A shared passion for motorbikes led to a Massey University student finding a job in the seed industry. Tony Leggett reports.
Gore might be a long way from the leafy seaside suburb of Birkenhead on Auckland’s North Shore, but Fred Milford-Cottam feels right at home.
He’s now five months into a new role with H & T Agronomics as South Island manager. He jokes it’s manager of one as he is the sole company employee in the South Island. But it mirrors H & T’s steady North Island expansion over the past decade.
H & T Agronomics provides farmers with agronomic advice and retails seed and seed treatment services direct to farmers and a small number of other retailing companies.
Milford-Cottam got his first insight into farm life as a youngster, while holidaying at his family’s bach at Port Jackson on the Coromandel Peninsula.
He started working some of his holidays for local farmer, Alexander Ford, on his 2000+hectare farm which surrounded much of the Port Jackson inlet.
‘It was my first taste of farming, but it also meant riding motorbikes which I really enjoyed doing. I then started working for him in my Christmas holidays and when I got my driver’s licence at 15, he employed me as junior shepherd every school holiday,” Milford-Cottam says.
‘Out of about 500 boys in my final year 13 at school, I was the only one who went to Massey or Lincoln.’
The seed was sown in his mind to get into a career that connected with farming. Not having a family farm, a visit to his careers advisor at Westlake Boys High produced the suggestion that he should head to Lincoln or Massey University to pursue a degree in agriculture.
“Out of about 500 boys in my final year 13 at school, I was the only one who went to Massey or Lincoln.”
He chose Massey because he was racing motorbikes at the time in a national enduro/cross country team backed by motorcycle brand KTM, and most of the competing was in the North Island events at that time.
He signed up for a double degree, choosing a Bachelor of Science majoring in agriculture.
In his final year of study, he was also running coaching clinics for young motorcycle riders as part of his contract with KTM. At one he ran in Wairarapa, he met a director of H & T Agronomics, Paul Oliver, who had two boys in the clinic.
“When the training was finished, I started talking to Paul and found out what he did. Kind of off the cuff, I asked him for a job.”
“He said send me an email on Monday and two weeks later I had a job at H & T Agronomics. It was half way through my final year, at about the same time as the banks and companies like Fonterra were presenting to students about careers with them.”
He admits he didn’t know much about what H & T did, but he has never regretted his eagerness.
Before starting at the company’s Feilding office, he worked on a bull finishing farm in Hawke’s Bay where one of the team mentioned he had been closely involved with H & T’s predecessor, Hodder and Tolley over several years.
“He spoke highly of the company, it’s proud tradition and good people. That sealed the deal for me and Paul was great over that period from signing the contract to starting in my role,” Milford-Cottam says .
He was originally hired to take over some of the company’s Rangitikei clients and spent time with now-retired local legend, Ken Smith, visiting his customers, building his knowledge and getting to know how the company operated.
“I originally started in Feilding, covering the Rangitikei region. It coincided with another field representative, Duncan Thomas, taking on the business manager role, so I picked up some of his clients and added my own.”
Milford-Cottam says he joined the company just at the peak of the plantain-clover boom and his first two years were largely spent helping farmers successfully establish and manage plantain and clover for lamb and cattle finishing.
After working for H & T for four-and-a-half years, he resigned and headed to Romania to join the track management team behind epic enduro event, Red Bull Romaniacs.
“They paid for me to get over there, gave me a motorbike, and set me up, and I helped run one of the big races. It was a massive event, really chaotic but a lot of fun.”
Although he’d left the company, Oliver and Thomas were keen to keep him involved. When H & T added seed treatment to its services, they got in touch with Milford-Cottam in 2017 and he joined them at a global seed treatment conference in Budapest.
He arrived back in NZ in November 2018 into a dual role based at Masterton, covering some of the company’s farmer clients but working mostly on seed treatment technology development, including the company’s proprietary Optitech system. The new role included developing the company’s international business relationships so it remained a leader in the technology of seed treatment and products.
H & T had been looking at growing into the South Island so offered Milford-Cottam the chance to lead the development.
“Moving to Gore is an opportunity for me to have a go at starting H & T in the South Island. I’ve got a role similar to Duncan (Thomas) in business development, but in the South Island and there’s only me!”
“At the moment, I’m still getting a feel for the area, but I’m keen to try to replicate what has been achieved in the North Island.”
Gore was deliberately chosen by the company because of its similarity to the rural service town of Feilding where H & T’s head office and seed treatment business is based. His move south also coincided with some staff movement within the wider agronomy sector, so the timing was good to establish himself and the H & T Agronomics brand in the region.
Milford-Cottam says H & T prides itself on being nimble and progressive, traits reflected in its industry-leading seed treatment services and farm systems advice.
“Our aim is always to do the basics well but focus more on outcomes and how that impacts a farm system, more so than say what ryegrass cultivar you’re going to sow today,” he says.
He feels lucky to have been employed initially and given the opportunities to work in the seed treatment side of the business.
“You know when you’re in the industry you wouldn’t want to work for anyone else. I’ve got a really good relationship with Paul particularly, he is my mentor and I talk to him most days about anything that needs covering,” he says.
When time permits, Milford-Cottam says he’s still enjoying riding his motorbike. He’s found there are plenty of trail rides and enduro or cross-country events in the Southland region.
He’s competed nationally in the past and won a national title several years ago, but is happy to enjoy his time riding bikes these days without the team expectations and pressure to win.