Ahuwhenua Trophy Young Maori Farmer

April 2017

In 2012, Tangaroa Walker became the inaugural winner of the Young Māori Farmer Award in the Ahuwhenua Trophy - BNZ Māori Excellence in Farming Awards. At the time, he was keen to get ahead in the dairy industry and had the goal of owning his own farm

In 2012, Tangaroa Walker became the inaugural winner of the Young Māori Farmer Award in the Ahuwhenua Trophy  - BNZ Māori Excellence in Farming Awards.  At the time, he was keen to get ahead in the dairy industry and had the goal of owning his own farm.  However, he says winning the award was life changing for him.  His main goal now is to let young Māori know about opportunities in agriculture.  He currently combines contract milking for MyFarm (a farming syndication and management company) with running a gym with partner Courtney Heke-McColgan. 

After spending his first five years in six houses and attending four schools, Tangaroa was adopted by a couple he calls aunt and uncle and raised on their small farm at Whakamarama near Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty. 

As a 12 or 13-year-old he took his first step towards a farming career, asking the farmer who marked out his school’s athletic field whether he had any jobs going.  Over the years Ian Jeffrey became a mentor to Tangaroa, guiding him from mowing lawns and cleaning out the dairy shed sump to mowing paddocks and helping milk cows. 

As a student at Tauranga Boys’ College, Tangaroa wanted to be either an architect, auto-electrician or work in dairy-farming.  A school career adviser suggested he explore the options by ringing people working in these industries and dairy farming came up tops because it offered the best income. 

“I was naively driven by the goal of owning a farm, having a house, and kids with their own motorbikes.”

 Tangaroa then entered the Primary ITO Gateway programme, combining classroom learning with practical experience on farms.  He stayed at school long enough to finish the season with the school’s First XV and attend the year 13 ball. 

Ian Jeffrey employed Tangaroa for a year on a modern apprenticeship then advised him  that to forge a career in dairying he should move to Southland.  It was 2009 and with massive dairy expansion and big herds, his chances of climbing the rungs towards farm management and ownership were much better than in Tauranga where the average herd had 220 cows. 

After calving and with a job as 2IC to 50/50 sharemilkers arranged, 18-year-old Tangaroa climbed into his ute’ with a dog and two cats and headed to Southland. 

Coming from a 300-cow farm with three workers to a 470-cow operation employing just two, Tangaroa says he learned a lot about farming efficiently. 

A huge influence on him was being selected to attend AgITO’s Farming to Succeed, a five-day programme of workshops, farm visits and discussion groups for future New Zealand farming leaders that introduced a business perspective. 

In 2012 Tangaroa Walker became the first person to take home the Ahuwhenua Trophy as winner of the BNZ Māori Excellence in Farming Award. He was 22-years-old and a lower order sharemilker in Southland.  He’d thought that winning would speed his progress up the dairy-farming ladder, towards goals including owning farms and holiday homes in Southland and the Bay of Plenty. 

Tangoroa impressed the judges not only with achievements but also his cocky attitude.  A light-hearted comment in the interview that he wanted to become the world’s most successful Māori has come back to haunt him, as winning the Award brought about a dramatic change in his values and ambitions.  “I really felt the weight of the award,” says Tangaroa. “Helping others is now my biggest kick.” 

Wearing the cloak of a young Māori leader shifted his focus from furthering personal ambitions to on helping others ahead and valuing happiness ahead of wealth. In the last four years he has travelled New Zealand talking to young Māori about career paths in the dairy industry and is enjoying life with his partner Courtney Heke-McColgan. 

Today Tangaroa is contract milking for MyFarm’s Mirakanui Dairy Ltd partnership at Woodbank, 20 minutes from Invercargill.  The Feilding-based farm syndication and management company has a portfolio of about 35 dairy farms as well as sheep and beef properties, kiwifruit orchards and a vineyard. It organises contract staff, oversees health and safety and oversees budgeting and accounts. 

Like all MyFarm enterprises, the 500-cow Mirakanui property is a stand-alone business with its own shareholders. 

Tangaroa enjoys working with the company, saying he has learned a lot from the focused profit-driven approach with clear goal-setting, management strategies and monitoring and reporting of production.  He is eligible for bonuses if key performance indicators (KPIs) are met including meeting mating and cow condition targets, in-calf rates, calf weaning rates and submitting monthly and annual reports on time. 

Sustainability is a priority for MyFarm which uses sophisticated tools to ensure compliance with Environment Southland consent conditions and rules.  

Sensors collects information including effluent pond levels, soil temperature, rainfall and soil moisture and text results back to Tangaroa.  He can then make informed decisions such as whether or not to apply effluent to a particular paddock on a particular day.

 A daily email of water usage statistics means anything unusual like a leaking trough or cows drinking a lot is quickly detected. If a hose blows off a sprinkler or a line splits, the effluent pump is automatically switched off.

Soils are tested every year so nutrient applications are targeted and not wasted as polluting runoff.  A drone is flown to check cows’ progress to the milking shed.  If anything unexpected happens like a hose blowing off an effluent irrigator, it’s instantly shut off. 

Tangaroa can see long-term opportunities with MyFarm, including taking on management or perhaps ownership of one of their properties.  For now he’s happy as a contract milker, employing two staff to maintain work-life balance.  While staff have three days off per fortnight, he is flexible about hours so long as work gets done.  While he is out of bed at 4.15am and not home until 5.30pm, having a good team gives everyone the freedom to take time out for something special like a day’s diving. 

On top of contract milking, Tangaroa runs an on-farm gym with his partner, Olympic weightlifter Courtney Heke-McColgan, who keeps farm accounts and raises calves while working part-time as an advisor with Craigs Investment Partners.  The Barracks now has 83 members who are also friends. 

Tangaroa is also passionate about rugby, captaining the Invercargill Marist team this year and making the 2016 New Zealand Marist team. 

Next steps for this member of the Ranginui iwi will be discovering more about his Māori identity including studying te reo, In 10 years, he would like to be sharemilking and he says, not necessarily on a big farm.