Grant Coombes believes that being a dairy farmer means being involved in something bigger than just yourself.
By: GERALD PIDDOCK
It requires being part of a wider local community and this ethos has helped propel Coombes from a 20-year-old sharemilker to a large scale farm business in his early 40s.
By following this belief he and wife Kyly have been able to move and grow through the industry and diversify into governing roles as well as overseeing their farm business.
“We never had the best herd and we were never the best farmers but we knew people and we had roots in the community. It’s all about knowing people and people trusting who you are. People knew who we were, trusted what we did and they were happy to take us on as a sharemilker,” he says.
The networks they built also helped him shift into governance roles. Taking these roles allows him to get off the farm, be part of the community and be part of something bigger than himself.
“When you are part of a community you can become a leader of that too,” he says.
Today, the couple and their four children own and run Waikato Dairy Ltd at Taupiri, north of Hamilton. The business includes four dairy farms and a dairy support block and they employ eight staff.
Coombes is also involved in two equity partnerships and has governing roles in businesses they founded, workplace drug testing company Resultz Group Drug Testing and Directors Inc, which aimed to connect directors with companies looking for governance solutions.
He has also stood in director elections for DairyNZ and Ballance Agri Nutrients.
Including the equity partnerships, their farming enterprise milks 2000 cows across about 750 hectares around North Waikato.
Each farm is run as a separate entity and the runoff block winters the young cattle for all of them.
Coombes describes the farms as system two, but feeding at system three due to the amount of palm kernel being used.
Waikato Dairy last season milked a combined 460,000 kilograms of milk solds. Production is down 7 per cent so far this season, which Coombes says is a result of changes to the farming system and the extreme wet weather through September.
He established an advisory board for the company, consisting of himself, wife Kylie and an independent chairperson.
He accepts that it is a structure that would not suit all farmers, but could be an option for young sharemilkers because it helps build industry connections.
He encourages farmers to get more involved in governance. The industry was ideally suited for this because of the broad range of skills farmers had learned from their jobs.
“They have some real skills that they should look to utilise and it comes back to that point of being part of something bigger than yourself.”
Good governance means knowing yourself, your abilities and what you can bring to the board. It also means being willing to learn. Lately Coombes has taken Maori language classes as one of the farms they lease has Maori landowners.
Coombes also works with Smart Waikato, which runs the Secondary School Employment Partnership scheme.
The scheme aims to introduce secondary school students to employers, including in dairying, and he has been working with Hamilton-based Fraser High School to get students out onto the farm to show how farms are run.
The programme was a great way to help build bridges with urban children who would otherwise not be exposed to farming.
“If you want to change a society you start with the kids.”
He is also part of DairyNZ’s Find a Farmer, which got primary school aged children out to visit farms.
“It’s something I really enjoy doing.
“You tell your story and you see their mums and dads listening in.”
Looking back, Coombes says it has been an interesting journey.
He started his career as a 20-year-old sharemilker, farming 130 cows at a farm owned by his family.
After four seasons, they expanded their operation and sharemilked their neighbour’s farm, increasing their numbers to 400 cows.
By 2001, they were sharemilking 800 cows. They brought their first farm, a 90ha property at Taupiri in 2004. At the same time, he kept sharemilking jobs on three other farms to help fund the purchase. These connections proved to be invaluable when he was able to later lease two of them from their owners.
He says farm ownership is still achievable today, but young farmers needed to take different pathways to get there.
One of the pathways is to establish community connections as ageing farm owners look to sell up or take more of a back seat in their businesses, he says.
“For someone who really wants to get ahead and is personable, there are large farming units that are looking for people to be on the ground and they might give away some ownership to make it happen.”
Coombes’ other passion is technology and he loves its problem-solving role in New Zealand agri-story. He is confident that the technology available now and into the future will help solve the issues facing the dairy industry.
“Our wider industry is great at solving problems and the waterway one will be no different. Science and technology and the will to do it will fix that problem.”
But he acknowledges that social media and the disconnect people have with where their food comes from was an added complexity.
“Our industry has faced major challenges all of its life and will continue to do so. We are great at rising up to meet them.”
He points to the industry’s quick progress with addressing water quality, including the breakthrough around low nitrogen dairy sires and the use of plantain as a more environmentally friendly feed crop.
He says agricultural leaders need to step up and talk more about science and technology, and how it can help every farmer.
“I’d like to see agricultural leaders collaborating more, and communicating better in regards to science and technology, and making that a part of the ‘story of dairying’.
“We need to focus on providing tools, research and solutions to assist profitable and sustainable farming.”
Within his own farm business he uses Fonterra’s ‘mark and measure’ and LIC’s ‘land and feed’ apps to help with farm management and has also embraced electric motorbikes.
“I’ve got seven Ubco2x2 electric bikes, and they are great,” Coombes says.
“They are quiet and easy to operate. I’m passionate about sustainable farming and reducing emissions, so this is one way we can do that in our farm business.”
They are a workhorse rather than a cruise bike and while there were a few teething issues, he and the rest of the staff have adopted their use.
“They’re good – they are light, safe and quiet and easy to ride.”
Despite missing out this year at the DairyNZ and Ballance director elections, Coombes says he will keep putting his name forward when good governance roles become available.
Further into the future, he may look at seeking a place on the board of Fonterra.
Nor have the temporary setbacks dampened his enthusiasm for governance because it is a chance to give back to an industry that has granted him so many opportunities.