Words by Sheryl Haitana, photo by Emma McCarthy

The winner of the 2021 Waikato Dairy Manager of the Year hopes his win can inspire other migrants and ordinary Kiwis working in the New Zealand dairy industry.
Christopher Gerard Vila is farm manager on the JA BE Turnwald Family Trust near Ohaupo milking 341 cows on 103ha.
Christopher grew up in the Philippines and was a newly qualified veterinarian, specialising in dogs and cats, when he visited his sister and brother-in-law who were dairy farming in NZ.
The opportunities in the industry appealed to him, so he applied for a work visa and got a job as a farm assistant.
“I thought I would try my luck, it was animal related work and I was lucky someone employed me.”
He worked on two farms as a farm assistant before he moved up to second in charge (2IC) and then got the farm manager’s position at Ohaupo, where he has stayed for the last seven seasons.
The 37-year-old is married to Jonah and they have a three year old daughter, Gillian (Lily).
This is the first year Christopher had entered the Dairy Industry Awards, after an LIC representative mentioned them to him.
“To be honest, I didn’t really know about the awards. I’m just focused on my job and staying here as a migrant.
“I thought about it, but was second guessing myself about whether I was up to it.” In the end he decided to enter to inspire his two staff, who are also from the Philippines.
“I wanted to be an example of how hard work and perseverance can get you somewhere. There is an image that you are a migrant and you don’t know anything, I wanted to change that perception.”
Hopefully by winning it will inspire other migrants and Kiwis to enter the awards, he says.
“If this guy can win it, why can’t I?”
The awards process is hard work, but you learn a lot about yourself and your farm business, he says.
“I’ve spent the last 13 years in the New Zealand dairy industry learning and accumulating knowledge.
“Entering the Awards is a great way to gauge where I am and challenge myself to take the necessary steps to further my career in the dairy industry.”

Good support

To enter the awards you need good support from your farm owner or employer, he says.
“Mark and the whole family have been so supportive. Mark gave me milkings off (to work on his entry) and did dry runs of my presentation with me.”
The relationship between Christopher and his farm owners is now one of a family, he says.
“They treat us like family now, they are all so supportive and that’s what we try and do with our staff, to adopt that culture into the workplace.”
Christopher believes there are many reasons why farming is a great career choice, however for him, it’s the fact that farming provides an exciting and engaging career for passionate professionals with no bias or discrimination to background.
“The doors of opportunity in dairy farming are open to all,” he says.
“I’d like to set an example to other migrants that one should always challenge and improve yourself and there are no limits in the dairy industry.”
Christopher says the biggest challenge he has faced and continues to overcome is the fact he is an immigrant and had to start from scratch.
“Having no monetary resource has put me at a disadvantage in terms of career progression. I depend heavily upon my abilities.
“I’ve focused on my farm and on my own craft and how I can be better.”
As a migrant, to step up in responsibility onfarm can be hard until somebody opens a door for you.
The most important thing is to build your name and trust that someone will have the guts to take a risk on you, he says.
Being the first farm manager from outside the Turnwald family is a fact Christopher is proud of, as is his success in beating almost all the farm records in terms of production, mortality, SCC and empty rate.
“I’ve also achieved Fonterra’s Gold Award for Milk Quality, which is four consecutive years of having grade-free seasons.”
Christopher says that the farm has been in the family for generations and is long established within the dairy industry and he sees it as a strength of the business.
“To me, this means the farm is a stable business and that the owners have made sure it has kept up with the times and practices in terms of breeding, technology and human resources.”
Christopher, Jonah and Lily have just become NZ citizens, which is a huge weight off Christopher’s shoulders.
“The paperwork as an employer (for his work visa) was always a worry for me. In January, February and March that’s all that was on my mind.”
Now he is a citizen he can focus more on their long term future in NZ, not just about having a visa for the next season.
They are hoping there may be an opportunity on the Turnwald farm to step into the business.
“I would love to say the goal is to own a farm, but from here it’s almost impossible.”
With a young family, Lily is the priority at the moment and they are living on one income so Jonah can spend the time bringing up Lily.
“For me, family comes first at any cost. For me, childhood only comes around once and if you miss it you can’t turn back time. But your career you can flip it around if you want to.”
Winning the Westpac Personal Planning & Financial Management Award was really a reflection of Jonah’s financial knowledge.
“My money goes straight into my bank account and straight to her – she knows best,” he says.
The couple have also invested in land back home in the Philippines, which Jonah’s parents live on.
“That’s one of our biggest investments, it’s good to have a cushion and something you can hold for the future.”

Waikato Dairy Manager Merit Awards:

I.S Dam Lining Ltd Most Promising Entrant Award – Bevan Rowe
Piako Tractors Encouragement Award – Jon Paul Jackson
BakerTilly Staples Rodway Waikato Employee Engagement Award – Aidan Drake
Blackman Spargo Rural Law Leadership Award – Christopher Gerard Vila
ADM Feed Management Award – Aidan Drake
DeLaval Livestock Management Award – Sam Guise
Fonterra Dairy Management Award – Aidan Drake
MyMilk Power Play Award – Arsh Bhardwaj
Westpac Personal Planning & Financial Management Award – Christopher Gerard Vila