American-bred and city-raised, he came all the way to the King Country to find his dream job. Mike Bland reports.
Before arriving in New Zealand eight years ago Alex Petrucci, a 30-year-old economics graduate who grew up on the outskirts of Chicago, knew only a little bit about New Zealand and its agriculture.
His father worked for the American Farmland Trust, which employed Kiwi consultants for advice on pasture management. But Alex’s practical skills were limited when he took on his first job milking cows in Reporoa, Waikato.
A year later he met future wife Bronwyn, who was shepherding on Highlands Station, near Rotorua.
After spending a day with Bronwyn on the sheep and beef farm, Alex had a sudden revelation.
“Well, this is it, I thought. I know what I want to do now.”
Later, Bronwyn gave him a couple of pups to start a dog team. After leaving a herd manager’s job in Feilding he moved to Southland to work as stock manager on a finishing farm. To get some high country experience he shifted to Hakataramea Valley, North Otago, and worked under experienced stock manager Ian Grant, who gave him valuable guidance on how to build his dog handling skills.
“Ian is the best dog man I’ve ever met, and I made a friend for life.”
Three years ago he and Bronwyn applied for a position on Martin and Wendy Coup’s 800ha hill country farm, south of Aria. There were plenty of stock manager jobs going at the time, so Alex says they could afford to be picky. He and Bronwyn were looking for a fair-minded employer who would give them scope to improve their skills without driving them and their dogs into the ground through overwork.
The Coups were looking for their first stock manager after years of running the farm in a family partnership. Their off-farm commitments – Martin is a director of Beef + Lamb New Zealand and Wendy is a coach and facilitator for the Agri-Women’s Development Trust – meant they were spending an increasing amount of time away from the farm.
Martin says they both enjoy the off-farm work but they also still enjoy practical farming. They weren’t interested in selling the farm so they made the decision to employ someone to handle day-to-day management.
“We were used to hiring contractors and casual labour, but this was the first time we’d ever employed a full-time manager.”
The Coup’s experience with various industry organisations had taught them a lot about managing relationships. That proved useful when it came to deciding the type of person they wanted to fill the job.
“We were looking for a team member, not a staff member. Passion for farming was more important to us than the skill of the applicant, and we had to be sure they were the right fit for us and the farm,” says Martin.
The Coups got about 20 applicants for the job but only a handful made the shortlist.
They interviewed Alex and Bronwyn on New Year’s Day in a marathon session that spanned nine hours.
“I think we were interviewing them as much as they were interviewing us,” Alex says.
‘We were looking for a team member, not a staff member. Passion for farming was more important to us than the skill of the applicant, and we had to be sure they were the right fit for us and the farm.’
He and Bronwyn were offered the job and haven’t looked back since. “We were very lucky to find Martin and Wendy.”
Bronwyn worked on the farm until the birth of their daughter Meila in 2020. Now Alex does most of the day-to-day stock management with assistance from Martin and Wendy, when they are available. The Coups also employ Rick Pulman to help out with fencing, repairs and yard work.
Martin says Alex has brought a fresh perspective to the business. He is enthusiastic and keen to take stock production up another notch.
“One of Alex’s key focuses has been getting our capital ewes up in weight so that they are milking strongly after lambing.”
Even though the farm has strong sheep performance, Martin says ewes have traditionally been fairly light after lambing. The goal now is to increase the average weight of the Coopworth ewes from 59kg to 62-65kg post-lambing.
To help achieve this, Alex has started drenching for Barber’s Pole. He believes this treatment, administered in late February, will help ewes make better use of tupping feed.
His first year on the farm was a very good farming year, but Martin warned him that this wasn’t always the norm. Sure enough, the next two seasons were drought years, and this has provided an extra challenge for the young stock manager.
The Coups take an analytical approach to farming and Alex enjoys the monitoring and benchmarking aspects of the business. Martin and Wendy started using Farmax in 2016 and Alex has been quick to accept it as a key farming tool.
“If we want to buy stock or sell stock early, we just plug the figures into Farmax and that will tell us the consequences of that decision,” he says.
Farmax also serves as a mediator for those decisions where the farm owner and stock manager might not be in complete agreement.
“If I want to make a change then about 10% of my argument is based on my gut feeling and the other 90% comes down to what Farmax says.”
The Coups are well aware that there are plenty of opportunities out there for good stock managers, so they are looking for ways to keep Alex and Bronwyn on the farm and maintain their interest.
A recent initiative is the introduction of an agreement that will see Alex and Bronwyn take ownership of some of the bought-in bulls. When those bulls are sold, the stock manager will receive a portion of the profits.
“It’s a great way to give Alex more skin in the game,” says Martin.
Alex gets time off to attend agricultural training courses and continues to hone his dog handling and stock management skills. While he accepts he and Bronwyn may never be able to afford their own sheep and beef farm, they really enjoy the lifestyle the job and region brings.
“I love my hunting, and there is a very strong network of young farmers in the King Country, so our social life is good too.”