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Drawn to the lifestyle

As a youngster Sam Olney just wanted spend time on a neighbour’s dairy farm. Now he’s onfarm business manager and looking to have his own farm. Jackie Harrigan reports.

Sam Olney cried when he rode his bike home from the neighbour’s dairy farm, when they told him he couldn’t come and help anymore.

He was 10 and had been hanging around the Opiki farm for five years – watching the cows being milked and the cows being fed – trying to help, “but probably being more of a hindrance to be fair”, he admits.

Olney grew up on a Manawatu lifestyle block but fell in love with the dairying lifestyle during those years – and was devastated when the safety-conscious farmer said he’d better not come down to the shed any longer.

But at the start of the sixth form at Palmerston North Boys High School he pricked up his ears when a dairy farm job was advertised in assembly and after making a beeline for the careers adviser’s office he was signed out of school and on a dairy farm two weeks later.

The things that drew him to the lifestyle as a five-year-old were all still there and ticked his boxes – being outdoors, the physicality of the job, the animals, machinery and the motorbikes.

“I still loved it when I got there.”

While the elements are there in every dairy farming job the key to really enjoying it is having a good boss, Sam says.

“That is definitely the biggest thing, the best bosses are the ones that are looking out for you and looking after you as an employee.”

He counts himself lucky as having had a few really good bosses in the industry.

“I’ve not really worked for a bad one. I’ve had four bosses in my career and I learnt what not to do from only one.”

In the first job, he was dairy assistant with two other staff and rose to be 2IC after six months.

While he was there he met his wife and became a parent at 18.

The next move took them to Tokomaru as 2IC for a sharemilker on a small farm, where he learnt heaps about breeding and took on more and more responsibilities as the boss was away and as he stepped back in the role.

His boss was a “really good guy” by which Sam means being honest and open about what the job was going to be like for him and then sticking to that.

Sam Olney and Stacey Smith in the dairy shed at milking.

Sam and his family moved to the OB group at Santoft in 2011 as a 2IC in 2011 and after a year in the role stepped up to temporary farm manager for five months. A stint back as 2IC preceded a permanent farm manager role which he held for four years, before moving up to onfarm business manager.

The growth of the business manager role came about as part of the OB group focus on personal growth and stepped Sam up to cover off all the financial budgeting and oversight for the Sanderry farm unit. He codes all the invoices, touches base with contractors and generally runs the unit making key decisions around breeding, pasture and regrassing, handling everything except the consents, which are done through the general manager.

“The step up was challenging, but it puts me a step ahead of other farm managers and is similar to a sharemilker or farm owner – allowing me to grow into that type of role next.”

Sanderry is one of the five OB group farms at Santoft, converted out of sand country and surrounded by forestry. The unit is 400 hectares with 340ha irrigated and 1000 cows on a System 2 platform (with 300 tonnes of palm kernel brought in) and winter milking targeting 400,000kg milksolids (MS).

Sam has six staff working for him on Sanderry and the group does a lot of work on team development and dynamics. Coach Approach come in annually to talk about feedback, coaching and personality styles and leaders can have one-on-one coaching around staff management.

“The biggest thing is I want people to come to work and enjoy working for me – we do a lot of work around getting feedback from everyone.”

Every pay cycle the staff fill in a survey giving an opportunity for regular feedback on each other – anyone who finds that threatening has long since left, Sam suggests.

Sam’s guides for staff management include:

  • being easy to communicate with
  • being empathetic
  • stressful situations without losing his cool
  • a no-blame culture.

“Giving staff onfarm the opportunity to learn for themselves rather than have me teaching them is invaluable.”

Sam has been a believer in self-development for some time, having attended a 21-day Outward Bound course through winning an ITO scholarship in 2009 which he says was a life-changing opportunity.

“Outward Bound was a turning point in my life – it was hugely rewarding.

“The course helped me to mature, it made me better at communication, more empathetic and helped me to believe in myself. I struggled at school with learning, but the course gave me a big confidence boost.”

Alongside that, Sam came home determined to concentrate on the things that were really important in his life – his wife Chloe and children, Felicity,8, and since then, Eden, 4, and Riley, 2, and his career.

Part way through his Diploma of Agri Business management with Primary ITO now, Sam says when he finishes it will be Chloe’s turn for study and she is keen to complete Primary ITO training too.

“She wants to be farming more actively, but has been at home with the children up until now.”

The level of staffing at Sanderry is set up to both provide the staff with a work:life balance and to cover key person risk.

The onfarm business manager is backed up by a farm manager, 2IC or assistant manager and three assistants, two of whom are part-time.

“If anyone at the top breaks a leg or gets sick there is enough knowledge among the rest of the team to take up the slack.”

Part of the OB group ethos is to help the staff achieve what they want to out of the job, including enabling a good work/life balance and reason to enjoy and engage with the job and carry on with the work.

A five-on, two-off roster for fulltime staff means they have an extra staff member and can be very flexible.

“We have four houses on the farm, so two staff members drive in and are on an hourly rate. One of them is a mum who milks afternoons during the week and full weekends – and that allows her to earn some extra money and get away from her kids – it’s helping out those in the local community.

“We also have a student who works 30 hours a week around university commitments – he is really experienced and has managed farms in the past – being flexible allows him to earn money while he is studying.”

“It’s quite a shift from the traditional way, but we are trying to work with our workers.

The aim is to help them fit work into their life or to fit life into their work and comes off the back of the OB group directors’ ideas about fitting a new way of dairy farming to attract and retain staff in a new way.

Sam works Sunday to Thursday each week, with Friday and Saturday off, so can fit in his children’s sport and family time, and says because of the flexible staffing arrangements he has the ability to attend school things on work days as well.

With the flexible attitude to rosters, it’s not hard to attract staff to the OB group, Sam says, it’s more a matter of weeding out the applicants who are not likely to fit in.

“We are really open and honest about what our expectations are and the culture of the place is written up on the board in staffroom so everyone can see.”

Sam Olney: Onfarm business manager, in the dairy office at Sanderry farm: learning skills on Sanderry to take the next step up in his career.

Next steps

Sam, at 28, has been thinking about his next steps and plans eventually to move into farm ownership.

“I have come to the point where the corporate side of farms is not what I envisaged for my family. It’s just not possible due to health and safety regulations for my kids to be involved – and that’s the lifestyle that I love – and what made me cry when I was 10 and I had to leave.

“I want to make the step to having that ownership – not just working really hard for someone else.”

The OB group originally planned to bring in management staff as new equity managers but with the cessation of ongoing farm conversions turning sand country into dairy units Sam is looking for a new way of progressing his dairy career.

Group owners have been keen to help Sam, resulting in many conversations over the past few years and a plan for him to lease 150 cows into the herd at Sanderry for four years. Each year he has the option of selling them as in-calf R3 cows and buying more or re-leasing those cows.

Eighty of them were synchronised and mated to Friesian genetics and he and Chloe have 17 Friesian calves from the investment.

It’s a safe investment as he is guaranteed to come out with the same number of in-calf heifers when he moves on and in the meantime gets a lease payment from each cow.

He and Chloe bought 20 heifers and grazed them at a lease block which was a good learning curve about dealing with accountants and banks, he says.

“I am still attracted by the lifestyle of this place and have the same passion for the dairy farming is still there – it always will be I suppose.”


Millenium farming practices at Sanderry

  • Group vision on the dairy wall
  • 50-hour weeks
  • Five days on, two days off
  • One-on-one coaching for managers
  • Team coaching
  • Regular feedback for all staff
  • Career growth progression
  • Flexible working conditions.