Sophie Black with Monty, a young off-the-track thoroughbred destined for the polo field.

Big break for farm consultant

Getting that first step on the career ladder can be challenging for a new graduate, but as Jo Grigg reports Marlborough farm consultant Sophie Black is well on the way.

When it comes to sport, Sophie Black admits she has no fear.

“I love polo games because they are so full-on; it’s a lot more exciting than trekking.”

She has been playing the sport for ten years, first for her school, then the Amuri and Blenheim Polo Clubs. She currently has five horses in training, riding them before and after work. She describes her -1 goal handicap as having room to improve. No doubt she will.

Sophie Black may live on the quieter Clarence-version of ‘Hereford Street’ but her farm consultancy work keeps her well connected with wider agri-businesses across the top of the south, into Canterbury and the lower North Island.

Sophie shows the same no-fear approach to her job as farm consultant for Sheppard Agriculture. Only 23 at the time, stepping into a farm consultant job fresh from graduating from Lincoln University, was a bit daunting, she admits.

“It’s been a big challenge but I’ve been reading, researching and always on the Beef and Lamb website; there is so much good information there.”

Farm consultants are expected to understand a huge range of farm systems, be on top of current market prices and know forage systems and animal management inside out, not to mention being able to use farm software, write reports, run meetings, understand recruitment and know and get on with all ages and types of farmers across the district.

Sophie followed her partner of six years, Jack Murray, to the Murray family property Matariki, in July 2017. The stunning 1400-hectare hill-country sheep and beef farm is home to Matariki Hereford Stud. It’s about three kilometers from the mouth of the Clarence River, a 40-minute drive from Kaikoura and a good hour to Blenheim.

Jack was back on home turf, working alongside his parents Jimmy and Becky.

Sophie was qualified with a Bachelor of Agriculture, had farm experience and was experienced as a dairy artificial insemination (AI) assistant. But she was without that important first serious job and living in a very rural spot on the east coast between Ward and Kaikoura.

Thanks to contacts in the Murray family, Sophie was put in touch with Greg Sheppard, of Sheppard Agriculture in Nelson. Greg ‘s consultancy work spreads across the Tasman and Marlborough districts and lower North Island, and he was looking to grow his business.

Sophie was interviewed and offered a position as farm consultant. Her agriculture degree had a focus on farm management but also provided overall skills she now uses every day in her job. Growing up on Rock End Downs, a sheep and beef farm in Waiau, North Canterbury, means she had every summer holiday to learn practical farming skills.

“It’s during these years that I developed a huge interest and passion for animals.”

Every university holiday she pulled on the overalls and worked as an AI assistant for LIC, touring Canterbury dairy farms.

“I really enjoyed using the technology and visiting a different dairy farm each day.”

Now Sophie spends much of the working week in the home office in the renovated 100-year-old farm cottage she and Jack have just moved into.

Her typical week involves visiting farms to do pasture cuts and creating feed budgets for clients using Farmax. She produces a fortnightly market report and likes to visit sale yards, like the Hawarden ewe fair, to talk to farmers and get better known in the area.

Sophie has trained as both a facilitator and activator for the RMPP Action Groups and now facilitates Marlborough and Tasman Groups. The Kekerengu Action Group is very focused on business opportunities so she is busy organising guest speakers on succession and a trip to Canterbury to view farm businesses. Sheppard Agriculture provides recruitment services to farmers and Sophie said this is one of the favourite parts of her job.

“I place advertisements, make short lists and provide reference checks; we try to make the whole recruitment process less stressful for farmers as we can sort it for them.”

Sophie is a huge advocate for farm consultants.

“They can improve your business considerably; help you see things differently.

“On a one to one level, consultants can help you get to the bottom of an issue and, in a group, consultants can help lead discussions to bring out useful farmer opinions.”

Sheppard Agriculture runs three Beef + Lamb NZ Farming for Profit groups and is administrator of the Marlborough Farmer of the Year competition. Sophie is grateful to Greg Sheppard for his help to develop her skill base, overseeing her reports, discussing issues and building her confidence.

Her ultimate work day is spent out on a farm somewhere but she admits she doesn’t mind report writing. A preference for animal management over plant science means Sophie has had to upskill in pasture management and crops.

“I’ve been focusing on lucerne, fodder beet and clovers, as they are all so important here.”

Of course, Jack makes the odd request for help at Matariki and she has some flexibility with the job to go out and help on the farm. As long as the half hour job doesn’t mysteriously become a two-hour job, that’s fine with Sophie.

“I have to be so disciplined working from home; this is quite a challenge with distractions and also gets a bit lonely at times, but it is such a cool opportunity.”

“Winter weekends I help with break-feeding and I also help out by producing budget reports for Matariki using Cash Manager.”

Sophie said the wider community, including the Murray cousins next door at Woodbank, means there are plenty of young couples around. She really enjoyed working on renovating the cottage with Jack’s mother Becky. For her ‘girl time’ fix she heads to Seddon for netball practice with the Awatere Prem team or pops in to see old school friends in Blenheim.

Growing agri-expertise

Greg Sheppard of Sheppard Agriculture is the first to admit that, like farmers, farm consultants are getting a bit long in the tooth.

“It’s important to provide opportunities for graduates to enter the profession and give them time to develop the skills and experience needed to ensure they are successful, and ultimately want to stay in consultancy.”

Sophie Black contacted Greg at a time when he saw a range of future opportunities to grow the capability of his farm consultancy business.

“Once I met with her and got an insight into who she was, what she wanted to do and saw her passion for the industry, it was easy to make the decision to employ her, even though she’d only recently graduated from Lincoln.”

Greg felt a responsibility to help provide a pathway for someone in consultancy.

“By achieving this, young consultants become key members of the farming community and are ultimately well rewarded for their efforts, encouraging them to remain in consultancy.”

He said he was looking forward to seeing Sophie continue to develop her skills and experience, to become an integral part of the Marlborough and North Canterbury sheep and beef community.