athol said all sections of the final competition went well for him “apart from the quiz”.
“The questions were a lot more difficult than any of the seven of us in the final were expecting.”
The final opened on a Thursday with technical challenges at Raincliff Station, a rolling 890ha deer and cattle property 40km inland of Timaru.
Each finalist presented a market innovation project they’d prepared in the run-up to the final, underwent a panel interview, conducted an interview for a prospective employee for Raincliff’s contracting business and developed a business plan for a 38ha block of the station.
Athol’s proposal was to invest in irrigation shares and infrastructure, install deer fencing and run it as a deer finishing block to complement Raincliff’s existing breeding operations.
As a dairy business manager, he said he was familiar with developing such plans albeit with different stock classes.
Similarly, interviewing prospective employees was something he does regularly – however, the candidate for the job, played by a local farmer was the most difficult person he’d ever interviewed.
“It was a real challenge to get the information out of him,” Athol said.
Athol’s prepared project was on the mastitis diagnostic tool Check Up, which had been trialled on Purata’s farms. The project and Raincliff business plan fed into the AgMardt Agri-Business award while the panel interview was part of the Massey University Agri-Growth award.
After five and a half hours’ mind-work at Raincliff the finalists headed back to Timaru for a street parade and official opening, including hand-milking a cow with the public watching.
This was followed by the Meridian Energy Agri-Knowledge quiz and speeches in the evening.
Friday dawned with the finalists fencing, pruning and repairing machines on individual farmlets while taking time-out in allocated slots to complete animal health, arable, irrigation and beekeeping modules.
“We had to direct them to deliver the hives where we wanted them and do a health and safety induction like you do for any contractor coming on to your farm,” Athol said.
The farmlets and modules made-up the Ravensdown Agri-Skills award, with health and safety a constant focus since it also featured in the Silver Fern Farms Agri-Sports event that followed.
Several competitors received repeated penalties but Athol got through with just one when he forgot to replace his safety glasses after wiping the rain off. “I took them off and the minute after got pinged!”
Slick work, fitness and avoiding time penalties for such infringements meant Athol finished first in the agri-sports section, though as he later found out he slipped to second when quality of work was taken into account.
As with all sections of the final, winners were only revealed at the gala dinner on Saturday night, more than 24 hours after the practical had finished.
Athol admitted he was a little worried when all five section awards had been announced and he hadn’t landed any. Then he didn’t feature in the reverse order announcements of overall placings from fourth, to third and second.
“Tony [Dowman, second place-getter] was the one I thought might have won it so when I looked at who was left after that I thought I might still have a chance, but I was still absolutely stoked to hear my name called out.”
Athol’s win landed him $80,000 worth of prizes.
As a member of the Pendarves Young Farmers club for the past six years, Athol follows in the footsteps of 2011 Young Farmer of the Year grand final winner Will Grayling and 2002 winner Tim Porter.
However, Athol said that tips from 2006 winner John McCaw, from nearby Methven, and 2010 winner Grant McNaughton, now based in north Otago, were “instrumental” in his success.
He was also thankful for the “massive input” from wife Jane, in-laws Neil and Lyn Campbell, and current and former colleagues from Purata. “And my personal trainer Mojo for getting me fit enough for the practical.”
It was Athol’s third entry in the contest, having gone out at district level first time, then with a third at regionals last year before making and winning the final this year.
“One of the hardest things for me was getting through the mid Canterbury (district) round,” Athol said.
– Andrew Swallow