Passers by are familiar with the dairy company signs on the gates of New Zealand dairy farms. But there’s more. Story and photos by Karen Trebilcock.

Don’t think you have a brand for your farm? Don’t think you need one? Think again.

Everyone driving past your gateway knows you’re a dairy farmer when they see your supply number whether it’s Fonterra’s, Open Country’s or one of the others.

They can look across the fence and see your paddocks, whether you have irrigation or not, a modern dairy or a falling-down herringbone.

If your cows are by the road fence they’ll see if they’re fat or skinny, if they are on lush grass or deep in mud.

If you’re on your quad bike they’ll notice if you’re wearing a helmet, if you have passengers, if it looks unsafe.

All of that is branding. It’s creating a perception of a company and its products in the customer’s mind.

It might not be by using logos and names such as Apple and Nike do. That person driving past will not know your mission statement, even if it is written down somewhere, but they will be forming an opinion about your business and that is what’s important.

It’s something other sectors in agriculture are very aware of.

For a brief few years we had a very small (very, very small) Merino flock. Our wool broker said we needed a high country farm name to sell the wool under so we became briefly Walnut Flat Station, all 2.4ha (which included two large walnut trees) of it. The wool sold.

So if you’re grumpy about the perception of dairy farmers, and who isn’t, there is a lot you can do.

And it’s not that hard. For starters, you probably already have a brand name.

Most dairy operations work as companies which means you have a company name and company names must be unique. Under the Companies Act 1993, a name can’t be used if it is “identical or almost identical” to that of another registered New Zealand company.

Cows, Cows and Me, Cows with Milk, Happy Cows and Love Cows are already taken, sorry, along with More Cows, Fat Cows Farming, Hooked on Cows and the clever Heard of Cows.

Your company name can be more than simply what the accountant and bank manager see. It can be on your farm gate, it can be on the overalls of your farm staff and the name of your social media page.

And it’s a name you should be proud of – that when people say it, it makes you and them smile for the right reasons.

Your kid wants a hat with the Nike tick logo, your contractor wants to come and make your balage because they know you pay on time and a waratah won’t got through their tractor tyre while they’re doing the job.

But it can be much more than that. A branding strategy, such as what Nike uses, is a long-term plan to reach your goals resulting in your identification by the consumer. And as a dairy farmer whose product goes into a paper bag with the words Made in New Zealand and Whole Milk Powder on it, that’s a lot of consumers. Think about what is important to you – grade-free milk, cows fed the best they can be, staff who don’t want to leave. Transfer that into something consumers can understand – the best dairy produce, happy cows, committed staff.

Add it to your farm road sign and then everyone driving past will remember it, as will your staff, your contractors, the tanker driver. And you.

You will have to uphold to that branding and always work to maintain it or someone will be quick to point it out.

Lake Hawea Station caused a small storm in the local newspaper about a year before it made an even bigger one on Country Calendar. Someone had driven past and seen on the side of the road a sign declaring the farm as carbon neutral. How could that be, the letter to the editor had asked, as the station looked like every other farm on the road?

A furore developed over what carbon neutral meant, whether climate change was even a thing and what vodka makers were doing trying to farm.

But the owners stood up to their claim, explained it, and got the credit they deserved. If you are going to put a stake in the ground, or a farm sign, make sure you can live by it.

And if anything, the people who thought up 42 Below Vodka know a lot about branding. Those farms that have won Ballance Farm Environment Awards should have it on a sign at their gate, as should the Dairy Industry Award winners.

Imagine if you could proudly display how many times your staff have won the trainee and manager’s awards.

That branding would show you were a great employer. Or that you have QEII land in trust, or that you actively trap pests, or your waterways are planted, the water is clean and you know it because you test it and how many native trees you’ve planted.

All dairy farmers are doing these things but how many people who drive past our farms know it?

And, just as Nike do, you can make a stand when there is something happening in the wider farming world that you’re not happy about.

There are lots of signs along rural roads about vaccination and Three Waters but none of them are really about dairying, or what is happening with dairying. How about a comment on the current laws on employing overseas workers (just how short is our workforce on dairy farms?), or the EU not letting us use the word feta to describe the great cheese we make or something about the pollution of urban waterways. Make your stand and be proud of it. Own it.

Or as Nike says – just do it.