A Lasting Legacy.
Anna Blair loves the variety offered by her job as manager of the family farm.
This year, community-minded Silver Fern Farmers Fiona and Nelson Hancox will welcome the extended family to their award-winning farm, Kowai Downs, for a special Christmas feast. For most families, Christmas is often an exhausting occasion. But for the Hancox clan, it’s a time to wind down and take a well-deserved break after the hectic lead-up to the holiday that is typical for farmers. “Usually on the farm we’re just incredibly busy up to that time, so it’s actually a day just to relax and chill out and enjoy the company,” says Fiona Hancox. “Everyone’s often quite exhausted by the time we get to Christmas Day!”
It’s the Hancoxes’ turn to host the extended family for Christmas this year. Relatives of Fiona’s husband, Nelson, will make their way to Kowai Downs, a picturesque Tapanui property, which is one of three West Otago sheep and beef farms owned by the couple.
Preparing the food is a collaborative effort, with the Christmas feast consisting of homegrown new potatoes from Nelson’s father, Harold, fresh vegetables from the garden, the traditional turkey and ham, and, of course, a spread of delicious Silver Fern Farms red meat. “It’s all about family; it’s all about being together,” says Fiona. “It’s quite traditional but we keep it as low-key as we can so that we don’t feel like we’re in the kitchen all day cooking. It’s all about great food and family.”
LURE OF THE LAND
Like Christmas, farming is a family affair for this household. Fiona and Nelson are both second-generation farmers – Fiona’s father was raised in the city but realised his long-held dream of becoming a farmer, and Nelson’s father was a mechanic before he went farming. Now, it’s looking as though all four of the couple’s adult children will be joining the family business. “I’ve seen success and I also appreciate how lucky we are to be farming, and I think my children see that too,” says Fiona. “My dad worked extremely hard and worked with some really good people. He was really passionate, he was just living his dream to be a farmer and he was really successful. I grew up with that, seeing what farming can do and knowing it’s a privilege to farm.”
Over the years, Fiona and Nelson have expanded their business to run three farms – Kowai Downs, Mt Allen and Wohelo – which run approximately 30,000 stock. “We’ve grown our business considerably since we’ve started and that’s part of a succession plan. We want to help our children if they do choose to go farming and at this stage all four do,” Fiona says.
The couple’s two elder sons, Mitchell, 27, and Elliot, 25, are already on board, having worked in the business for the past year. Daughter Zoe, 23, is working as a nurse in Christchurch but intends to be involved in the business in some capacity; and youngest son Tom, 20, is in his last year at Lincoln University, and plans to work on other farms before coming back to the family business.
The family has had a long history with Silver Fern Farms. All their stock is supplied to the company and they have also been shareholders since they purchased their first properties. Fiona is on the Silver Fern Farms Co-operative Board of Directors, and her father also supplied Silver Fern Farms, with the fact the company was a co-operative being a major drawcard. The cooperative structure is something Fiona also values highly.
“I really like that they look after our shareholders and our shareholders are the priority, and also part of a co-operative ethos is that they protect rural communities and give back to the communities that they work in.”
A desire to ensure fairness for farmers motivated Fiona to run for the board, and she has now been a director of Silver Fern Farms Co-operative Limited for almost six years. “I was encouraged to step up and stand for the board and it was probably the most terrifying thing I ever did but it was something I felt really strongly about, having a voice for our shareholders, so it was quite exciting,” she explains.
“I was the first Silver Fern Farms female farmer director elected onto that board, so that was a really exciting thing for me and it’s been a really positive board.”
Silver Fern Farms Co-operative chairman Richard Young has been on the board with Fiona since she was elected, but they have known each other for around 40 years. Young is also a resident of Tapanui and he even attended school with Fiona. He is full of praise for the way Fiona interacts with shareholders and the respect that shareholders have for her.
“I’ve never met anyone as good at networking and interacting with shareholders as Fiona is,” he says. “Fiona is the utmost professional in her role at Silver Fern Farms. She is hugely committed to making it a better company and better for our shareholders. She’s an outstanding director.” With shareholders being the priority for Fiona, she appreciates how Silver Fern Farms assists shareholder suppliers through numerous benefits such as priority to processing space and preference for access to value-added programmes. But something else that Fiona has always admired about Silver Fern Farms is the attention paid to the consumer. “It’s had the correct focus in that we’ve got to be aware of what the consumer wants,” she says. “There’s no sense in us as farmers producing food if the consumer doesn’t want that type of food. I’ve really always liked how proactive they have been in marketing and considering the consumer; I think that’s a really good concept.”
Silver Fern Farms’ Head of Sustainability, Justin Courtney, says understanding the consumer is at the core of the company’s Plate to Pasture strategy. “As a marketer and producer of food, we have a role to understand the expectations consumers have for premium-quality, natural, grass-fed red meat,” he says. “Our role is to help farmers like the Hancoxes see those market signals so that they know the requirements of the consumer and they will then fulfil those requirements so that the consumer has a delicious meal experience that builds trust.”
Giving back is not limited to Christmas time for Fiona – it’s a year-round practice thanks to her involvement with a number of local groups and industry bodies. Fiona is particularly passionate about serving rural communities and the areas of agriculture and health. Her involvement includes being a volunteer ambulance officer, a director of West Otago Health Limited, a director of Co-operative Business New Zealand, a trustee of the Lincoln University Foundation and a trustee of the Clutha Foundation. “Nelson and I are both community-minded and that’s sort of rubbing off on our children as well in that they do help in the community that we live in,” she says. “Rural communities need people to support them.” Richard Young says Fiona has been “incredible” when it comes to her community work. “Her input to the local community is outstanding,” he says. “You’ll never find anyone who is more committed to the community than Fiona.”
Courtney notes the revenue generated by Silver Fern Farmers is particularly beneficial for sustaining and advancing rural communities. “Last year, we returned $2.6 billion worth of export revenue to support our economy, and the revenue flows back into towns like Tapanui and supports local service providers – local engineers, school teachers, builders, plumbers and electricians,” explains Courtney, who says it’s also common for the nation’s food producers to donate their time to local organisations as Fiona does. “The volunteering in regional New Zealand is high because New Zealand has a can-do culture, and Kiwis get stuck in to help where there’s a need. So, being able to run sophisticated farm businesses and also volunteer in the community is something we should celebrate.”
Courtney wants New Zealanders to remember that celebrating Christmas with Silver Fern Farms' red meat means strengthening these communities. “We want them to be celebrating with the world’s most sustainable, highest-quality, natural, grass-fed red meat and know that when they make that decision to have that experience, it’s supporting New Zealand,” he says.
The West Otago community is fortunate to have people like the Hancox family looking out for them, but it’s Fiona who considers herself the lucky one. “I love farming and I love what we do,” she says. “We’re producing beautiful food for overseas and for New Zealand so it’s a really good thing to be involved with.”