Coast to Coast Business

July 2024

Women navigate the changing face of the dairy sector.

Sue Skelton is a passionate dairy farmer. She loves the cows and the land she and her family farm near Whangarei. She farms alongside husband Peter in Northland’s Waiotira district to the southwest of Whangarei. They own two farms milking 220 cows on the home farm, while one of their sons, Bradley and his wife Jessica, contract milk 300 cows on the second farm and manage a support block.   


Sue’s also an avid learner and currently is co-founder and leader of Northland’s Coast to Coast Business Group. It’s one of a growing number of such groups being set up nationwide by the Dairy Women’s Network to equip dairy women to navigate the changing face of the dairy sector so they can successfully and sustainably farm into the future.  


A member of the Dairy Women’s Network (DWN) for more than a decade, Sue has held several roles in the nationwide organisation. For six years she was DWN’s regional leader in Northland and took on the hub leadership role just as the country was locking down in the face of Covid.  


Sue has now stepped aside from this position to focus her energies on further developing the Coast-to-Coast Business Group she helped to begin, among other on and off farm activities that include running a family-owned holiday rental at One Tree Point, a popular location on Whangarei Harbour. 


Attributing her self-belief in stepping up to the leadership roles to her previous experience on the board of trustees for Tauraroa Area School, which their four sons attended. She says: “I really enjoy working in a team setting, solving problems collaboratively and encouraging others, so moving into these roles was a natural progression for me”. 


Sue loves how dairy women ‘just get each other’ and encourages anyone wanting to know more about joining a business group, or how to set up one, to get in touch with DWN. 


Currently, the Coast-to-Coast group has eight core members. All, like Sue, are hands-on dairy farmers who range in age and stages of their farming careers. “We meet 10 times a year, avoiding January and August, the busy months on the farm for most of us – and we’ve recently held our first summit when all the groups got together in Auckland,” she says.  


DWN has designed the business group setup to be collaborative and agile, rather than being about processes, with the focus on skills and knowledge that make a difference. 


“Each group around the country prioritises the needs and interests of its members,” Sue says. “As have some of the other groups, Coast-to-Coast has grown into a supportive network of like-minded women. As well as our meetings, we’re very engaged with our surrounding communities and frequently in touch with each other to catch up, talk through challenges we might need help with and bounce around ideas. We’re a group of dairy farming women who have each other’s back.” 


Vicky Booth, who farms with husband Andrew at Titoki to the west of Whangarei, is a Coast-to-Coast member. The couple has won a slew of awards for farming environmentally while also running a profitable farming business.  


For Vicky personally the power of being part of the business group is making connections with other women in the dairy industry. “It’s about having a forum to bounce ideas around, to ask questions that are relevant to the aspects of the farming business that we deal with and acknowledging, while strengthening, the value of the skills and knowledge that we, as women, bring to our businesses,” she says. 


Like their fellow members, both women are actively involved in the likes of pest management on their farms, preserving natural areas of native bush and planting native species, both along bush margins and along waterways.  


Their planting effort is ongoing, starting with sourcing seed locally, raising seedlings and then getting them into the ground, often reaching out to their surrounding communities for help, including local schools where pupils, teachers and often parents get their hands dirty while they dig and plant – and get to see a typical dairy farm in action.  


Under the business group umbrella, DWN has launched the dedicated Farming for the Future Leadership Programme, an opportunity Sue and other members are grasping with both hands.  The far-reaching programme’s leader is Karen Bain, who is located in DWN’s head office in Hamilton and spends a fair bit of her time out on the road meeting with the various business groups helping them to access relevant resources as well as advising on guest speakers/presenters for their meetings.  


The Farming for the Future Programme’s aim is for dairy women to grow, adapt and change out of positivity, not because they are being driven by fear; equipping them to confidently build the skills, knowledge, experience and the networks to allow them to better manage current and future challenges so they can be successful, no matter how the dairy sector changes.  


Among the key learnings offered are how to develop and manage a strategic business, navigate change, build and retain effective teams, identify new opportunities to provide additional revenue streams, and increase engagement with important audiences including regulators and consumers. 


A crucial part of the programme is an online knowledge hub, effectively a one-stop shop for participants to share information, learnings and insights, as well as connect with other rural networks – and their surrounding communities.   


To help ensure the major challenges were accurately understood and the programme could therefore be certain of delivering meaningful outcomes, DWN completed a needs analysis to identify issues facing the dairy farming sector and what would be required to deal with those issues.     


The results were not surprising for anyone associated with farming, with key concerns being around regulation and compliance, attracting and retaining employees, rising costs, public perception and the desire to do the right thing by the environment, people and animals. 


With the CliftonStrengths® (a trait-based psychometric assessment) tool embedded in the programme, participants have access to individual coaching as well as tailored development plans that include goals, action steps, a measurable definition of success, resources required and timeframes. 


“This enables each of us to have a greater understanding of how our top strengths can be utilised in our roles and in how we communicate with our teams, family and community,” says Sue. 


DWN’s Farming for the Future Leadership Programme is funded by the Ministry of Primary Industries.    


For further information