“Everyone likes progress, but no one wants change”,

Valerie Walpot, farm manager, New Zealand

Valerie Walpot grew up in the Voer region, where her love for agriculture started. Goign for a career in agriculture always was the idea. Today, Valerie works at a beef and lamb darm… in New Zealand! Women in Ag asked her to tell her story.

“As a baby, I was always among the animals and crops,” Valerie explains. “According to my parents, one of my first phrases was ‘mommy daddy strawberries’, so… I suppose my love for agriculture started very early on!” After her high school education, Valerie went to study Agro and Livestock Farming at the Higher Agricultural School in ‘s Hertogenbosch (Netherlands). There, she got an opportunity to go study abroad, and that’s where it all started.

Internship in New Zealand

“I thought, an opportunity like this only comes once in a lifetime,” Valerie laughs, musing on her choice of an internship about sheep and beef cattle nutrition at Massey University, based in Palmerston North, New Zealand. Valerie left and never really returned. She came back to Belgium briefly, only to decide to go back to the country she fell in love with.

“That internship was a great experience. The beautiful nature in New Zealand, the people, the mentality here,… I was completely sold and thought ‘maybe I will come back here for a year of work experience after my studies.’ And that’s what I did: I started working in livestock farming – dairy cattle and beef cattle – but returned to Belgium after eighteen months. It would be another two years before I decided, in 2008, to move to New Zealand for the long haul.”

Pemberley Farm

Today, Valerie works as a farm manager at Pemberley Farm, a 505 acre cattle farm with 1600 cattle and 16,000 lambs in Canterbury. The farm, which is part of a family business, specialises in the production of crops for the growth of young livestock and operates on a year-round basis. In addition to Valerie, there are three other employees working at Pemberley Farm as well as a few contractors during the busy summer period from January to April.

“Pemberley Farm is part of a bigger business. Four breeding companies in Otago raise the young stock, lambs and calves, which are then fattened on the pastures at our facility in Canterbury. Everything happens outdoors all year round. We work with Silver Fern Farms to provide high quality lamb and beef for specific markets abroad, as most of the meat is exported.”

Farming between the mountains and the ocean

The farm is located in the village of Kirwee, Selwyn County, Canterbury County, on the South Island. The city of Christchurch is 40 km away, and the international airport 25 km. “It’s a great location”, Valerie explains. “It’s remote enough from the big cities and villages to be very rural, but still close enough to have access to what those have to offer. By New Zealand standards, we’re not remote at all. The region where I work is very rural and flat, at about 150 meters above sea level, but at the same time not far from both the coast and the Southern Alps(a mountain range on the South Island – nvdr). The population density is also low, so we don’t suffer from traffic jams and the like here!”

“And that’s the great thing about this region: you’re actually close to everything! The coast, the lakes, the Alps, the city… plenty of options for fun in your free time… if you have any! (laughs)”

Canterbury, with its very dry climate, has pleasant winters and warm summers. The only downside is that farmers have to reckon with low rainfall and periods of drought. In order to deal with this, the region is intensely irrigated. The same goes for Pemberley Farm with its four centre pivots.  “That type of system is expensive”, she says.

Urban-rural divide

Valerie notices a shift in the attitude towards agriculture in New Zealand too: “Attitudes towards farmers have changed tremendously in the last five years. From what I hear from Europe, it’s not much different there. We are the so-called big polluters and animal abusers, and there are more and more restrictions to be able to farm effectively and a higher cost due to all the new laws around environment, labor, etc. It is also very difficult to find personnel for the sector: we depend very much on people from abroad, of which I am one. Due to the pandemic, we’re running out of options on that front.”

“Politics has also played a big part in what people call the ‘urban-rural divide’ here,” Valerie sighs. “Maybe that’s a subject for another article…”

Valerie’s daily schedule varies with the seasons. In spring and summer, from August to March, her days are mainly filled with working in the fields, planting the crops and monitoring their growth, the lambs and watering. From April to September, which corresponds to our idea of autumn and winter in the southern hemisphere, the focus shifts to cattle and farm maintenance.

“This is a 7 days a week job, year round, even though winters are generally a bit calmer. Summers are always incredibly busy. I usually start a weekday with a team briefing, and then I go my own way for most of the day. The weekends are more about the necessary chores, such as irrigation and grazing the cattle.”

“When I drive around the farm at the end of a day or week and find that the cattle and crops are happy and healthy, I know it’s because of the good work my team and I have done and I feel very proud. For me personally, that is what makes this profession worthwhile: the pride in my achievements,” says Valerie, who has overcome many hurdles to get where she is today.

Being a woman in rural New Zealand

“One of the biggest difficulties I had to overcome were the years of criticism,” she says. “I was everything that didn’t fit: a woman, a European and also not from a New Zealand farm.” Valerie had to start from scratch and build up a lot of knowledge and experience to get where she is today. She deliberately chose to focus on acquiring skills that her male colleagues were less interested or adept at, in order to differentiate herself from them: “so I specialised in things like detail work, math work, legislation, science… everything that is considered less ‘cool’ here in New Zealand.”

That hard work earned Valerie the recognition of industry colleagues she looked up to early in her career. “That’s kind of the beauty of it,” she explains. “Another great aspect of my job is hosting visitors: we have regular international visitors such as Asian wholesale buyers for our meat, the Turkish government and even a Belgian group of farmers. I also get to host New Zealand farming groups on a regular basis, and those are all great experiences that I won’t soon forget.”

Valerie says there are still differences in perception between men and women in our industry, although she has seen a lot of change over the past decade. However, a woman still has to prove herself much harder, is asked many questions that would never come up for her male colleagues, and unfortunately still earns less. “And when you reach the age where people expect you to have children, things get even more difficult. That’s disappointing,” she sighs.

“How I deal with this? Honestly, I’ve just grown a very thick skin over my ten years of working in this sector”, she shrugs. “You have to believe in yourself, surround yourself with people who also believe in you and want to give you a chance, and then move forward with that very consistently to achieve your goals. Then, after a few very difficult years, you can enjoy the fantastic feeling of pride at what you have achieved and laugh away all that criticism.”

Valerie firmly believes she needs to be the change. “I wish I knew how to change that mindset. It will probably evolve with the generations, although I think New Zealand is much more old-fashioned than Europe. For myself, I try to be very conscious of the women around me, especially the young ones. I would like to be a mentor for them,” she says. “As a business leader, I fortunately have an influence on staff recruitment and the culture in my own group or company.” And that culture, she says, plays a significant role in the mentality, but also in the functioning and performance of employees. To change that mentality takes time, though: “Everyone likes progress, but no one wants change”, she says, noting that there are many initiatives to provide women with more knowledge and self-confidence through training specifically for women in the sector.

With awareness for women in agriculture as a goal, Valerie regularly works with the local university or businesses and tries to be a mentor for young interns and students. She is therefore very pleased with a new initiative that will be starting soon: “Generation Change”, a workshop for young women in the sector.



This article appeared in Women in Ag Magazine 2021-03. Click here to read the full article. 

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