02 March 2024

Reaching New Heights

Oranga Ahuwhenua. Farm Life.

writer: ELISE CACACE
photographer: VIVIAN GEHRMANN

Growing up as one of five children on a calf-rearing farm in Muriwai, just off the west coast of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, Emma Poole’s love for animals and the outdoors was instilled in her from a young age. Now, the twenty-eight-year-old farmer, vet and mum has made history, becoming the first woman ever to win the FMG Young Farmer of the Year competition in its fifty-five-year history.

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“I’m wearing a few different hats with different jobs at the moment, but farming is the only job where Beau can come to work with me, which is pretty cool,” Emma says.

At Massey University in Te Papa-i-Oea Palmerston North, Emma first fell in love with two things: the Young Farmers community and her husband, Chris. “I’d enrolled in an agricultural degree before I did a degree in veterinary science in 2014, and Chris and I were doing a paper together. He was the chairman of the Young Farmers Club at the time, and one day he asked me to come along, so I did,” Emma says. 

“After meeting heaps of like-minded people, I became pretty immersed in it all and ended up joining the committee. Then in 2017, our district didn’t have enough people competing for FMG Young Farmer of the Year and they suggested I go along to represent the club. I didn’t really think anything of it – I just thought I’d give it a go – but I ended up making it to regionals! I had no idea what I was in for, but I fell in love with the contest and all its quirks, and I thought it was just amazing. After that year, I knew I’d be back.”

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Capturing true rural ingenuity since 1969, the FMG Young Farmer of the Year competition has become an established part of the farming calendar, now seeing up to 300 competitors across the country put their farming skills and knowledge to the ultimate test, vying for a place in the national Grand Final. This year was Emma’s third time going for the prestigious award – she also came in third place in 2019 – while last season it was her brother, Tim Dangen, who walked home with the trophy at the Grand Final, with her husband, Chris, in a close second place.

“I think the only difference between coming third and coming first was life experience. I’ve compared it to the movie Slumdog Millionaire where every time you’re answering one of the questions, a piece of experience comes back to you from some point in your life – so the greater the breadth of your experience, the more likely you are to be able to answer something. There was also a lot of preparation involved, including nighttime readings, listening to the country radio every day at 12 o’clock to keep up with current events, and lots of listening to podcasts while I was driving around in my vet ute or at home.”

 Wee Beau chasing after the chickens. Emma says, “Beau’s got a pet lamb, and we’ve got working dogs and shed cats and a little flock of chickens. One shed cat has moved into our house and taken up permanent residence!”

Home for Emma is the small town of Pirongia in the Waikato, where she, Chris and their nineteen-month-old son, Beau, live on a rolling dairy farm underneath Mount Pirongia. They work as part of a team of eight, milking 1,100 cows across two different farms and rearing an additional 1,000 calves each year in equity partnership with Chris’s parents. “I think it’s a pretty special place to live because we’re always at the mercy of the mountain’s weather systems,” Emma says. “Quite often you’ll see the rainclouds come over and absolutely bucket down on the farm, but it’s always a gift when it comes because we’ll be getting rain when no one else will. So, while we’re at the mercy of her temper sometimes, I guess we’re also the beneficiary of some of those moods. I just love being able to look out the window and all I see is green. I think it’s really uplifting because what you see in front of you is the potential to create food, which is the core of what everyone needs in life.”

“We run a calf-rearing operation alongside the dairy farm, which means I spend about three hours of my morning with Beau feeding all the calves,” Emma says. “We calve twice a year in the autumn and the spring, so there’s always calves to feed.”
“We run a calf-rearing operation alongside the dairy farm, which means I spend about three hours of my morning with Beau feeding all the calves,” Emma says. “We calve twice a year in the autumn and the spring, so there’s always calves to feed.”

Growing her own food is something Emma has become increasingly good at, and when she married Chris in 2020, they grew their own vegetables and meat for their farm-style wedding. “I wouldn’t recommend it! I had Excel spreadsheets working out sowing dates and getting crops right, and it was a lot of effort.” Emma laughs, but it’s clear she’s not afraid of putting in the hard yards – if there’s one lesson she’s learned from her parents, Lyall and Robyn Dangen, it’s the value of hard work.

“Mum has worked as a nurse in a West Auckland hospital for around forty-one years. It’s a pretty incredible amount of service, but it more importantly reflects how hard she works, and I think we really learned that as kids. Then my dad has done everything he can to keep the farm going, and in those years when there was low farm income because of things out of our control, he diversified and found ways to make it work. Hard work was the biggest lesson they taught us, and also that family is at the core beyond all else.”

Being the middle child in a “chaotic family of seven” meant Emma’s childhood was never lacking in excitement. Growing up on her parent’s calf-rearing farm in Muriwai, she fondly recalls the times spent with her siblings, playing in the woolsheds and religiously attending the ag days and calf clubs. “They were always the biggest days of the year for our family, and because there’s a lot of years between the oldest and youngest of us kids, Mum and Dad went to twenty-six consecutive ag days without missing one! I think people were a bit sick of us by the end because we just knew what to do. Out of all of us kids, there’s only one boy and I was sort of the nominal younger ‘brother’ to Tim, which probably contributed to my skill set today. It was good fun, and I wouldn’t change anything for the world.”

Now as a parent herself, Emma hopes to demonstrate these same virtues to Beau, who is already showing signs of becoming a future Young Farmer. She smiles as she recalls his first word – “tractor!” – which may have stemmed from their early mornings outside together, feeding the calves and watching the machinery working across their land.

“What I really want to focus with Beau on is making sure Chris and I demonstrate to him what happiness looks like each and every day. There are a lot of things changing in the world, so I think it’s really important as parents that we role-model what happiness is. For us, we know that we love having jobs on the farm. It maintains our own happiness, and we reflect that back on Beau.”

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It is through these teachings that Emma has earned the admiration of not only Beau, but the entire nation. Since becoming the 2023 FMG Young Farmer of the Year winner and taking home the $90,000 prize, she’s been overwhelmed with support from both urban and rural communities and is blazing a trail for women in the farming sector.

“I’ve certainly had a lot of young girls come up to me since winning and say, ‘This is pretty cool, what you’ve done and I’m going to give it a go because of that.’ I said going into the competition that even if I inspired just one other woman to get out there and showcase what she’s got, then it would be a win at the end of the day. This year, about thirty-three per cent of the contestants were female, which is a higher proportion than what we see of females in agriculture in general, so hopefully we can just keep building on that.”

More than 600 spectators poured into Winchester Showgrounds in South Canterbury to watch this year’s Grand Final, where the seven finalists showed off their smarts and stamina by lifting haybales, herding sheep and building fences, as well as working with tractors, quad bikes and practical tools.

. “I think it’s pretty important to demonstrate to our kids what hard work looks like, so being able to have him there and show him what it looks like is pretty important to me,” Emma says
. “I think it’s pretty important to demonstrate to our kids what hard work looks like, so being able to have him there and show him what it looks like is pretty important to me,” Emma says

“I’m a large-animal vet, so sometimes I see horses and sheep, but my main focus is dairy cattle, and that stems from me having a passion for dairy farming. It comes in real handy sometimes. There’s always some extra farming chore that needs doing, like weaning calves or weighing cattle or drenching. I do all the vet work here too, so vaccinating or dehorning, which keeps us busy pretty much all year round.”

“I suppose historically, you’d think that females might be better at the technical side of things, and the males better at the practical side, but they’ve gotten the contest to a place now where there is equal opportunity for anyone to display their skills in both of those areas. It’s not just about brute force anymore, it’s about figuring out a smart way to do things efficiently, which is what farming is all about. It’s so neat that they’ve encapsulated that in a contest.”

And now that the competition is over and Emma has stepped back into the ebb and flow of normal life, including working two days a week as a large-animal vet in Te Awamutu, she acknowledges that it’s not the end of her Young Farmers journey and there’s still plenty more to be done.

. Emma, Beau and Chris. Emma says, “Things change pretty rapidly around here so having an amazing partner like Chris is key, because we both adapt as fast as each other as things change. We have to be pretty organised and there’s lots of living week-by-week, but the biggest spanner in the works is when Beau gets sick. That changes the course of everything.”
. Emma, Beau and Chris. Emma says, “Things change pretty rapidly around here so having an amazing partner like Chris is key, because we both adapt as fast as each other as things change. We have to be pretty organised and there’s lots of living week-by-week, but the biggest spanner in the works is when Beau gets sick. That changes the course of everything.”

“I’m definitely not a celebrity on the farm. The animals don’t know who you are, and it doesn’t really matter to them. There’s still jobs to be done!” Emma laughs. “But my life has certainly changed in that it’s given me an audience and a platform to speak from. It gives you that sense of credibility, and when I’m having a discussion with someone and they remember, ‘Oh you’re that girl that won that thing,’ it helps build my confidence and gives me the chance to speak up and say what I think.”

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“First and foremost I’m a mum, so that’s where I start my day and then I work back on my priorities from there. I don’t know if I ever get the mix quite right, but we have a huge amount of support from family, so we’re really lucky,” Emma says.
“First and foremost I’m a mum, so that’s where I start my day and then I work back on my priorities from there. I don’t know if I ever get the mix quite right, but we have a huge amount of support from family, so we’re really lucky,” Emma says.

FMG is proud to support Emma and other hardworking, passionate farmers across Aotearoa with developing crucial on-farm skills and forging lasting connections in their communities. Registrations for season 56 of FMG Young Farmer of the Year are open now. Head to www.fmg.co.nz/youngfarmer to learn more.

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