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Francis and Annette Maher : A Family Operation

For many New Zealand farmers, running a business can mean getting the whole family involved. This was apparent from the beginning when we visited Francis and Annette Maher on their seventh-generation farm in Marlborough. All five of their daughters, three of whom are married and live in Marlborough, help out with the 800-hectare livestock and vineyard operation.

Francis and Annette have been farming together for most of their married life. Annette came from a city background in Adelaide before meeting Francis overseas; they wed in 1980. Ever since then, Annette has been Francis’s right hand man. Their block in Kaituna, north of the Wairau River, has predominantly been turned into a vineyard where they grow grapes on contract. Francis and Annette also own a hill country block closer to Blenheim where they calve and run cattle. The farm has been split across different sections of land and they have been expanding with the addition of new blocks to be passed down to future generations.

They run 800 to 1,000 cattle and 300 ewes, and the sheep numbers continue to reduce every time a new vineyard block goes in. Their children are still interested in lambing and calving and are all part of the farming operation in some way. It’s one of the reasons they still have livestock on the property, as Francis mentioned the vineyard side of the operation isn’t so heavily family focused. Their eldest daughter is a property manager, whilst the youngest daughter is a vineyard manager. Two of their son-in-laws also help out on the farm and their other son-in-law likes helping out when he can outside of his radiologist job.

“It's interesting that we don't have a son, but girls can do anything and we're very positive about that. We’re very proud of the way they're stepping up and managing issues. They all have their particular strengths and characteristics and their qualifications are very broad,” Francis said.

Francis and Annette were a bit apprehensive at the start about growing grapes but they saw a demand for it in Marlborough as the economy was heading in that direction. “Over the years as farmers throughout the 80s with livestock, we've been given a fair sort of beating with prices, economics and high interest rates, so I was a bit sceptical about the grape. We chose the conservative option just to lease the land initially. We've built up confidence from that and now we've actually planted some of our own grapes – growing them on contract,” Francis said.

When asked what Francis liked to do in his spare time, he was quick to answer – farming. Francis is also a Marlborough District Councillor, so he fills in some of his spare time with that. He is also interested in roading and managing the rivers around Marlborough. Annette likes to spend her early mornings walking with friends, spending time with her grandchildren and getting away to their bach in the Marlborough Sounds.

The succession plan for where they see the family farm heading started with Francis and Annette selling a block of land to the five girls and their partners. They are looking to develop one of their sections in Blenheim into affordable housing. “I'm a big believer in trying to get people into houses in New Zealand. I’m upset at the situation we find ourselves in where the average New Zealander is finding it hard to buy a home,” Francis said.

Francis and Annette are also keen to play a part in future-proofing the soil of their land. They have planted thousands of native trees over the past few years which are growing well, and they plan to continue planting. They also work with the council under a programme designed to figure out what species work on their dry hill country.

“We are supportive of the government’s legislations with fresh water – that's a no brainer. We all have to make sure that we've got fresh water around for the future. It's just a matter of how we actually do it in cooperation rather than confrontation,” Francis said.

“At the end of the day, we think we're doing a good job. It's about leaving the soil in better condition. Although it gets blamed for a lot of things, irrigation, if used properly, helps build out the soil structure. Correct use of fertilisers in small amounts can actually balance some of the things the soil is lacking and that's completely justifiable. For example, we're just lacking in selenium in this province particularly, so small amounts of selenium need to be added for animal health,” Francis added.

Francis and Annette deal with their local Blenheim store, and Francis was taken on a trip to visit the Golden Downs where Goldpine’s wood is produced. He was impressed at how the fixation process works and the volume of the operation in Nelson.

Francis has been working with Goldpine for over 20 years and was quick to comment on the excellent customer service he receives, but what he values most about Goldpine is that it is family owned. Their products have helped to establish their growing vineyard blocks. “Goldpine have a product called the Superpost and it's one that is used by a major New Zealand company that we grow for. So, on that advice, we actually went with the Superpost. It seems like Goldpine have got onto a winner with this one. The shape and the strength of it seems to be outlasting any of the others,” Francis said.

Francis ended our visit with a story about his mother who was in the Air Force at a time when women were confined to doing a lot of unskilled work. Francis’s mother checked the job board and saw that there was a job to drive tractors to refuel the planes. So, she rang her brother and asked him how to drive a tractor, and after she learnt, she was able to spend the rest of her time in the Air Force out in the open air, driving a tractor and refuelling planes. Just like his mother, his five daughters also get out there and do what they love. “Girls can do anything,” Francis said.