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Learning with the lease

Leasing the farm next door to where Willy Jenkins works has served him and wife Claire well. Glenys Christian reports.

The opportunity to lease a neighbouring sheep and beef farm for the past six years has given farm worker, Willy Jenkins, a greater belief in his own abilities.

“It’s been confidence building,” he says.

His wife, Claire, describes him as a humble person who won’t talk himself up and he happily admits he sometimes needs a push in the right direction. So although they’ve decided not to renew the lease from the start of the new year they both believe the skills they’ve learned will stay with them and serve them well in their farming future.

Willy, 34, was brought up in Kawakawa Bay, south east of Auckland where his parents leased their four-hectare small block to local farmer, Bill Cashmore. He was looking for a farm worker so Willy, who had worked in nurseries locally after leaving school, was interviewed “over a beer” and two weeks later started the job.

Sixteen years later he’s still there and still very much appreciating the variety of farming life.

“I always loved dogs and I really enjoy fencing,” he says.

“And Bill really instils pride in the job you do.”

It was a case of him being thrown in the deep end with Bill starting him on crutching in his first week. But when the boss couldn’t find him in the shed, only a tell-tale pool of blood on the ground, he thought that was the last he might see of his new worker. However Willy was just suffering a bad nosebleed and was still unable to get off the couch to answer the phone when Bill rang him later that evening.

“He told that story at my wedding,” he says.

Bill himself had left school at 17 to come home and start at the bottom on the 1200ha farm settled by his ancestors in the 1880s. Now he runs 3000 Romney ewes along with 260 straight Angus cows on the home farm and 600ha of leased land nearby. A third of the ewes are put to a terminal Dorset sire with 4000 prime lambs going off the property every year. Suffolks were tried in the past but now the concentration is firmly on the size, durability and hardiness.

More than 95% calving rates are achieved, but hard times in the 1980s saw Bill cut scrub and carry out fencing around the area to pay the mortgages he and wife Lynnette, a nurse, held. Son Robert returned home after university and three years in the South Island high country as farm manager about the time Bill got involved in local body politics in Auckland. Last year he became deputy mayor and still chairs the council’s Rural Advisory Panel where a variety of rural groups are consulted and give feedback on its plans.

‘Bill said it wasn’t going to make us millionaires but it enabled us to get money out when we sold the stock and we wouldn’t have been able to do this any other way.’

He made the suggestion to Willy and Claire that former Federated Farmers’ Meat and Fibre chairman, Keith Kelly, was looking to lease his and wife Jennifer’s adjoining farm of 250ha. While it can be accessed from the back boundary of Bill’s farm it’s a 20 to 30-minute drive to get to it by road up the Ness Valley.

“Bill said it wasn’t going to make us millionaires but it enabled us to get money out when we sold the stock and we wouldn’t have been able to do this any other way,” Willy says.

“We’ve sacrificed time to do it and we’ve upskilled in the business area. And I found I could rely on myself to do the things I needed to.”

With some financial help from Bill he and Claire entered an agreement which detailed how many of the sheep on the farm they would buy and when. Willy continued to work four days a week for Bill on his property then spent the two days of the week on Keith’s farm.

Willy and Claire Jenkins with daughter Billie and son Jack.

Over three or four years ewe numbers were dropped back from 800 to 700 and now the present 600. While the animals worked the hard hill country well the lambing percentage at 60% wasn’t where Willy wanted it to be, but has gradually been lifted to 115%.

“It could be 150% but the animals would be smaller and not doing well,” he says.

“I’ve run things basically and the main thing to do has been to look after the sheep. If the ewes are looking good the lambs are doing well.”

That’s led to Willy gaining a good reputation with one buyer repeatedly purchasing all the wethers he drafts off every December from mid-August lambing.

When it came to cattle they couldn’t afford to buy the stock already on the farm but Willy was able to use Bill’s bulls over the breeding cows. They’ve improved in size and calving has lifted to 95%, with Willy selling weaners through local fairs.

“The genetics are starting to show through,” he says.

“They’re not big-framed animals but they’re efficient.”

While they had their own accountant run over the figures Claire took on the task of being more vigilant about their finances day-to-day using Rural Cash Manager, after some training from Lynette. With no assets they used up their savings to sign up for the lease then needed more money for reinvestment in the property.

“That was scary,” Willy says.

“We had to work out what was coming up next and I had to keep Claire in the loop.”

And it proved hard to budget when one year their lambs fetched $82 per head and the very next just $42.

“There was a big jump in what they fetched and then it came back down,” he says.

“And the wool side of things has been hard.”

While he can handle penning and pressing they still needed to get shearers in, and that could be problematic when Bill’s flock also needed to be shorn.

“There was a lot of juggling, especially in October, November and December,” Willy says.

“But you’ve got to work in together. And Bill was always available for advice.”

He was also happy to let to let Willy use some of his equipment on Keith’s farm as there was only a small tractor there for feeding out.

Formal meetings were held every six months outlining the work that needed to be carried out over the next period to maintain the farm to its present standard.

“For the first two years I did a lot of fencing, digging the holes and using a posthole borer like Bill’s taught me,” Willy says.

“There were over 1000 posts put in and 130 strainers so that was a few kilometres. And I was spraying gorse and making sure the tracks were looked after because I couldn’t afford contractors. I wanted things to look good and be in a good state.”

He also modified cattleyards in the middle of the farm and was able to make around 30 big bales of hay on his parents’ property every year to feed out.

The concentration on subdivision early on had a number of immediate benefits.

“I could build a feed wedge because you had a little bit of grass in front of you,” he says.

“And mustering was a lot easier. The sheep would run down the hill and I’d think, ‘Got you, you buggers’.”

The biggest thing was the chance to learn new management skills.

“There’s the satisfaction you get when you see stock improve in front of you,” he says.

“It’s different when they’re yours.”

Willy increased his dog numbers from four to eight, but with relinquishing the lease he’s already retired two, with the oldest now leading a “molly-coddled” life at Claire’s father’s place.

That decision wasn’t easy and came after thorough discussion with both sets of parents which pointed them towards putting family first.

“We’re not too money-oriented,” Willy says.

“We realised I was missing out on the kids so it will be nice to be around a bit more.”

They intend to take a bit of time out before deciding their next move, with farm ownership still very much on their radar but not via the dairying route.

“There’s something about the hills I enjoy,” Willy says.

“I don’t know if I could handle the flat stuff. We’ve covered our business expenses and come out with some money at the end of it and can choose to put it into another business. That’s where we made our financial gain.”

Claire is a trustee of the Orere Point School, which their son, Jack, 6, attends and daughter Billie, 4, will be off to shortly.

Willy’s looking forward to being able to help out more at working bees as well as attending kids’ sports matches  regularly. And he’s also getting out of his comfort zone some more by entering a fencing competition with a mate at the Hawke’s Bay A and P Show later in the year.

One buyer repeatedly bought all the wethers Willy drafted off every December.

Leasing tips

There are several pointers Willy and Claire Jenkins are happy to pass on to others about priorities when leasing land.

  • Get things in writing so you don’t go in blind.
  • Make sure both parties are on the same page.
  • Be very clear about you want.
  • Get a mentor, someone in the industry you trust.
  • Set yourself an achievable goal.
  • Don’t overestimate the time you have available.
  • Look after yourselves.
  • Get the balance right and enjoy doing what you can do.