Despite growing up as a townie, Claire Douglas is passionate about agriculture. She told Sheryl Brown how a Year 10 rural studies course set her on a new path.

Dairy farming, hunting and fishing tick all the boxes for Claire Douglas, who is working her way up the career ladder in the dairy industry.

The 22-year-old grew up in Pukekohe without any connection to farming. Her parents had no link to farming, but her father gave her an early passion for the outdoors.

“Since I was a little toddler out with dad, I’ve loved hunting and fishing.”

She elected to take rural studies in Year 10, which involved studying agriculture and horticulture, and it sparked an interest in agriculture that continued to burn.

“I really enjoyed the subject and a couple of my friends were dairy farmers. I spent some time on the weekends out on farms with them, and it just grew from there.”

The following two years she studied agriculture and found a job relief milking near Patumahoe.

The farm owner put her on to Taratahi Institute of Agriculture and Claire left after Year 12 to attend the two-year programme.

Taratahi is New Zealand’s largest agricultural training provider and has been running since 1919.

Students live together at the residential campus in Wairarapa and work alongside each other onfarm. That tight-knit family approach made it easier to be out in the real world, Claire says.

“It was the first time I had lived away from home, away from my parents for the first time. It was a really nice community, everyone felt like a big team.”

People and communication skills were one of the biggest life lessons she took from her time at Taratahi.

“When you’re living with and working long hours with people you don’t know, you quickly learn how to read people and how to get along.”

Taratahi offers an excellent practical skills-based learning environment, where students get to be hands-on doing farm jobs.

“That’s also where most of my practical skills came from.”

After two years at Taratahi, Claire got a job as a dairy assistant on a 270-cow farm in the Central Hawke’s Bay.

It was the perfect location, being close to friends and her two passions – fishing and hunting.

“I definitely enjoyed that job. I was living by myself for the first time, but a lot of my mates were close by. That’s why I choose the job, because I knew if I ever felt down or got homesick I could go see my mates.

“It was a really good job and it was really close to my interests – I was half an hour away from the beach to go surf casting, then I was on the foothills of the Ruahine Ranges to go hunting. It was a primo spot.”

She first heard about the Central North Island Dairy Academy when she visited the National Fieldays and applied.

The academy is funded by Theland Farm Group, part of Shanghai Pengxin and run by Taratahi. It is a mid-level development programme designed for people who have goals to become a farm manager within five years.

It’s an intensive 37-week residential programme combining theory, practical training and onfarm experience based around the Massey University Diploma in Agriculture (Level 5).

Clare was looking for the next step up in the industry and was open to going back to studying.

“I felt like I needed to do more study. I wanted to go out and push myself and get the diploma and I had the heart to go back studying.”

She had also met her partner, Jeff Harty, now her fiancé, who was living near Taupo and the academy was conveniently located in the Wairakei District.

The academy was more intensive, but it was an easier learning environment than a typical classroom because there was a small class of 10 students.

Their tutor Dave Horner made the lessons interactive and interesting, which made it easier to learn, Claire says.

“The theoretical side of it was so in-depth, it was a massive step up.

“We never just sat down in class and wrote notes off the board. It was always a discussion. The way he taught, it wasn’t like we were getting taught, it was really different. I really enjoyed it.

“You were actively participating in it all the time, always thinking, everyone had an opinion.”

Claire was the top student at the dairy academy last year and won the DairyNZ Student of the Year award.

“She was an outstanding student, probably my best student to date,” Dave says.

“She is a natural leader and her whole attitude and the way she conducts herself – she is a manager in the making. I would definitely recommend her.”

Her fellow students have maintained good friendships and offer support to each other now they’re all out working in the industry, Claire says.

“Everyone got on so well, we’re all mates and we all talk still. If anything comes up or anyone has any problems we talk to each other.”

Claire is now 2IC on one of the Theland’s properties near Reporoa. The 320ha farm milks 860 cows and employs a manager, 2IC, herd manager and two farm assistants.

Her fiancé Jeff has also started dairy farming this year. He is working on a neighbouring farm and is studying through PrimaryITO.

The couple want to continue down the road of dairy farming and see what opportunities come up for them in the future. They are both planning to enter the Dairy Industry Awards this year.

“I want to be managing within three years and Jeff wants to be in a senior position too.”

Claire is keen to upskill on human resources because being able to manage people well is key to a management role.

“I want to learn how to work with staff, if I was to step up to manager. Knowing people is a big priority in this industry.”

The couple have contemplated sharemilking, but are interested in getting to be in a position where they can buy an equity share in a farm.

They’re keeping their options open and saving up for a deposit so they can be in a position to take up opportunities in the future.

“We don’t want to sit back, we want to be hands-on and have equity in a farm.

“For the moment we are getting as much experience as we can and learning every day.”