Lindy Nel­son on why she be­came the fe­male farm­ers’ cham­pion

De­spite it be­ing one of New Zealand’s big­gest in­dus­tries, women are still woe­fully un­der-rep­re­sented in agri­cul­ture. But former Woman of the Year win­ner Lindy Nel­son, who won the Busi­ness and In­no­va­tion prize in 2013, is do­ing her damnedest to change that

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The first time I ever saw Lindy Nel­son in per­son she was strid­ing around a stage wear­ing killer heels, a glossy blue out­fit, big hair and wield­ing a mic as if she was born to it. She was funny, never short of a quip or lost for words – even when she got some­one’s name wrong – and hugely en­er­getic. She marched up and down that podium, at the re­cent World Women 17 con­fer­ence in Auck­land, the en­tire week­end, in­tro­duc­ing, sum­ming up, cheer­ing on the room­ful of women. She changed out­fits fre­quently, ev­ery trans­for­ma­tion an­other take on cor­po­rate glam, and she was un­fail­ingly up­beat. Lindy was the def­i­ni­tion of au­then­tic. Lindy made state­ments and then nod­ded to en­sure we agreed. “Isn’t that right, ladies?” she would ask, nod­ding, star­ing us down, grin­ning. Yes Lindy, we nod­ded back. What­ever you say Lindy. She looked like she meant busi­ness, in ev­ery sense of the word. But her first words to the crowd were a clue as to where her heart lay. “Hello ladies,” she boomed, “have you eaten to­day?” Yes Lindy. Trade­mark nod. “Thank a farmer.”

Lindy’s the first to ad­mit she wasn’t al­ways so con­fi­dent. In fact, she cred­its her 2013 NEXT Woman of the Year win, in the Busi­ness and In­no­va­tion cat­e­gory, for giv­ing her the boost she needed to take her mes­sage to a wider au­di­ence. Her first thought when a col­league sug­gested en­ter­ing her into the awards was ‘Why would an ur­ban mag­a­zine be in­ter­ested in me?’ But win she did and she’s never looked back. “Win­ning gave me an aw­ful lot of con­fi­dence. Sud­denly peo­ple were ask­ing me to speak. It gave me a plat­form to talk about my story and my be­lief in women to trans­form our food pro­duc­tion story and to en­gage with women not in the farm­ing sec­tor. That NEXT win was an af­fir­ma­tion that what I was do­ing had value. It meant a lot com­ing from a women’s mag­a­zine.”

She’s mar­ried to a beef and sheep farmer and lives on an 860 hectare farm in Eke­tahuna, but Lindy has never been your typ­i­cal coun­try girl. “I don’t own a Swan­ndri and I can’t re­mem­ber when I last wore gum­boots,” she laughs. This isn’t a sen­tence you’d ex­pect some­one who in 2015 was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit, for ser­vice to agri­cul­ture and women, would ut­ter. But that’s what makes Lindy such a fas­ci­nat­ing fig­ure in the farm­ing world.


When she first met her hus­band, David, the former Welling­ton nurse had dreams of mar­ry­ing, set­tling on his farm, rais­ing chil­dren and liv­ing hap­pily ever after. David had dif­fer­ent ideas. “Six weeks after we mar­ried, he sat me down and said, ‘There’s only room for one farmer in this op­er­a­tion and it’s me’,” she said. “Af­ter­wards I walked up the hill and bawled my eyes out. It was very brave of him though. He could see his ex­tremely ex­tro­verted, strate­gic-think­ing wife wasn’t the right fit for a farm­ing life.”

In­stead she threw her­self back into her former ca­reer and worked as a Plun­ket nurse, al­ter­nat­ing be­tween part-time and full-time while their three kids were young. Plun­ket gave her an in­stant en­try into women’s lives. Then, as she got in­volved in com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tions, she found her­self ask­ing why so few women were rep­re­sented in the in­dus­try. “I could


see the dif­fi­cul­ties and com­plex­i­ties of their lives. They’d say things like ‘I’m just a farmer’s wife’. There were no women on any boards in the agribusi­ness sec­tor. I knew the women had skills but I also re­alised they needed dif­fer­ent skills to take on big­ger roles. The women were frus­trated and wanted to con­trib­ute more. I looked at what was out there to pro­mote lead­er­ship and gov­er­nance skills for women, but there was noth­ing that would change women’s lives.”

Once she iden­ti­fied the prob­lem, Lindy set about find­ing out what was re­quired. With the sup­port of the Kel­logg’s Ru­ral Lead­er­ship Pro­gramme, she embarked on a project look­ing at what women needed to rise in agri­cul­ture. When the year-long course ended, Lindy kept go­ing, fund­ing the re­search her­self. She ended up do­ing a three-year project, ‘Un­lock­ing Po­ten­tial in Ru­ral Women’. Dur­ing that time she in­ter­viewed 50 women – some of who had suc­cess­fully tran­si­tioned into lead­er­ship roles – and ran fo­cus groups with women who hadn’t but wanted to. Lindy found the main bar­ri­ers were ed­u­ca­tion and sup­port.

“It was never my in­ten­tion to cre­ate an or­gan­i­sa­tion. I thought I’d do the re­search and give it to some­one else to do that. But I soon re­alised if I wanted to see change, I would have to do it my­self.”

To­gether with fel­low farm­ers Jane White, Sue Yerex and Mavis Mullins (well-known Ma¯ori busi­ness­woman; former pres­i­dent of Golden Shears; and chair­woman of Taratahi Agri­cul­tural Train­ing Cen­tre), she founded the Agri-Women’s De­vel­op­ment Trust (AWDT), of which Mavis is now the pa­tron. Fund­ing was neg­li­gi­ble but their en­thu­si­asm was vast. For the first three years, Lindy worked seven days a week without pay­ment. Dur­ing that time her fam­ily weath­ered drought and the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis, but she re­mained com­mit­ted to her work.


The first course the AWDT of­fered was Es­ca­la­tor, a year-long gov­er­nance and lead­er­ship pro­gramme for ru­ral women, in 2010. From the get-go the course was over­sub­scribed. It still is.

“I can still re­mem­ber the first ap­pli­ca­tion for the course. It came on the fax. I read it and burst into tears. That woman fit­ted our pro­file per­fectly. Her name is Dawn Sang­ster and she now sits on the board of one of the big­gest agribusi­nesses in the coun­try, the Al­liance com­pany. She’d had a ca­reer as an ac­coun­tant, here and over­seas, be­fore mar­ry­ing a farmer.”

That course was joined by Un­der­stand­ing Your Farm Busi­ness, of­fer­ing three days of work­shops de­liv­ered by in­dus­try ex­perts over four months and First Steps, a two-day course fol­lowed by monthly meet-ups. To­day more than 2000 women have gone through an AWDT course and the or­gan­i­sa­tion con­tracts over 40 fa­cil­i­ta­tors around the coun­try, half of whom are AWDT grad­u­ates. They also em­ploy a core team of eight – all women, of course.

“Our great­est as­set is hu­man cap­i­tal; 50% of that cap­i­tal is women. Women han­dle chal­lenges dif­fer­ently from men and we need the way they think and be­have to sup­port the sec­tor’s chal­lenges. Orig­i­nally peo­ple thought what we were do­ing was a nice women’s thing, but now the sec­tor is sit­ting up and tak­ing no­tice; from bankers to ac­coun­tants to our in­dus­try bod­ies, [they] can see women’s in­volve­ment has led to the most phe­nom­e­nal trans­for­ma­tion in the agri­cul­ture sec­tor.”


Lindy has also built part­ner­ships and spon­sor­ships with DairyNZ, Beef + Lamb NZ, Ag­mardt, FMG and ANZ Bank. But this year the or­gan­i­sa­tion re­ceived a huge boost when it was awarded a gov­ern­ment grant of al­most $300,000 in the lat­est Sus­tain­able Farm­ing Fund round. The grant re­quires the AWDT to de­sign and de­liver two-year pi­lot pro­grammes around the coun­try, start­ing in July. The pi­lots will fo­cus on three key groups – Ma¯ori women in re­gional


‘Our great­est as­set is hu­man cap­i­tal; 50% of that cap­i­tal is women’

com­mu­ni­ties; young women en­ter­ing agri-sec­tor ca­reers; and women with ca­reers out­side agri­cul­ture whose ex­per­tise can be used within the sec­tor – and will be de­liv­ered in key eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment re­gions in­clud­ing North­land, Bay of Plenty, West Coast, Hawke’s Bay and Manawatu/Whanganui.

“All I’ve ever wanted to do is flip the script on how women see them­selves and how agri­cul­ture sees women. With this grant I want to take that to the next level. Women can change the way we pro­duce food for the world. I be­lieve in 15 years’ time peo­ple will look at New Zealand and see that eco­nom­i­cally and en­vi­ron­men­tally we’re pro­duc­ing qual­ity prod­uct. A lot of my grad­u­ates are in­volved in wa­ter, or­gan­ics and the en­vi­ron­ment. These women are do­ing things dif­fer­ently.”


Lindy is a pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cate for farm­ing and wants noth­ing more than to change town­ies’ per­cep­tions of ‘dirty’ dairy­ing as well as im­prov­ing some of dairy­ing’s own prac­tices. She trav­els the coun­try spread­ing the word and when she’s not talk­ing farm­ing, she’s writ­ing about it in a col­umn for the Farm­ers

Weekly and in her blog on the AWDT Face­book page. I wasn’t sur­prised to learn she’s never been ner­vous be­fore a speech. “I just think here’s 500 peo­ple who need to know what I know about food.”

The grant will ease some of the pres­sure Lindy has been un­der, though suc­cess has brought new, al­beit, ex­cit­ing chal­lenges.

“In the early days my big strug­gle was fi­nan­cial but I was al­ways fo­cused on cul­ture. We were go­ing to de­liver three val­ues – stand­ing shoul­der-to-shoul­der, keep­ing it real, and meet­ing peo­ple’s needs. If a pro­posal didn’t meet those three things, we didn’t do it.

“Peo­ple had to feel it when they came to us. That cul­ture has con­tin­ued with the em­ploy­ees that have come to us. Most CEOs bat­tle to get that into an or­gan­i­sa­tion. I’m the op­po­site. Some­times I’ve had to put a lid on their en­thu­si­asm; there are so many women who want to cre­ate amaz­ing change.”

Not just women though. “The suc­cess of our work has cre­ated men who cham­pion what we do and [who have] given us huge cred­i­bil­ity in the sec­tor.”

None more so than her hus­band. “Thanks to his in­sight into my tal­ents, I’ve been able to stim­u­late huge changes in the sec­tor. I’m still farm­ing, not op­er­a­tionally, but in a strate­gic way.”

Her work has also had a big im­pact on her own chil­dren, all in their mid-20s. Lindy’s daugh­ter Louise was in the air force when she did First Steps – the two-day AWDT course – and re­alised she longed to con­nect to her ru­ral val­ues and roots, so her and her hus­band ended up leav­ing the air force and mov­ing back to the fam­ily farm. The course helped Louise to fo­cus in on what she wanted, which is a com­mon theme for all of the AWDT women, Lindy says.

“What we do is help women find their pur­pose. This work has strength­ened my why. Once you know your why, you’ll work out how to get there.”

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