I live in Kingston, but I was raised on a sheep and deer farm in Southland, so farming is in my blood. I’m married to Dan Koot; we have an eighteen-month-old, Isla, and I have another bubba in my belly. Farming was not something that my parents encouraged as a career. It’s very challenging, and my parents wanted my brother and me to have other options. So I headed down the corporate route, making big money – fancy job titles, suit, stilettos, inner-city living. When I changed my whole life and created Real Country in 2016, I didn’t actually have many farming skills. I couldn’t run a working dog. I couldn’t crack a whip. I couldn’t shoot a gun to save myself.
Real Country is an agritourism business with a focus on giving guests real rural experiences while also building their confidence. I was the sole owner, operator, poo-picker-upper – I did absolutely everything. I knew nothing about actually operating a farm, but what I did have was that farming mindset that all rural kids have, that problem-solving mentality. It was that attitude that allowed me to set up the business, to grow and innovate, and it is the mindset that allows me to keep going.
In 2017, I hired a full-time staff member, which meant I could work more on the business than in it. Then Covid happened and wiped out the entire business. Real Country was a tourism product that was fully reliant on international tourists. I had to let my staff member go and rehome a lot of my animals. I had no income whatsoever. It was at this point that I reflected on a quote from University of Otago MBA director Richard Higham: “Innovate or die.” I didn’t want to die, so I decided to innovate.
I focused on my original passion – building confidence in people by teaching them practical farm skills. That was the basis for the business, but it had morphed into tourism because that was a more scalable product. We redirected the business into confidence-building workshops, focusing on the domestic market, getting groups out to teach them how to shoot shit and crack whips.
Once again, that was me alone – hosting, running the business, picking up animal poo. I now have an amazing team of people who host for me, and the business is both the agritourism – the international guests are back and we are running farm shows – and the confidence-building workshops, which became so popular.
Having a family changes your priorities and the way you think. Rural mothers who are working just get it done, whatever it takes. I employ other rural mothers and my house essentially becomes a daycare. When they’re hosting groups, they drop their kids off at my house because I’m mumming anyway. It works for me as the owner, and it works for my team as working mums.
The property that Real Country is on is leased from Kingston Station and the owner, Tim Taylor, has been much more than a landlord. I started out operating out of his mai-mai. I would pick up American tourists from Queenstown in my old ’94 Hiace van, ferry them through the farm, teach them how to shoot guns, crack whips, and make them smoko. It was rough as guts; I knew nothing about anything, but they had a great time.
In the beginning, Tim said, “Don’t worry about rent, just get going and then we’ll talk.” So I got going and then we set up an arrangement. He put in a big shed for me, so I have a venue, I have bathrooms – I’m very grateful to be able to lease the land on Kingston Station.
I truly believe that there are no original ideas; what sets people apart is the ability to actually execute the idea they have – day in, day out, year after year. That’s all I’ve done. When you execute ideas, you learn stuff and then you adjust your plan accordingly.
There’s always development on the horizon. When I set up, I was not at all focused on money. All I wanted to do was set up a business that I was passionate about. But as I got going, I stated to think, “How can I make it scalable?” To me, scalability looks like more of my team running the business, bigger groups coming in, and growing both the international and the domestic market. Someone asked me the other day, “Are you making as much money as you were when you were in corporate?” I’m making something way better than “more money”; I make “enough”. A lot of people don’t ever get to that point in their career, and I am there. Money is only to feed my children and do what I love doing – but I do what I love doing every day. I genuinely have enough.
The NZI Rural Women NZ Business Awards celebrate the creative and innovative women running rural businesses and their contributions to rural communities. Visit ruralwomennz.nz/business-awards/ for more information.
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