Farming leadership mould is slowly breaking


Last updated 05:00 09/07/2014
Jane Hunter

Jane Hunter

VINTAGE: Jane Hunter has been dubbed the “first lady” of New Zealand wine.

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Agriculture is the largest sector of New Zealand’s tradeable economy.

It generates 70 per cent of the country’s export earnings, and comprises 12 per cent of annual GDP. Although farming remains the backbone of this country’s economy, women have been far from prominent in its leadership roles. But it is possible to be a woman of influence among the farmers and growers, as two of the country’s prominent female leaders in the sector explain.


Jane Hunter’s reputation precedes her. The managing director of Marlborough winery Hunter’s, she has been dubbed “the first lady of New Zealand wine”, received an OBE in 1993, and was made a Companion to the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2009.

Last year she joined an elite group of 25 inducted into the NZ Wine Hall of Fame and is the only woman.

Her leadership in the wine industry came about by circumstance rather than design.

Hunter’s winery was founded in 1979 by Ernie Hunter, an Irishman who later married Jane.

Ernie was in charge of the day-to-day running of the business, while Jane, a trained viticulturist, worked managed the vineyard.

But tragedy struck in 1987 when Ernie, the key driver of the company’s success, was killed in a car accident.

Jane was suddenly encumbered with enormous responsibility: should she stay, or should she take the advice she was given to sell up and take the money?

Defying all expectations, she continued operating the business.

“When I took over after Ernie died there was . . . not pressure so much, but people questioning if it was wise to try and continue when the winery was in its infancy and obviously pretty strapped for capital,” she says.

“In the late 80s and early 90s there was probably more pressure to get bigger and either to sell outright,” or to bring in a large shareholder, says Hunter.

“We looked at it, but I decided that I probably prefer to work my own destiny.”

Hunter’s sudden elevation to a key position in the notoriously patriarchal wine industry had the potential to ruffle some feathers.

But she says people were generous, despite the “frightening” amount of responsibility she had to take on. There were lots of times I felt it would be easier to sell and go.

“I used to ring Tony Jordan [an Australian-based consultant who advised her during the toughest period of her career] and say ‘I’ve put the for sale sign out the front’ and he’d say ‘what’s gone wrong, let’s talk it through’ . . .

“In fact we were laughing about it the other day, I haven’t said it for so many years now.

“I used to say it nearly every week.”

Other women have struggled to gain traction in the wine industry, she says, but Hunter has had nothing but positive experiences.

“When I took over the winery there was a core group of about 10 New Zealand wineries, and we used to travel around the world together to different wine shows.

“Everyone used to, nicely I think, say ‘why does Jane get all the attention?’ and it was because it was unique to have a female owning a winery at that point.”

This unanimous confidence in her abilities, through good times and bad, panned out with Hunter’s winery now a global success.

“When I took over from Ernie, people could have been quite difficult about a woman taking over. But even in the United Kingdom, which was a hugely male-dominated wine industry, I’ve had nothing but help and a lot of respect.”


As of 2012, less than 15 per cent of people on agriculture boards were women. And it took Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s most influential farming advocacy group, 112 years to elect a woman to their national board.

Jeanette Maxwell wasn’t planning to make history when she joined Federated Farmers at a provincial level.

“I got pushed forward, really . . . some people said ‘hey, you need to do this’, so I did,” she says.

Maxwell runs a beef and lamb farm in Canterbury in a partnership with her husband. After leaving her career as an advertising artist to become a vet nurse, she became involved in farming because she “married the farmer”.

She was elected to the board in 2011 as the meat and fibre chairwoman, and stood down last week as required at the end of her three-year term.

She says the biggest barrier to having women in agriculture leadership roles was a lack of confidence in their skill sets. “Men will go on and fill their toolbox while women will wait until their toolbox is full. I did the same thing and waited until I had done leadership training.”

As a mother of three, Maxwell says she couldn’t have taken on the role without the support of her husband and father-in-law to help look after the children and work on their sheep and beef farm.

She broke the mould in two aspects – one just by being the first woman on the board, but also by getting Federated Farmers involved in mental health, a problem largely unaddressed in rural communities and which has a disproportionate effect on men.

Once she became a farmer’s representative, she didn’t initially plan to overhaul the system. “I don’t think I got into it planning to make changes, but more to highlight to the councils and the organisations some of the issues. It was more about raising awareness.”

As the board’s health and safety spokeswoman, she drove a campaign called “When Life’s a Bitch”, which united groups – including the Dairy Women’s Network and Rural Woman New Zealand – to dispel the stigma about mental health in the rural sector.

Latest statistics show a fall in farmer suicides but rural suicides remain 18 per cent higher than urban.

As a result of the campaign, Federated Farmers, alongside other industry stakeholders, has helped form the farmer mental wellness strategy group to improve and maintain the mental health and wellbeing of farming communities.

That campaign, along with the mental health group work, prompted the John Kirwan campaign on mental health to devote a section of its website to rural mental health and wellbeing. While no longer a board member, Maxwell represents Federated Farmers on these mental health groups.

In an industry with a proud, albeit conservative history, Maxwell might have expected some backlash as a woman of influence.

But she says there was no hostility, just indifference.

“There have been comments . . . very early on, I’d go to meetings and things and they’d say, ‘Federated Farmers normally sends a farmer’, and I’d go, ‘I am the farmer’. They were making the assumption that I was the staff.”

But Maxwell says the industry’s gender bias is changing.

“Because Federated Farmers was very male . . . well, was only male, people wouldn’t have even thought about a female.”

In 2012, Maxwell was joined by fellow member Katie Milne, who has another year to go on her three-year term.

Maxwell says while there are a lot of women farming, most keep their heads down. But more are now starting to come through the lobby group’s ranks at a provincial level.

“There used to be the odd one, and I was one of those odd ones. Once one woman breaks the ice, we talk to others and encourage them.

“There has to be the one who’s brave enough to take the first step, then once we’re there, we’re going ‘come on, join me. It’s not so bad after all.’ ”

– Stuff

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