The growing number of women involved in Silver Fern Farms are intelligent and dedicated with a diverse range of skills that would impress and inspire anyone. And they’re helping change the face of New Zealand agriculture through innovation, resilience and lots of hard work.

Hilary Hansen - Haupouri, Okahu

Hilary Hansen WIF

For those who think the tradition comprises a father passing on the farm to his eldest son, meet the mythbuster. The family of Hilary Hansen’s mother, the Averys, has farmed the Haupouri Station for seven generations – since the early 1860s. Through family tragedies, career decisions and global financial crises, the 1500ha property has more recently passed from grandmother to mother, and now to daughter. At the age of 27, Hilary also manages its 600ha neighbour, Okahu Station.

And it’s not just in her DNA. Hilary grew up on the farm. When she finished school she left Hawkes Bay for Australia to follow her passion for sport: “Then I had an epiphany, and decided to come home and study business at Auckland University,” says Hilary. “Everyone said to me, ‘Why don’t you go to Lincoln and study farming with business?’ But I wanted to be around the best business academics and take that back to the farming industry, rather than the other way around.” Hilary had completed her degree in business and marketing when she found out her mum and dad were struggling. “I thought I’d go back to the farm for a summer and help them out, then go and find a job.” Hilary followed the then farm manager around the property, and decided things could be done better. “We were at a point when the farm was going to be taken by the bank.” She shared her concerns with her dad Warwick and the conversation ended with Hilary as the new farm manager.

We worked out what we could do best with the land that we had.

As her mother Juliet puts it, “She calls all the shots.” The arrangement was a winner. Hilary put her university training to work and rigorously picked apart every aspect of the business. “We worked out what we could do best with the land that we had, and we changed it from losing $200,000 to making $1 million,” says Hilary. It wasn’t only the financial challenge. Her mother adds: “Imagine this. Hilary had just come home from university and we woke up one day and we had lost 40 per cent of the front country of Haupouri in the 2011 weather bomb. Since 1860, nothing like this had happened. The family had built all the buildings since the early 1900s. Not one of them was damaged.” 

Hilary was lucky enough to grow up with female role models, but there are still gender stereotypes that require busting. She tells of going to tractor stores with her head shepherd, Sean Kingston, who’s about the same age. “If we go anywhere to buy parts for things, the males will talk to him rather than me. I’m actually his boss. He’s very good but they find that a little bit hard.” People management on a farm can be trying for a young woman. “I’ve found the easiest way is to appear confident and bluff my way through it,” she says. The family’s relationship with Silver Fern Farms was another of Hilary’s innovations. Three years ago, as she changed the focus of the business, Hilary took advice from family connections who had relayed their good experiences with Silver Fern Farms. That brought about a few discussions with her father, explaining the Plate to Pasture strategy and similar initiatives. Her business-based arguments won Warwick over, which is hardly surprising given the faith he has shown in his first- born all along. “He’s been amazing,” she says. “He was willing to let go. He’s supported me all the way.”