Northland’s Connor Edwards was found to be dyslexic as a kid, but he was scoring straight As by his fourth year at Lincoln University. Glenys Christian reports.

Connor Edwards bought his first calf at seven to run on his grandfather’s farm at Port Albert in the lower Northland.

“I went for whiteface or Angus because I knew I could always sell them to him.”

Being home-schooled meant he was well-grounded and got plenty of chance to be out and about on the 145-hectare farm after lessons finished, where he enjoyed stock work.

“When I first arrived at Rodney College I was worried that I would be behind the other students academically, however this was not the case and I quickly grew bored of the slow-moving lessons,” he says.

“I’d bunk off school on Tuesday mornings to go to the calf sales.”

Then the afternoon was spent delivering the animals to willing buyers around the Wellsford area. He pleaded with the college to be able to start its gateway programme a year earlier than normal and was placed with 50:50 sharemilker, Dave Dogett, at Tomarata where he was milking 250 cows as well as farming drystock on a nearby runoff.

“I didn’t mind dairying, but it wasn’t for me,” Connor, 22, says.

“With sheep and beef there’s more lifestyle and variation in your day-to-day work. And I like buying and selling.”

With his uncle, Grant Edwards, being dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Lincoln University, there was some pressure for him to go south, which he did to complete a Bachelor of Agricultural Science.

“But I nearly quit after my first assignment,” he says.

“I got 45%, mainly because I didn’t know how to work the computers there.”

But once he came to terms with that he scored an A- average in his first year which increased to an A average in his fourth year. Soil science was his most enjoyable subject, and he consecutively topped all undergraduate levels of soil science papers as well as lab tutoring in both his second and third years.

“I met a lot of good people,” he says.

He was also vice president of the Lincoln University Soil Society last year, which included competing in a soil judging competition in Queensland. He graduated with first class honours for his study on the effect of a catch crop of oats to reduce nitrate leaching from winter-grazed fodder beet, and also gained a place on the dean’s list for academic achievement.

But a lot of hard work was put in along the way.

“My mother always thought I was dyslexic,” he says.

This suspicion was confirmed when he was evaluated by an educational physiologist during his time at Rodney College.

“I had trouble learning to read and spell when younger which affected my confidence,” he says.

“I’m still not that quick at reading. But I think that I have overcome this through hard work and that my academic records are proof of this.”

For his first year 10-week practical at university he returned to work for Dave. Connor had then planned to work on his grandfather’s farm in his second year but within 10 days of starting, his grandfather became ill and had to be hospitalised.

“I had to take over the farm for four months,” he says.

“I didn’t know where all the animals were but once I worked that out I came up with a rotation plan and decided what I’d do when the farm got dry.”

When he had to return to university his parents, Kellie and Steve, took over before the farm was leased. Looking for his third-year placement Connor approached Wellsford farmer, Gordon Levet.

“I’d never met him but I had done fun runs on his farm,” he says.

“It was a short conversation, where I said I was Kellie and Steve’s kid and wanted to do my practical and he said, ‘Yup’.”

Connor didn’t know it but Gordon, 84, a highly successful Romney breeder, also has dyslexia.

“I was made to read in front of a headmaster and that gave me a complex,” Gordon says.

“The captions on the television are too quick for me to read but I have no problems with maths. The connection between the eye and the brain is the problem.

“I’m one of those people who tend to think a bit differently.”

He had heard of Connor from local GP Tim Molloy and had no hesitation in taking him on. Now Connor is working full-time on his Kiketangeo Stud with Gordon hopeful that he will eventually take it over.

The plan, worked out over a cup of tea, is that he’ll work a year or two on the management of the flock, taking a proportion of the profits as an incentive. That way he’ll be able to buy up to 50% of the stud and take over its management.

“It’ll be fine-tuned over the next year or two.”

Gordon says he had been in a quandary about what to do with his stud but believes Connor will be able to take it to the next stage.

“There are better ways of doing things,” he says.

Part of the almost 600ha was settled in 1874 by his grandfather and great uncle, which is now owned by his three daughters who won’t sell the farm. Nine hundred stud ewes are mated every year and an annual ram sale of 115-130 animals held. The records of the stud date back to the 1950s when Gordon designed his own card index system, however this has now been replaced with use of SIL recording.

There’s a commercial flock of 500 which begin lambing on August 25 with their offspring taken through to be sold as hoggets. As well as Gordon’s beloved Romneys, bred for worm and facial eczema resistance, there are also smaller studs of Suffolks, Southdowns and Suffolks crossed with Texels.

About 450 beef cattle are wintered.

“They’re mainly Hereford, Angus or crosses,” Connor says.

“There’s everything.”

After a cow on the farm had three sets of triplets in three calvings, semen from one of the bull calves has been used in the United States for research into cattle ovulation rates, creating work for a number of scientists which could continue for several years.

Gordon is also well known in farm forestry circles having planted trees for timber, erosion control and aesthetics for almost seven decades.

Connor says the job is the perfect one for him.

“I was good and ready to leave university,” he says.

“I needed to get outside and away from a computer. Here farming keeps you thinking but you’re still in touch with science.”

Only two of his classmates have ended up in shepherding jobs with most going into dairying, rural banking or becoming fertiliser company reps.

His partner, Sephrah Rayner, who he met at Lincoln University, is completing her PhD in soil science and has moved north to join him on the farm.

“It’s the first time we’ve had a doctor on the farm,” Gordon says.

Connor’s now training his three dogs, Speight, Pip and Rock, the latter a good swap for a box of beer after being picked on by other dogs. And off-farm he’s keen on duck shooting and the fishing variety of the Kaipara Harbour, Bay of Islands and Northland.

In September he’s set to take back the lease of his grandfather’s farm, running it while still working on Gordon’s farm.

“I’ll be doing dairy farmer’s hours, getting up 4am to go there before coming back here,” he says.

But he’s very much looking forward to the challenge.