Featured in Young Country Issue 16, September-October 2011.


Each year the Young farmer Contest Grand Final is hotly contested and 2011 was no exception. Rebecca Harper profiles this year’s winner, Aorangi dairy farmer Will Grayling.

Will Graying had a few secret weapons up his sleeve as he lifted the coveted title of Young Farmer of the Year.

“They’re my go to when I’m under the pump on the farm – it’s amazing how far a muesli bar will get you,” he says.

But it takes more than luck and lollies to wear the Cloak of Knowledge and Will proved he was a truly deserving winner of the title to come out on top after three days of mentally, emotionally and physically demanding challenges against tough competitors. The grand final, often dubbed the ironman of agricultural events, was contested by seven young men from seven regions around the country, each a first time grand finalist, which is a rare occurrence in the history of the competition.

The 25-year-old Pendarves Young Farmer Club member is a farm manager on a 1600-cow dairy farm near Ashburton for Spectrum Group and represented the Aorangi region in the grand final. Will grew up just outside Hamilton at Ngahinapouri where his parents still milk 1100 cows across two farms. He attended St Paul’s Collegiate in Hamilton before venturing south to Lincoln University where he spent four years and came out as a Master of Applied Science majoring in farm management consultancy.

“I was always pretty keen to go farming, dairy farming. I went to Southland for a year after uni and worked as a farm consultant for FarmRight . . . it was a test to see whether I liked it or not, to get out and do something a bit different.” He decided consultancy wasn’t his passion and headed back to the cowshed. “It’s just the rewards you get. There are quite tangible rewards you get if you’re willing to put the effort in. It’s always good to do something you enjoy outside in the fresh air – I just like the challenge,” he explains. “I prefer cows, I was brought up with them, I know them. What you are brought up with you learn to appreciate I guess.”

Will has been competing in the Young Farmer Contest since his Lincoln days and this was his third crack at a regional final. To make it through to the grand final he had to beat last year’s Aorangi grand finalist Andrew Scott – no mean feat. He had exactly two months to prepare for the big event which meant “a lot of sifting through a heck of a lot of information” as well as a stack of questions on flip cards, buzzers and quiz nights at their place. This is not a competition you win by getting lucky. “You win by getting up at 5.30am every morning and doing questions.”

Behind every good man…

A big part of his success is fiancé Kim True, who he will marry in December. The pair met at Lincoln when they were in the same hall of residence. “She did a lot of behind the scenes stuff. I would lock myself in the office doing questions day and night and things would keep ticking over around me,” he says. “I was going to other people’s places and checking out how things worked, like shearing sheep or how Prattley yards work – things I normally don’t do on the farm.” Unfortunately for Will, all his time spent learning how to shear properly was wasted, as it never came up in the final. “I was looking forward to the challenge of shearing a sheep . . . it’s probably safer for the sheep that we didn’t have to.”

Mates put together half hour practical modules for him to complete, trying to simulate what would happen on the day. “You’re never necessarily going to know the exact skill but it’s just about being able to apply yourself to that situation and handle what does come up.” He reckons you never know what the contest will throw at you so the key is keeping a positive frame of mind and looking forward rather than dwelling on what you just did or how you might have done it differently. “The more you can look forward the better you will do.”

The evening show, which consists of a series of sweaty palm inducing, quick-fire buzzer rounds didn’t get off to a good start for Will and he faltered early on with several wrong answers. The contest went right down to the wire with eventual second placegetter Tim van de Molen making a late run with a spate of correct answers. But Will was counting and knew he’d held on. “I got off to such a bad start, it was nerve wracking. The hardest thing after I got four wrong was coming back from that and not letting it affect me. My approach was there’s no point trying to make it up, the idea was to make sure I only answered what I knew. That was my strategy from the start but I must have got a bit flustered in the first round.”

Points from Thursday’s technical session and Friday’s practical are revealed only at the evening show and it turned out Will had done extremely well during the week, winning both the AGMARDT Agri-business Challenge and the Lincoln University Agri-growth Challenge. In the end his 306 points prevailed with Waikato/Bay of Plenty representative and Agri-sports Challenge winner Tim finishing on 299 points.

“I was elated. It’s all a bit surreal because it happens so fast. I was relieved and stoked – it’s a huge sense of achievement,” Will says when speaking to Young Country from home the following week. “It (the contest) has always been something that I wanted to give a good crack.”

Having always been a competitor, he’s looking forward to being able to relax and enjoy helping out at the contest in the future. “The thing that you take out of it the most is what happens next, I hope. The opportunities it opens up to meet and interact with people and build up a network,” he says. “Making sure it’s not just a one-off thing, use it to springboard that next step in your career. It also opens up the opportunity to go and talk to people and put across the image of what I think dairy farming and agriculture offers and what it looks like to me. Just showcasing what it can be – it’s not all cows and grass, it’s the whole lifestyle, the whole package.”

Give it a go!

He would encourage any young farmer to give the contest a go. “You don’t have to be in the grand final to get something out of it. At the district final you get to go around with the judges and get feedback. If you enter and you learn something, there’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s a great event because I enjoy competing but also learning.”

After the evening show Kim, 26, called the contest a true test of a man. “The contest tests a lot of personal traits. Being able to manage the stress of the competition, you need to be a really well-rounded person to compete, let alone win it. If they can get through it I think they are a stronger person for it.”

She describes Will as goal-focused, someone who knows what he wants to achieve and how to get there. “He was disciplined with all the study and knew he needed to do that to get the result. He’s got the communication skills to get people on board. If he didn’t have that support network of people he would have really struggled.”

Family friend Mark Saunders, a dairy farmer from South Ashburton, agrees Will’s focus and determination played a huge part in his success. “We’ve been his Canterbury home away from home since he was studying at Lincoln. I’ve been inspired by his drive and ability to take on challenges from when he was 18. As a student he used to come down to study or for his holidays,” Mark says.

An “old, young farmer” who competed in the contest at regional level himself, Mark has been supporting Will at regional finals for the last few years. “I believed in his potential all along. It was just a question of if he could prepare well enough.” Mark has been the chairman of the local Toastmasters club and really pushed Will with his public speaking. “He’s stepped up from being okay to excelling in that area.” He also put Will in touch with people in the community who could help him work on his weaknesses. “He says ‘yes I can do it’ and then gets involved with the people who can teach him. He takes opportunities.” Mark describes Will as a humble young guy, but not without confidence. “He’s got a wise head on him for 25.” Coming from a competitive family with three other brothers might also have something to do with it, he reckons.

Always one to help out, when Mark sent a group text round following the February Christchurch earthquake Will was keen to get on the end of a shovel and help out – despite the fact his regional final was only a few weeks away. “He’s unselfish. If you can raise a sweat and get stuck in, he will say yes. He’s really organised, quick to structure things so he can make time. When I think about him when he first came out here, he’s always grabbed things and had a go. He’s keen to challenge and have a go outside his comfort zone. I think his parents were huge in his upbringing and also the competitive nature of having four boys around. Nothing is too hard, he’s a guy who finds solutions,” Mark says.

A city girl at heart, Kim works for the Ashburton District Council and enjoys the farm life. “You get the best of both worlds. Although we live on the farm it’s just an hour to a major city (Christchurch). It wasn’t as much of a shock to the system as I thought it would be, having lived in big cities all my life.”

She was pretty confident going into the evening show as Will was usually “quite sharp” on questions “but when Tim made a late sprint I had lost count and was really starting to panic . . . it was only when they read his name out that I realised.” When asked what she believes he has gained from competing she replies “the personal development, the range of skills that were tested and the most important thing he has got out of it are the contacts. I think this will be quite a big year for him in terms of his career.”

Naturally, she is proud of his success. “I think it’s a huge achievement what Will’s done. It’s been a long term goal for him and nice to have that ticked off.” He “totally deserved” the win. “I think he would have been very disappointed not to after all the effort he put in. To do it first time and at his age is a huge achievement.” Like Will, she is a big fan of getting stuck in and giving the contest a go. “I think a lot of people think it’s beyond them but we are really advocating for people to go out there and have a go – if nothing else you’ve met some new people and learned some new things.”