The woman leading the success of Central Districts Field Days is undoubtedly Cheryl Riddell.
The farm is 650-690m above sea level, so low temperatures are the order of the day in winter when there is little grass growth and supplements are fed to stock.
Dana Blackburn has handed over management of the farm to his son Hamish and by his own admission is now the farm worker. While Blackburn and his family successfully manage the property, it’s his role with the Atihau-Whanganui Maori Incorporation that has been a huge success story for this quiet, intelligent and smart farmer.
Atihau-Whanganui is a huge operation: seven sheep and beef units and one dairy farm. The farms run some 104,589 sheep stock units, 90,000 of which are breeding ewes. They also run 4500 beef cows and 750 dairy cows.
Today, Atihau is chaired by Mavis Mullins. The farms are in the Ohakune Raetihi area and run south to Whanganui, the location of its headquarters.
In 1994, just after Blackburn had taken over running his own family farm, he was asked to join the board of Atihau-Whanganui. His big focus was on governance and it was here that he rang the changes.
“Initially each board member had a farm to supervise. Over a two year period, I observed what happened and then told the board that this culture had to change. I said they needed to appoint one individual to be in charge of the farms, who was in turn responsible to the board, otherwise you’d get a major conflict within the board.”
The board accepted the concept and appointed Blackburn as their first operations manager, a role he held for four years before being appointed general manager to take on wider tasks and responsibilities and later chairman. It was a busy time managing the huge and developing Atihau-Whanganui Incorporation business, while at the same time keeping a watchful eye on his own property.
The hard work at Atihau-Whanganui paid off when in 2007 Pah Hill Station, one of the farms under Blackburn’s management, won the Ahuwhenua Trophy for the top Maori sheep and beef farm.
After 20 years of full time commitment to the Atihau-Whanganui Incorporation, Blackburn decided it was time to step down. He retired and now works with his son Hamish on the family farm. But his extensive knowledge of farming is now being further utilised with his role as chief judge for the Ahuwhenua Trophy’s sheep and beef award. For Blackburn the learning process continues.
“It’s amazing what you see even when you are going out judging properties. You see things you’d never thought of and sometimes what you see confirms your own views,” he told Rural News.
“My focus is in the governance area. I am assisted by three other judges – all specialists themselves. If I were to try to cover all areas as required by the judging process it would become confusing.
“My focus on governance involves asking individuals or trusts how they make their decisions, where they are going with their strategy, what’s their objective and how are they getting there. It doesn’t matter whether they are family farms or properties owned by large incorporations, as a judge you still need to figure out how the decisions are made and the rationale for these.”
Blackburn is now judging the competition for the third time and says it’s a pity more people aren’t entering the competition. It’s widely accepted that people won’t enter unless they think they have a good chance of winning, but there are other excuses as well.
“They say cost and I say success comes at a cost. You can’t get there for nothing; it’s about understanding what you can achieve rather than the cost of entering and it opens the door to new ideas. It’s worth the journey.”
Blackburn believes Ahuwhenua could be even more successful if more people entered the competition. He says sadly many Maori don’t realise how successful some of their farming operations are.