By Karen Trebilcock

Tessa Kelly never thought she’d be working for a bank.

The 23-year-old loves milking cows and was happy to leave Lincoln in 2019 to work on dairy farms, working as hard as she could to gain skills and funds. But in July she started in a permanent role with Rabobank in Gore as an agribusiness analyst.

“It’s different at every bank, but at Rabobank an analyst works under an agri manager,” Tessa said.

“Mine has about 40 clients all in Southland. As the analyst I do the credit writing and ensure all the maintenance is taking place to keep facilities up to date and matching client needs.

“A lot of the work is reviewing clients to make sure they’re on track with their goals, that everyone’s expectations are lining up.”

The farms include the usual Southland mix but it’s dairy that is Tessa’s passion.

“Knowing what is happening on sheep and beef farms and arable is really good as it keeps you connected but here it’s a very dairy-focused book which is easier for me because it’s what I know.”

As soon as Tessa got her driver’s licence she was relief milking and after university did a six-month stint in Tasmania milking cows before coming home to work as a 2IC on a dairy farm near Balfour.

She still milks at the weekends.

“I’m the daughter of workaholics.”

Growing up, her parents ran a calf rearing operation on a small block near Tapanui. Her father was also a crutching contractor.

“He used to get me to ring farmers for my school holiday job and that taught me so much. Being able to pick up the phone and talk to people.”

She tried to leave school several times to go farming but her parents stopped her. Her teachers at Blue Mountain College pushed her towards university and at Lincoln she met a group of friends who had DairyNZ scholarships.

At the end of her first year she applied for one as well and finished the last two years of her BCom Ag degree with her fees paid.

“Susan Stokes, who ran the scholarship, she was always encouraging me to go dairying after university and I was saying back I’m spending all this time, all this money to be here, I’m not going farming.

“And then, after three years of university, of being in my head all the time, I couldn’t wait to get back to it.”

But during her first calving at Balfour she got a message from Rabobank.

“It was on LinkedIn and I thought it was a scam at first but I rang them back and they wanted me to interview for their graduate programme.”

They had found her through the scholarship website and the offer came with a starting salary of more than her 2IC job.

“And I was struggling with farming. There is so much information, so many skills you need to step up to be a farm manager.

“The manager I was working under, he just seemed to have this natural confidence. It’s a crazy industry to work in. You have to know so much.”

She had also found she liked her sleep.

The graduate programme was made up of three six-month rotations starting in Hamilton, then Gore and Christchurch.

“It’s a great way to see the country. You unpack your suitcase and you get into it.”

Now, with the graduate programme finished she has a permanent position in the Gore office although there are lots of options to progress into different roles.

“I do really enjoy dealing with farm businesses, the contact with people, but I also really enjoy research and Rabobank has a global outlook.

“We look at things like protein markets, food chains and risk. When the war started in the Ukraine there was a memo very quickly about the impact on our portfolios.

“It’s not a biased perspective. We’re being informative and keeping our clients up to date.”

And she’s enjoying being back in Southland although her boyfriend, from Waikoikoi, is currently working on a header in Uzbekistan.

“I’ve seen a lot of change since I started at the bank. We have a sustainability team and that is just growing all the time and we’re employing people from different backgrounds such as from Fonterra and Farmlands.”

Rabobank’s focus is on future proofing farm businesses, and Tessa is mostly working with large family farms.

“I’m seeing how important it is for farmers to have the right people onboard such as good farm consultants, lawyers and accountants. In the small towns we’re seeing some very specialised professionals for farmers, which is great.”

She said farmers should see the bank as their business partner.

“We want to see businesses grow and we’ll assess their risks and conduct a thorough analysis of their business to make sure that the risks are manageable.

“We work closely with clients so we can really understand their operations as we want to see them achieve their goals.”

She said young people wanting to get into farming should get used to putting proposals forward to their bank.

“Every time you do that you learn something more and you build a rapport. Also find a mentor, someone who you respect and who is willing to spend time with you. And use them.

“But be kind to yourself. Everyone’s situation is so different, their ability to access capital is so different so just because one person did it one way that doesn’t mean it works for everyone.”

She worries also about farmers who are struggling with the current farming environment.

“With the changes around environmental regulations being pitched at the same time as record inflation and supply chain issues, there is a lot of stress on farmers right now.

“When you’re preoccupied watching your bottom line being pushed up it’s hard to make your best decisions and think creatively about your business.

“But we’re the best farmers in the world, we’ve proven that, and when times get tough we get through and we stay farming.”

She’s watching farming getting bigger in Southland with equity partnerships and corporates more common.

“It’s a very changing space at the moment. It’s amazing to be part of, but I think it’s getting harder to get into farming if you’re not part of a farm succession. We still see people get in with equity partnerships. It’s definitely more about your network now.

“It’s important for farmers to realise that their financial decisions now can affect so many generations of their family to come.”

Her own parents have recently bought their first commercial farm – a sheep and beef operation at Kaka Point in Otago.

“They’ve finally made it and they love it. But it took them a good 20 years to go from a first farm at Tapanui to this farm.

“They have worked so hard for it. We just want them to enjoy a good retirement afterwards.”

Meanwhile, Tessa is busily saving for her first house.

“Now it’s a 20% deposit you have to have, I’ve got to just keep saving.”