Success with the backing of friends

Cameron & Jessica Lee - Bay of Plenty Share Farmers of the Year. By Sheryl Haitana.

Cameron and Jessica Lea have ticked off one of their biggest goals, winning the Bay of Plenty Share Farmer of the Year, and hope their achievement will hold their name in high regard when moving within the industry.

“The awesome thing about entering dairy awards is it puts you on the top of the pile and hopefully it’s safeguarded us some good positions,” Cam says.

Cam, 32, and Jess, 31, are 50/50 sharemilking over two farms at Opotiki – for Colin and Maria Eggleton milking 270 cows, and Bern and Heather Mcdonald, milking 300 cows.

The couple say being surrounded by a strong mentor network has set them on the path for success. Cam grew up on a dairy farm and after a stint farming after leaving high school, worked in Australia and New Zealand as an agricultural contractor.

He met Jess and the couple bought a house in Te Awamutu, but working long hours as a contractor meant it was hard for Cam to spend time with their two daughters.

They decided to move closer to Jess’s family in Opotiki and Cam got a job working on a dairy farm for Andrew and Kelly Clarke.

After two years as a 2IC, an opportunity came up to sharemilk on the neighbouring farm, but Cam and Jess didn’t have enough equity.

Andrew and Kelly, along with three other neighbours backed the couple, investing $35,000 each. Cam and Jess sold their house, their nice vehicle and their boat to put the remaining $75,000 into the equity partnership and borrowed the rest to buy the Jersey herd already on the farm.

They were able to pay their investors within four years at an almost 20% return, as well as be in a position to take on a second sharemilking job. They were able to lease those cows rather than buying the herd.

“We are really grateful to them to allow us to get to 50/50 in two years without family backing. It’s fast-tracked our equity growth.”

They would have been financially better off if they had been able to get the money from the bank as they would have paid less in interest, but the bank didn’t have the security needed at that stage. Rather than waiting to get more savings in the bank and miss the opportunity, Cam and Jess knew it was a better option to seek private backing, albeit at a higher return, and take the sharemilking job.

“There is money everywhere in the world, you just have to find someone or an organisation that has money and is willing to back you.”

Their next big goal is farm ownership by 2030. If things stay as they are they could achieve that within the next five years.

“We’ve been busy paying down debt and increasing our farm deposit so we should be able to achieve that goal, but you never know what’s coming.

“Our goal is to stay in the Opotiki area, but we are open to other opportunities.”

Entering the Dairy Industry Awards previously gave them an opportunity to assess where their business was heading and actively set goals. They wanted to enter for the third time to have another roll of the dice to see if they could get the win.

This time Cam and Jess realised they have been so busy working in their business rather than working on their business, so it’s been good to refocus on their numbers.

They have always been vigilant with budgets and recent inflation has affected their budget so the process has been good to analyse all their expenses.

“There have been a lot of creeping costs in the business and we haven’t had as much time to go over our numbers. But now any purchase over $100, we do a price check.”

“We also make sure to keep inventory between the farms, so we are not doubling up, and don’t purchase new products until we’ve used the last one up,” Cam says.

“And we’re not afraid to ask for a discount.”

This year they felt like they had all their ducks in a row to win the share farmer category.

“We had a few more years under our belts and all of our financials and farm data for the last six years, plus having taken on the second job we have staff so we’ve put more policies and procedures in place. We knew a lot more going in, so felt like we had a better chance.”

They employ one full time herd manager on both farms, with Cam floating between the two. Jess primarily works on one of the farms, and rearing all the calves on both farms.

When it comes to managing people they find a toolbox meeting every Monday, which includes a breakfast during calving, gives everyone the opportunity to know what’s going on or bring anything up.

The couple won three merit awards, including the LIC Animal Wellbeing, Recording and Productivity Award, Meridian Environmental Sustainability Award and Perrin Ag Business Performance Award.

Winning the LIC award probably came down to having good attention to detail when it comes to stock records and breeding decisions. Their herd is constantly improving and performs well. They have been breeding A2 cows, with their Jersey herd 90% A2 now, Cam says.

“The market for A2 cows has dropped at the moment, but the decision to breed A2 cows has cost us nothing and it is added value.”

When it comes to sustainability, the couple have worked hard to plant retired areas on the farms and Jess has been germinating her own seeds to plant out. They also organised to get plants from Environment Bay of Plenty which they have planted on the farms.

They have a good grasp on the environmental rules and regulations and have a willingness to change to meet future regulations.

Cam believes having an open-minded approach will actually give the younger generation more opportunity into farm ownership.

“A lot of people are over the environmental regulations. I think that it is opening doors, I think it’s a positive thing for us.“

Jessica holds a Certificate of Agribusiness Management from Open Polytechnic, while Cameron is studying towards PrimaryITO Diploma Level 5, so the couple continue to educate themselves.

They want to be early adopters of new environmental tools but they are hesitant to take on new ideas that haven’t got the research findings behind them.

“We are not at the stage in our career where we can afford to be guineapigs so we have to be a bit cautious.”

They are constantly benchmarking themselves against their previous year’s farm performance, rather than comparing themselves to other farms.

“We’ve been running these farms long enough to have a good understanding of our numbers and have lots of budgets and scenarios. We know what we should spend our money on.”

The couple now have three children, Ayla, 10, Kensi, 8 and James, 3.

“Farming is a great lifestyle to raise a family,” Jessica says. “Everybody helps when jobs need to be done and we have the flexibility of juggling farm work with attending school functions, or heading to the beach for the afternoon.”

Runners-up were Troy Peterson and Zar Floyd from Opotiki and David Leeder and Mere Edwards were third.