I met him the second night I worked on Digger’s farm. He drives up in his tray back ute, well-used mud tires and a beer in his hand.
“How ya’ goin’?” He says through his nose.
He says his name and sticks out his hand and when I go to shake it I notice he is missing half of his index finger. I expect him to be a blind drunk bogan but when we start talking around the bonfire I take note that I should never trust a first impression.
Rian is 26, divorced, splitting custody of a seven-year-old son and two-year-old daughter, which explains the mini 4-wheeler in the garage, child car seat and pink rain coat hanging on the wall. He is the owner of a 450-cow dairy farm and a 5-bedroom home with stunning views of overlapping gumdrop shaped grassy knolls. This is about a 3-minute drive to the Hobbiton movie set. Peter Jackson flew over Rian’s farm and thought, yeah, let’s make a movie here.
He’s of Dutch descent made apparent by his wild blonde hair, piercing blue eyes and thick well-kempt beard. But his accent is true kiwi. He wears the same outfit everyday. Mud stained blue overalls tucked into gumboots with a red flannel shirt barely visible underneath a wool sweater perpetually covered in what appears to be sawdust.
Digger used to work for Rian so he stops by the farm to check in whenever he goes into town. They are talking in Farmese so I’m listening but I don’t have much to contribute. He tells Digger he needs to put urea on his front paddocks.
“Why’s that?” Perfect question to ask a farmer who knows and loves his trade.
“Well,” he takes a drag from his Pall Mall held in his just-long-enough stub of an index finger. “The grass is a bit yellow and you never want that especially with the paddocks by the road. They need extra nitrogen…” He goes on and I understand a few words here and there.
Rian is every journalist’s dream. Give him a simple question about farming and he returns with a concise scientific explanation and somehow manages to sneak in life lessons. He mentions nonchalantly that most dairy farms in New Zealand aren’t going to turn a profit this year. Just last night the outlook for New Zealand milk dropped another 10 percent. Banks are foreclosing on the “sloppy farmers” who are in debt and can’t turn a profit.
As he’s leaving he tells me I’m coming to his farm this afternoon to milk cows.
“You’ve never milked a cow, right?” He asks. “OK, then you’re coming. And I’m not paying you.”
I grab my raincoat and jump in his truck. Once we start driving, I ask him to elaborate on why dairy farms aren’t going to make any money.
The last few summers have brought terrible droughts and the EU has recently decided not to sell produce and dairy to Russia, there’s similar conflict with China, and New Zealand has morals so they are sticking with Europe, meaning high supply and low demand.
“Don’t you get stressed out knowing you aren’t going to make any money this year?” I ask.
“It’s like the weather,” he says as we drive through a patch of rain and fog.
Sometimes it rains, sometimes it’s sunny. There’s no use in stressing about it.”
He explains how farmers are used to this routine. You live most of your life poor and in debt but you die rich. You pass on your land, wealth and assets to your children.
“If you buy 100 hectares and just sit on it for 50 years, you will make money. Milking is just a way to pay the mortgage, pay my staff, pay for maintenance. It’s about a 5% profit margin.”
Farmers make money other ways. Buying and selling stock is where most of Rian’s cash flow comes from. He has a reliable worker, Chad, living on the house on the farm and a young jumped up worker, Jack (“He thinks he is God’s gift to farming”), living with him at his house next door. With good staff, he has a lot of freedom to plan his day how he wants.
“All I have to do everyday is feed my animals and milk my cows,” Rian says. “Beyond that, I can do whatever I want.”
He says you have to do find ways to keep busy. He constantly makes improvements on his land to increase the value. He points to his shed. It costs him about $25,000 to build it and install electricity, lighting. Down the line it will be worth $30,0000.
“Some guys make 50 grand a year and have a great time but at the end of the year, they have nothing to show for it.”
For someone as young as 26, this guy really has his shit figured out. Rian is a long-term thinker. A year can bring profit or loss. It doesn’t matter. He says if you work hard everyday, everything will be fine.
I tell him on my first day on Digger’s farm I asked him, looking around at the green fields and Kaimai ranges in the distance, “Do you ever stop and realize how awesome your life is?”
“I’m living the dream,” Rian says. “When you’re a kid you play with toy tractors and trucks. That’s what I do.”