Leanne Hartnett, a 25 year old Irish woman doing her first season in New Zealand as a rural contractor, is loving the life here – though it took a while to get used to the size of machinery she’s required to drive.  “You have to drive way bigger machines over here. We couldn’t get them in and out of the farms at home.”

Daryl Thompson hired Leanne last year after renewing a contract with her boyfriend Kevin Lenihan who’d worked for the major Southland rural contractor back in 2017. He says she’s adapted well. “Leanne is capable and keen and we are pleased to have her.” D Thompson Contracting employs more than 60 people at its seasonal peak and getting good workers can at times be a challenge.

Leanne’s father Eppy is a rural contractor back home in county Cork. “To try and put me to sleep as a baby he’d put me in the tractor.” She’s been around machinery ever since. While not working managing a local dairy farm in Cork or doing relief milking, she’s back at weekends helping her father, who’s principal work is lime spreading, with sileage, haymaking and digger work thrown in. During winter it’s just Leanne, her brother and father; in the spring/summer a couple of extra hands might be hired. The biggest challenge in Southland is driving bigger machines, starting with a rake, then a bailer, than drawing bales.

“We would not have driven a four-rotor rake at home. The normal farm would have 150-200 cows.” (Southland herds average more than 600.)

Leanne works with her boyfriend Kevin alternating the tasks. “If I’m on the bailer, he’s on the rake.” She says another challenge has only been working with men. “I’m often the only woman in the yard.” Leanne says her workmates have treated her “perfectly” and acknowledges it’s also mostly men in rural contracting back in Ireland as well.

One thing she’s observed here is the number of women truck drivers and she finds that encouraging because she thinks women have more of a role to play in contracting and farming in both countries. “When I walk into a shop at home covered in cow shite they just look at you through their make-up.” Not that she’s adverse to putting on the glad rags when time allows and her and Kevin have enjoyed a few breaks off the machines including visits to Queenstown. “The social life here is great. We had St Patrick’s weekend in Queenstown. It was great craic.”

Daryl says over the years he’s employed 1-2 women a season from NZ or overseas as skilled machinery operators; most have proved very good workers, with almost all coming from farming or contracting backgrounds. “None of them have been scared to pick up the grease gun or replace one of the tynes. The women from overseas and even from around here that are brought up on or around farms are great.” He also acknowledges that women tend to take things a bit slower when advisable and are less demanding on machinery than younger males. “If you put a female in the seat they’ll likely do much better than an 18-22 year old male.”

Rural Contractors NZ is encouraging more young women to consider rural contracting as a career through supporting initiatives such as Opportunities Grow Here.  Two of ten finalists in the 2023 RCNZ Trainee Contractor of the year are women.