Waikato boy, Aaron Cooper, is enjoying the freedom and flexibility of being self-employed.  Equipped with a range of skills and a great attitude, he’s keeping himself busy and being useful in the local dairying scene. Samantha Tennent reports.

Setting up his own business took three key ingredients for Aaron Cooper. Varied skills, confidence and a network. He’s now in his second season operating as SRS (Sharp Relief Services) and business is exceeding his expectations.

Aaron mulled over the idea of stepping out on his own for a few years before he finally gathered up the courage.

“I was just too chicken I wouldn’t have enough work.”

It hasn’t been the case.

Freshly 30, he offers a full service of relief-farming. He can milk sole-charge and completes any tasks that need doing while he’s contracted to a farmer. Last season during calving he stepped in for a guy who needed surgery on his back, working alongside the farm manager who would’ve struggled without the help.

“I had the experience and knew what needed to be done each day during that busy time. It would’ve been hard to find someone on short notice so the timing worked out well for all of us.”

It’s a mixed workload, some days he’s in the milking shed, other days he’s cruising around in a digger levelling earth. He picked up a lot of skills throughout his working career, which started in the dairy shed.

School wasn’t really Aaron’s thing, he left in year 11 and dabbled in roles as a farm assistant on local dairy farms. He had a few skills he’d picked up from his dad, Glen Cooper, he could put into practice.

Glen had managed a deer farm in Karapiro most of Aaron’s childhood and has since settled on a 200-hectare block nearby in Kairangi. They breed sheep and Hereford bulls with a focus on calving ease, sold to dairy farmers.

Before the deer farm, Glen had been a contractor and driven fertiliser trucks, and it was this road Aaron headed down.

After a couple of seasons dairying Aaron was floating, doing a few bits and pieces when he landed a role for a local contractor.

“I’d had a lot of experience with tractors on the farm growing up. It was a good role, busy during peak times and we had plenty of maintenance to keep us busy in the off season.”

Aaron likes to keep busy, if work is quiet he’s sure to find something that needs doing or fixing.

After a few years in the contracting scene Aaron went on to learn how to drive trucks while spreading fertiliser with Ron Russo Bulk Spreading where his father had had been an owner-driver.

“Mum has a photo of me sitting in Dad’s truck when I was little, you can only see the top of my head. Then when I worked for Ron Russo she took another photo of me sitting in the truck. They still had the same colours so it looks like the same truck!”

While he was spreading fertiliser Aaron would also fit in relief milking for a few extra dollars when he could. There were a few seasons driving trucks and another stint contracting before farming started calling Aaron’s name again. He secured a role on the St Peter’s dairy farm in Cambridge, prior to the launch as industry focus farm, Owl Farm.

He lived on the farm and had the 2IC role milking 540 spring-calving cows. While it was good to be settled Aaron says he was finding the commitment to farming repetitive, so he jumped back in fertiliser spreading trucks for more work-life balance.

With plenty of relief milking opportunities building and evidence farmers needed capable relief staff, Aaron began pondering working for himself. But he wasn’t confident there was enough demand. When he left the farm, he needed to find somewhere to live. He had an arrangement with his parents, they bought a lifestyle block near Lake Karapiro which Aaron rented initially before buying a share.

Spreading fertiliser and relief milking created a good variety for Aaron but the idea of working for himself kept ticking over, taking that step in July 2017.

Despite spending so much time unsure whether the demand would be there, he’s had plenty of work available. His diary is almost booked till Christmas.

“I haven’t had to sell myself, all my work has come from word of mouth. The milking is all repeat customers and people seem to appreciate I can do more than just milk.”

He also helps his parents during the peak times like docking and shearing. Relief milking is nearly half his workload and he covers any annual leave periods on those dairy farms for their permanent staff.

MYOB has been a valuable tool for Aaron to get going. His Mum is an accountant and helped him get his head around it all initially and now he just uses an accountant at the end of the year.

“I do as much as I can all the time, instead of the end of the GST cycle. It makes it easier to keep track of what’s going on.”

He’s earning more than he was on a wage and likes having the bonus of claiming expenses. His initial set up costs were low as he already had most of what he needed.

To cover tax and ACC Aaron puts aside 30% of any earnings which has been more than enough. When he calculated his rates, he was light with including annual leave, but he explains it’s helped keep his rates down while he was getting going.

He uses an hourly rate to produce quotes and some jobs are charged at the fixed amount, where others prefer the per-hour charge as the workload can be variable.

Health and safety compliance is covered at each workplace under their individual plans. All his gear is washed down and sprayed with disinfectant between farms. Generally, he’ll leave all his gear at the place he’s working until he’s finished.

He has no regrets about going out on his own. The flexibility and variation is exactly what he was after, he explains how working at different places makes it feel less repetitive even though he’s doing the same things regularly.

“It was good timing, I was ready, had the confidence and networks I needed and I knew my experience with trucks and diggers was valuable and would give me options.”

Aaron’s network has also evolved from being part of Cambridge Young Farmers, he’s been involved in the committee for many years and is one of those cruisy, reliable members of the club.

He is conscious of not taking on too much.

“It does come back to whether you want to take the work on but when you’re getting going you are careful not to lose opportunities by declining. It can be very easy to over-work.”

Planning is key, making sure he allocates sufficient time off for himself.

He’s sponsoring his nephew’s rugby team this season and is very proud to see his logo on their uniform, heading along to as many games as he can.

Outside of work he’s a typical outdoorsy bloke who loves heading out for a shoot and attempting to fish. The boat and biscuit get plenty of outings on the lake in summer, being just down the hill from his house.

Aaron is quite content with how life is tracking, claiming he just needs a lady to keep the house warm.

There is no plan to expand SRS, he’s
very happy being a one-man band. He may have the odd casual employee in the future but he likes to keep things simple and enjoys the flexibility he can create by running his own business.

He is encouraging of other young people thinking of launching their own business.

“Just give it a go, you will regret it more for not trying at all than trying and failing.”