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Navigating the narrative

Navigating the narrative
Lisa Portas. Credit Photos for Jean

Palliser Ridge expansion manager Lisa Portas left Wellington's city lights behind in 2009 when she moved with her husband Kurt to the South Wairarapa's 1200-hectare sheep and beef property and has embraced rural life.

"Falling for a farmer meant that there was no chance of him moving to the city," Portas says.

After the couple entered into an equity partnership with Kiwi farm owners Jim and Marilyn Law in 2013, the focus has been on building the farm operation and diversifying the business by developing a farm stay and producing luxury blankets made from Palliser Ridge wool.

The property has 1,200 Angus-cross cattle and 7,000 Romney sheep, which Portas said suited the farm's dry summers and wet winters.

"We've found Romney to fit the bill for this. They are a dual-purpose breed, they produce quality lambs, and the fibre from their first lamb shear is well suited for taking through to finished products."

The farm stay, Palliser Ridge Retreat, opened for bookings six years ago and is an off-grid, solar-powered one-bedroom cabin at the top of the farm with views out to the Cook Strait and South Island.

Palliser ridge. Credit Lilia Alexander

"It's designed for a couple or a single person to relax in the KiwiTub, take in the Dark Sky Reserve that the Wairarapa is well-known for, and escape everyday life," Portas said.

"I look after the booking system, and we have two part-time team members who work in the diversification business, which includes turning over the cabin once or twice a week."

Knowing the importance of storytelling when marketing the farm and interested in why, how and to whom farmers should tell their story, Portas chose the topic 'Farmer storytelling -– Navigating our Narrative' for her research report she completed for the Kellogg's Leadership Programme Course in 2019.

"It feels like a while ago now, but I think there was a lot of encouragement at the time, as there still is today, for farmers to tell their story – and to me, that felt like a really simple sentence, but the actions behind it weren't that straightforward.

"I want to get out there and share my story, but why am I doing it, and who am I telling it to? And how do I make sure they hear me?"

Portas said that farmers tell their stories for different reasons, and knowing how and where to tell your story depends on your end goal.

"Is it to pass on knowledge and history to the next generation? Is it showcase your product and it's benefits? Is it to extinguish myths about your industry? Is it to influence policy? There are so many reasons to tell a story in any industry, but I was really interested in understanding how certain end goals could be achieved through effective storytelling."

Portas said one of the most important reasons for farmers to tell their story is to generate connection.

Many urban dwellers have lost connection with agriculture. In the past, many had family living on farms and would spend at least part of their childhood visiting rural relatives, but this has become much more rare as time has gone on.

"We quite often host buses full of retired groups, who step into the shearing shed, their eyes light up, and the stories start flowing of being a young rousie, or helping the shearing gang, or mucking out someone's woolshed for holiday money.

"As a contrast we host school groups from between 10 minutes and two hours away from our farm, and many of those younger individuals visiting have never set foot on a farm, and that connection that the older generations has isn't as strong."

Many people have assumptions about agriculture, and farmers can educate and enlighten by sharing what farm life looks like.

"I think of industries that I know little about, and I assume their day-to-day role, a bit of this and a bit of that, and then you meet someone who sheds light on what they do, and it broadens your knowledge and perspective.

"In farming, it's no different; a perspective of shifting stock, shearing sheep, running a dog, all are important, but our farmers do so much more than that, and any time we have the opportunity to share what that is, we should. The benefit is connection and understanding."

Portas said that people hearing directly from farmers is more authentic, but acknowledges that time constraints can make it difficult for farmers to find the time to share their farming story, and encourages them to make the most of initiatives already in place.

"There are many great mouthpieces for our industry that can support farmers, like the Open Farms initiative, where farmers open their gates, supported by the Open Farms team with health and safety guidance, signage, ideas of how to engage an audience, a date, a time, it's all streamlined so that the on-farm team can set it up, and turn up on the day and deliver.

"I believe it's a fantastic example of hearing directly from the farmers, but they haven't had to come up with everything from scratch."

In cases where opening the farm gates to schools, catchment groups, or the general public isn't feasible, social media becomes a useful way to break down geographical barriers.

Portas warns that social media can open farmers up to a range of feedback, and those who choose that path need to be prepared to encounter differing opinions.

"The biggest piece of advice that I've taken on board here would be to remember that there is a wide range of viewpoints online. They won't all be in line with your own, and that's okay."

by Claire Inkson