RCNZ profile: Ben Clarke

Growing up on a farm on the outskirts of London is a far cry from where Ben Clarke has chosen to settle with his family in NZ

Baling barley straw at Masons Flat on a non-nor’wester day for once

After first travelling to New Zealand in 2012, Ben was immediately taken with the change of country (and pace). These days, he’s permanently based here with his partner and young baby, embracing a different pace at Waitohi Ag and the recent challenge of stepping onto the Rural Contractors New Zealand board. 

Ben knew a different lifestyle from most of his city friends as a child. His family farm was right in the city and is now the site for Heathrow Airport’s third runway.

“Farming in a city was really different,” he says. “None of my friends knew about farming, so I had a completely different life to what they were used to.”

His mum and dad, Tim and Jane, are arable farmers, growing mostly wheat and straw and making hay for horses.

“Being in the city, there were loads of horses around us, so we would supply all the stables with their hay,” he reminisces. 

Drilling under the watchful eye of Mount Tekoa

The farm was made up of two blocks, the home block being around 110 acres and the main cropping block of 350 acres. The farm is now owned by a quarry that mined it for sand and shingle before reinstating it back into cropping land. Eventually, it will become the new runway for Heathrow Airport.

“Back in the day, there were a lot of quarries, and once they were finished with them, they would just leave them with big holes in the land or turn them into lakes,” Ben explains. “So our farm was ahead of its time in that way. It was proven that quarrying could be sustainable with the land being returned to productivity.”

At 16, Ben knew school wasn’t for him and couldn’t wait to leave.

“I had always been on the farm playing with spanners and tools, stripping engines and other stuff like that,” he says. “We were also quite close to the River Thames, so I was always down there boating and rowing, and I had my commercial boat skippers ticket.”
He followed his interest and did his apprenticeship to become a marine engineer. In 2012, Ben jumped at the chance to travel to New Zealand and work as a skilled machinery operator.

Chopping silage for on-farm beef cattle

“My grandparents had been to New Zealand and spoke highly of their time, and mostly, I didn’t want to be at home for another English winter,” he laughs.

He went to work at Gavin’s in the Waikato for a summer contract and ended up staying for extra few months. He returned home briefly to sort out his visa, and then he was back working for Gavin.

“I never came here intending to stay, but I enjoyed the job plus the work/life balance and the people in New Zealand. It’s much better here than in the UK, where you’re busy with no time for life,” he reflects.

“There are also so many rules and regulations over there and fewer opportunities. Those were my main motivations for making a permanent shift here.

“Working at Gavin’s when I first came over allowed me to drive machinery that I had never driven before and also learn new skills and experience different things. The workshop facilities are awesome, and I learnt a lot.”

The move down south

In 2015, after a good stint at Gavin’s, Ben decided he was ready for a new challenge that saw him move to Jackson Holmes in Ashburton.

“My main interest was still the arable side of things, so Canterbury was really appealing to me,” he explains. “I wanted to do more than just driving, and I was looking for some responsibility and progression in the company.”


Ben moved to Waitohi Ag six years ago to take on the operations manager role and became a shareholder in the business in 2019.

“It has been excellent to get back into a smaller business that isn’t corporate,” he says.

“Work is hectic, but it’s a quieter lifestyle. Ninety-five percent of the work we do is for sheep and beef farmers. They are really traditional and very loyal, and it’s great to deal with the farmers directly. Often, we will sit down at the end of the day and have a chat and a beer. It’s really cool.” 

Waitohi Ag is a unique business in that it was founded in 1975 as a machinery syndicate by six local farmers. Originally it was called the Waitohi Partnership, and the group’s primary function was to accommodate the members’ growing, cultivation, drilling, and hay requirements.

Over time, the demand for work increased so much that they now work around 30% of the time for the original members, and the rest is contract work for local farmers. These days, the focus is on providing excellent service to their clients and offering full cultivation, drilling, precision planting, maize, fodder, grain harvesting, big rounds, and small squares of hay and balayage.

Mowing lucerne for silage

“It’s pretty unique that the partnership has remained strong all these years, and we employ two of the sons of the Zino family who were founding members. So, they’ll be the third generation of that family involved with the business,” Ben explains.

They cover from Amberley up to Culverden and work across various farms. Primarily sheep and beef, some on smaller blocks and some of the hill farms can be over 1000 hectares.

“The hills mix things up a bit. The changing soil types can be a challenge for us. It can range from riverbed stone to heavy clay and tussock; no farm is the same, so you have to have different ways of doing things and be flexible.” 

Another challenge Ben notices at Waitohi Ag is keeping costs down and being super-efficient wherever they can.

“Most of our clients are traditional sheep and beef guys, so there’s a lot of pressure to keep costs down and provide bang for buck. We must be as efficient as we can, thinking outside the square and doing more by doing less in many ways.”


Like every contractor, the weather is a significant challenge also for Ben.

“We experience major pinch points in the season, especially when the nor’wester starts blowing and causing havoc. Being predominantly dry land, the nor’wester can make or break a season. In the spring, the weather window is tiny to get things done. We can definitely have four seasons in a day down here.”

Being more remote adds another test for Ben and his staff.

“We don’t have mechanics 10 minutes down the road to come and help us, so we have to be self-reliant with breakdowns. My seasonal staff have come back every year, so I have been fortunate there, especially as we aren’t big enough to attract overseas workers; that can be difficult.”  

Drilling in the hills for one of the shareholder’s deer farm

While they can’t have onsite mechanics most of the time, Ben does credit a few local companies as being critical to their operation.

“I think it’s essential to support local businesses. Ace 62 Contracting, who run
all our trucks, John Appleby Engineering, and Hurunui Jet mechanics have been good to us.

“We need to support each other as much as possible, as it’s tough times in rural communities at the moment, and we all need to be working together.” 

Machinery on-site

Ben runs three John Deere tractors: a 7210, a 6175, and a 6150.

“We hire in another two tractors off our shareholders. One is a new Claas and a Case from another member.”

To complement their tractors, they run a John Deere silage chopper, a Claas Lexion header, Krone BiG Pack 1290 balers, a Krone round baler, and a Claas LB334 square baler.

“The John Deere are outstanding. Dad always ran them back home, so it’s what I am used to; I have always been around them. They are a good product, and we love the technology in them. We have the full Greenstar GPS in them, which is helpful, and there’s a lot of information we can get off it, too, like output figures.” 

Ben and the team prefer tractors with a higher spec for driver comfort.

“We tick the box on most extras when buying them. We spend too many hours in them not to be comfortable,” he explains. They also have IVT transmissions, which are beneficial for the various types of terrain they cover.

“It’s great we can make very fine adjustments to the ground speed, which greatly affects the quality of the bales we produce. It’s also more fuel-efficient on the road, and the tractor can access optimum torque and horsepower essentially running itself.”

Mark Horton at Drummond & Etheridge service the John Deere›s, Blaire Sargent at Paul Wilkins Tractors service the Krone balers, and Ross at Cochrane›s do the Case. Ben also uses local guys, John Appleby Engineering and Hurunui Jet for other jobs. He also uses Power Farming for needed parts, so it’s a whole team effort to keep the operation running smoothly. 

RCNZ board

A conversation with Steve Murray led to Ben taking a position on the Rural Contractors New Zealand board.

“I was just talking to him about their meetings, and we just got chatting, then another local guy mentioned a board position being available, too, and it planted a seed
in my head that it would be a good thing to be involved in. I didn’t go chasing it, but I
did put up my hand and say I would be
keen if they were looking and then it all went from there.

Parked up after a big day harvesting barley

“I think it’s important particularly for younger people in management or going into business; you have older and wiser heads there that you can talk to in confidence,” he explains of the value.

“You can talk figures with them that you wouldn’t perhaps talk to other contractors about. That help and support is so beneficial. For us being rural, there are not that many people to talk to about stuff, so they’re another point of contact, and you get kept
up to speed on industry information.”

Ben and his partner Danielle welcomed their first baby, Archie, in May 2022, so the couple is still adjusting to their new addition.

“Being in the quiet season is making things a lot easier at the moment, and a
huge draw for me being a business owner is the flexibility I have to spend time with my family. It will get harder throughout the season; Danielle is a stay-at-home mum,
and she’s enjoying the change from working at the moment, which is fantastic for all
of us.”      

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