Allow your goals to alter, dairying couple advise

Fonterra Shareholders' Council member Greg Kirkwood and his wife, Kelly, share a passion for the dairy industry. Photo by Sally Rae.
Fonterra Shareholders' Council member Greg Kirkwood and his wife, Kelly, share a passion for the dairy industry. Photo by Sally Rae.
Ask Greg Kirkwood what he loves about the dairy industry and he says: ''You don't know where you're going to end up.''

''There's so many opportunities ... as long as you can stomach the falls or trips on the way through,'' the newly elected Fonterra Shareholders' Council member said.

Mr Kirkwood, his wife Kelly and their 9-year-old twins Max and Phoebe, live in the historic Springfield homestead on the Otago Peninsula - the base for New Zealand's first co-operative cheese factory - with nary a dairy cow in sight.

It was a different lifestyle to the years of ''bloody hard work'', as Mrs Kirkwood succinctly put it, when the couple were sharemilking in both the North and South Islands, but both remain passionate - and deeply involved - in the industry.

They own a large-scale dairy property in the Maniototo, near Ranfurly, which comprises three dairy sheds run as one unit, and calving 2400 cows.

As the business had grown, Mr Kirkwood realised that, with capable staff, he could withdraw from the daily, physical work. He was always available to lend a hand during busy periods, and travelled to the farm at least a couple of days a week, while his wife handled the administrative work.

But if you had asked him 20 years ago what his goal was, it would probably have been milking 1000 cows, which was why it was important not to be fixated on goals, Mrs Kirkwood said.

''It changes and evolves as you go along. You've got to let your goals change ...not be fixed on them,'' she said.

Born in Whangarei, Mr Kirkwood came from a dairy farming background, although the family lived off-farm on a run-off property and his parents were involved in commercial and industrial properties.

That probably whetted his appetite to be more commercially involved in farming, rather than hands-on, he said.

He started his sharemilking career with 160 cows several years before meeting his future wife, a nurse, and the couple continued sharemilking in the North Island before moving to North Otago in 2002.

Attending a large herds conference in Christchurch the previous year was a ''turning point'' as dairying in the South seemed more viable with irrigated pasture, easy cow production and stable cash flows.

They moved to Papakaio, sharemilking for Pat and Anthea Finlay, and grew the business ''pretty quickly'', increasing both production and cow numbers.

What they learned at Papakaio, concerning pasture management and performance, they then tried to replicate in the Maniototo.

Originally, they bought that property in a partnership but, after three years, bought out the partners. They had concentrated on better pasture management and increased production. They had done a lot of regrassing, internal infrastructure and some irrigation development.

When Mr Kirkwood was asked to undertake some Fonterra governance training, he admitted he ''walked into something'' he knew very little about. He found out a bit about himself, skills he did and did not have and he was interested in the fact he could make a difference in the industry, using the skills he did possess.

Late last year, he was elected to the Fonterra Shareholders' Council, representing Ward 32, or Southern Canterbury, which also included parts of East and Central Otago.

The council is an elected national body of farmer shareholders, representing their views. The council reports on its views of the company's direction, performance and operations and, each season, reviews the board's statement of intentions. It meets regularly with both board and management and consults farmers.

Mr Kirkwood said standing for the council seemed to be a natural progression and he looked forward to gaining greater insight into Fonterra.

It was a company that was ''forever evolving'' and that was something that he loved. There were always big issues; the likes of Trading Among Farmers might be to the fore at the moment, but there would be ''new challenges unknown around the corner''.

He believed deregulation and environmental sustainability were among the biggest challenges the co-operative faced.

Looking after the environment was something that was very important to both Mr and Mrs Kirkwood.

''We read it a lot [but] we are responsible for leaving something that is better than when we took it over,'' Mrs Kirkwood said.

She was looking forward to getting over to the Maniototo farm more often and getting some further beautification projects under way, including plantings on some large dryland blocks.

The couple worked very much as a team - ''if you're not heading in the same direction, someone's got to change'', Mr Kirkwood said.

They simplified not only the way they operated but also the way things should be communicated and structured.

One of Mr Kirkwood's favourite sayings, which he related to staff, was ''it's not that we make good decisions, it's that the decisions you make, you make work''.