A chance visit to the West Coast led to a change of direction for a young couple. By Anne Hardie.

Luke Burns used to carve up carcases in the meat works, but a change in career to dairying means he is now looking after live animals and feeling pretty attached to some of his charges. Likewise, his partner, Ra Wilson, spent her working days cleaning up the offal from bobby calves in the meat works and now she is rearing calves.

At 34 and 35 respectively, the couple are late starters in their new-found careers and would have moved sooner but as city dwellers without any farming contacts, didn’t know how to go about it. Ra had looked at dairy courses, but they needed NCEA credits which she didn’t have and they didn’t know a soul in the industry.

Living in Lower Hutt, Luke used to spend up to two hours a day commuting to work on his motorbike to spend the day carving up sheep and beef for the company’s retail outlets and orders.

“It felt like we weren’t getting anywhere,” he says.” Just a different week, but same stuff.”

A visit to the West Coast and the first time they had ever been in the South Island convinced them to take the plunge and move their family south.

Luke took on a job at Silver Fern Farms’ Hokitika site, boning out beasts including venison and bobbies. It was a good job, but he says it is hard work standing on a platform all day, doing the same repetitive job and at 33 it was beginning to take a toll on his body.

Through the bobby calf season, shifts ran from 2.30pm until after midnight to tie in with the trucks delivering the animals and he wasn’t seeing much of his kids. The couple have four children between them – Pare, 15, Awatere, 14, Harmony, 10, and Taliah, 8. He was losing valuable time with them that he wouldn’t get back.

By chance, they were offered a farm cottage to rent, but only if Luke worked on the farm as well. It was the best news.

“I wanted to get into farming and that’s where it started. I hadn’t worked outside for more than 10 years and it was a wicked summer – one of the best summers they had had in the area.”

Compared to the inside of an abattoir, he now has the rugged peaks of the Southern Alps to gaze upon and far more lively animals for company.

“I work with the animals every day and each cow has its own characteristics. People think they are just a dumb cow but imagine what she is thinking about us. I became a bit attached to one cow last year – her name was Princess – and when she left on the truck to go to another farm down south, I said: “you don’t need me here mate. So many changes in a year for a cow.”

The job began in December because his employers, Christopher and Siobhan O’Malley had backpackers helping on the farm through spring and when they left, they needed to find another staff member. It was perfect timing to learn about dairying because they were past the bedlam of spring and Luke could get a few months experience under his belt before he tackled calving.

When the O’Malleys took him along to the regional Dairy Industry Awards on the Coast to open his eyes to the industry’s opportunities, he came away buzzing.

“They wanted to inspire me and it did. You want to get there – that’s where you want to be. I couldn’t have asked for a better boss and I’ve been told that by many people.”

When the O’Malleys moved on to their own farm, they recommended him to the farm owners next door and he is now part of a team on a 454-cow farm where he plans to continue his dairying education with his new teachers, Gus and Justine Baird.

“Gus is willing to take the time to teach someone who is willing to put in the effort. I keep telling myself that every day is a school day. Good teachers have made it easier for me – if you show you are interested in learning, they will keep teaching you. You can’t go wrong with simple instructions.”

Ra will help rear calves on the farm this year as well as another farm down the road, following a calf-rearing workshop to show her the ropes. Last season she helped Luke at milking and wants to learn more. It was also the first time the couple had ever worked together.

“I kept saying ‘you have to tell me what to do!’,” she says. “Hopefully one day we can both be on the same farm together.” “There’s so many opportunities with dairying,” Luke says. “That’s the crazy thing about it – there’s always opportunities to grow and it gives you something to look forward to.”

They keenly watch the Farm 4 Life Hub’s online videos to learn as much as they can about dairying, then do the quizzes at the end of each video to test their knowledge. Even though they are newbies to the industry, their goal is to work toward sharemilking contracts and they would like to think farm ownership is a possibility down the track. Witnessing the O’Malleys realise that dream has showed them it can happen.

“I think it’s quite a big goal for quite a few people and I think it’s a possibility. You have to be willing to put in the hard yards to get there. And it helps to be working for inspirational people.”

Apart from work satisfaction, he now has time for family and sees them through the day when they are home.

“It’s just a great lifestyle. You are only two minutes from work so you can go home for lunch and you get to spend more time with family.”