Women in ag: Karen Bennett

By: Shannon Williams


2020 is proving to have some ups and down for Southland dairy farmers Karen and Sam Bennett, with COVID-19 just one of the curve balls thrown their way

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Both Sam and Karen grew up on farms and want the same kind of lifestyle for their own children

In true rural-life form, the support and resilience of the dairy farming community has come to the fore. This, along with their passion for innovation and technology and love for their animals, means they are still very much focused on achieving their goals.

The couple, who won the 2020 Share Farmer of the Year award for Southland-Otago at the Dairy Industry Awards, says the ever-changing landscape of dairy farming is what makes the sector so appealing, even after the devastating February floods and now the COVID-19 virus.

Karen has been farming her entire life, with her parents owning a dairy farm on the West Coast. She moved to Southland nine years ago, meeting Sam in 2014. She trained and worked as an A.I technician while studying towards a science degree, majoring in animal science.

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Sam and Karen are proud to be a part of the Southland dairy community

Karen has been the Southland area Fertilizer New Zealand representative for the past nine years. Coming from a sheep and beef background, Sam completed a building apprenticeship after leaving school. He then spent some time travelling overseas, country jumping and shearing his around the world.

Upon returning to New Zealand, he decided to go into dairy farming, working for a few farmers, and learning as much as he could. Now the couple contract milk more than 600 cows on Andrew and Jenny Calder’s 223-hectare farm in Wyndham.

"We both grew up on farms and loved our childhoods – the freedom and the learning experience. That is what we want for our own kids, the same kind of opportunities that we had. We love dairy farming because we both have a huge passion for the cows and for the animals," Karen says.

She says the opportunities for progression in dairy farming is also something that attracted them to the sector. "You can work your way up to the top. You can buy land if that’s what you want. The industry is always changing. The farm where I am is a fully automated dairy farm; the technology we use is incredible. Technology in dairy farming is only going to get better and better, and it’s exciting to see that progress."

Community rallies

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The Southland community came together to help following horrific looding in February 

Sam says they are lucky to be a part of the Southland farming community.

"The community is resilient; people come together when things get tough. We flooded in February quite badly, and the community rallied around us. We had the Farmy Army working across the farm, helping us tidy up; they were amazing. It was challenging, and we had never experienced flooding like that. We had 100 hectares go under water, so it was tough," he says.

The Federated Farmers-led group had more than 100 volunteers working across Southland farms who were impacted by the flooding from Matarua River at the beginning of February. By 10 February, the group had helped 26 farms in Southland and two in Otago.

"It’s definitely something we will be giving back to when we’re needed. We were extremely lucky," Sam says.

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The Southland climate makes for reliable farming weather

Karen adds, "We’ve got a lot of good friends close by. It’s cool to have farm discussion groups, and it’s is a tight-knit community like most other farming communities.

"And Southland is lovely. It’s cold but you get used to it. I’m from the West Coast where there’s a lot of rain. Southland has a pretty reliable climate. It grows grass; it’s reliable for farming, which makes it a bit easier."

Winning the big one

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Sam and Karen were named Share Farmer of the Year at the 2020 Dairy Industry Awards

Taking out the 2020 Southland-Otago Dairy Industry Awards Share Farmer of the Year award came as a shock for the first-time entrants but Karen and Sam say it ultimately was acknowledgement for the hard yards they and their team had put in over the years. They were announced winners via video link on the organisation’s Facebook page.

"We were obviously thrilled; it was awesome."

"This year was different because of the COVID-19 outbreak. The dinner was cancelled, so it was just Sam and I sitting at home watching the live stream of the announcements. We hosted a watch party with our friends, just to make it more fun. So it was certainly different," Karen says.

They won $10,850 in prizes plus two merit awards. Runners-up in the Southland-Otago category went to Cameron and Cassandra Spencer. Karen says the award was great recognition for the hard work both her and Sam had put into their farming.

"The whole process provided great networking. We met many different representatives, both national and regional sponsors, so it was great to get to know them, and it was cool to meet the other entrants as well."

Looking ahead

From here, Sam says they will keep working towards hitting their goals and targets and continuing with their plans to hit 50/50 share milking in the next three to four years.
The current COVID-19 crisis has meant they have had to make a few adjustments to make sure everyone is staying in their bubbles, but it’s pretty much business as usual.

"The season is actually turning out quite good. We’ve had really good weather; we’ll carry on milking to the end of the season," says Sam. "It’s a bit tricky to get the cull cows away because of everything that’s going on, but we do have plans in place so we should get through fine."     

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