Dairy Environment Leaders chair Amber Carpenter.

High Heels To Gumboots: Swapping Corporate Fashion For Dairy Farming

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30 August 2023

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Ask Amber Carpenter about dairy farming and you’ll hear the passion in her voice as she answers.

The South Auckland dairy farmer and Dairy Environment Leaders chair says the sector is incredible, thanks to the opportunities it offers and the people in it. “Farmers always have time to help others, they share ideas and give advice, and you know people are there for you should you need them. It’s great to be part of such a positive and engaging sector.”

It’s quite the endorsement for the sector, and there’s plenty more where that came from – Amber was introduced to the sector 17 years ago and says it was love at first sight. “The opportunities are amazing and the people are incredible. They all look after each other and the land and animals. Farmers generally put themselves last.”

Farming, Amber says, also offers a great lifestyle and the chance to be at home with the kids (she and husband Fraser have two children – Oliver, five and Noah, two).

Amber and Fraser Carpenter with sons Oliver and Noah.

She came into farming from a career in corporate fashion – Amber worked for Karen Walker and as a buyer for Farmers Trading Company, among other roles. In 2007 she met Fraser at a 21st and added part-time farmer to her full-time commitments. 

Fast-forward to 2018. Amber was working as a national merchandising manager for Cotton On NZ and had just given birth to a son – Oliver, now five – when she committed to farming full-time. 

She and Fraser had been equal partners in the sharemilking business they started in 2015 – they’re now in their ninth season – and Amber was helping on-farm on weekends or doing the books at night when she got home from town or overseas.

“We realised we needed to make a choice – urban life following my career, or rural life following Fraser’s. It’s obvious which path we took,” she laughs.

But exchanging high heels for gumboots wasn’t easy for Amber: it was one of the hardest transitions she’s faced.

“I knew it was the right decision, but it wasn’t an easy process. I didn’t expect to mourn the loss of my old career. It was a big part of who I was, so I suppose I felt like I’d lost part of myself. I was constantly worried I wouldn’t be welcomed or be told I didn’t belong.”  

The sector welcomed her, though, and she doesn’t regret the move for a minute. “I look back at the decision Fraser and I made, and I’m so grateful we followed our hearts to stay farming and bring our kids up in a rural community.”

She’s certainly made an impact across the sector. In June 2023, Amber was appointed chair of DairyNZ’s Dairy Environment Leaders (DEL) network in June 2023, charged with leading other environmentally minded farmers into a sustainable future. Her enthusiasm for the chair role is clear: she wants to give back to a sector she’s grateful to be part of. The role appealed, she says, because she’s passionate about making a difference and driving change for a better future. “I’m aware I am filling very large shoes from the amazing work previous chairs, including Martin Bennett, Tracy Brown and Melissa Slattery, have achieved. Continuing to build on their work is important.

The DEL group involves 400 dairy farmer members nationwide who work with other dairy farmers, communities and decision-makers to drive positive environmental progress. DELs also share with the wider community the great work dairy farmers have been doing nationwide, such as planting, fencing off waterways and creating wetlands to reduce nutrient losses and provide a habitat for native plants and animals. The dairy sector is committed to improving the environment and DEL’s vision of a sustainable future aligns with Amber’s values.

She and Fraser are dedicated to caring for the land – their goal is to leave the land better than they found it for future generations. They have a plan every season to lower their environmental footprint, such as reducing nitrogen and fertiliser inputs and imported feed.  

“As sharemilkers we work with what is in our control,” Amber says. “Understanding our numbers is key, and working with farm owners who value environmental sustainability is important to us. We appreciate working with previous and current farm owners on farm environment plans and being involved in the conversations when it comes to planting and fencing off wetlands.

“I want to be a part of DEL to help us on this journey, to have the opportunity to connect with like-minded people to share ideas, hear different viewpoints, collaborate and make a positive impact, whether it is on our own farm or in the community,” she says. “All the small changes each day and each season help us make a bigger overall impact,” she says.

“I feel the DEL chair role is a great opportunity to put my skills and experience to great use and give back to the sector,” she says.

What skills learned throughout her fashion career are relevant to her DEL work? Plenty, she says. “I believe some of the skills I learnt around strategy, implementation, working with stakeholders, relationship building and teamwork will be beneficial.”

Before becoming chair, Amber had been a member of DEL for two years and says she’s loved it. “I’ve enjoyed my time being part of DEL so far, and the learnings and insights it has given myself and our farm business.”

Like any career, dairying has its challenges. For Amber, who has spent most of her life surrounded by people, isolation is the biggest. “But this is easily managed by making time to get off farm and connect.”

Amber does just that when she can, throwing herself into life outside the business. She plays netball – before having kids she played in a regional premier league and now joins summer league teams when the farm workload is lighter – and catches up with friends regularly, as well as fishing, snowboarding and hanging out at the beach with her family. 

“We’re an active family so those things are important for us,” she says. “We work hard to ensure a good work/life balance for us and our team and take every opportunity we can to get off farm and do something fun and active.”

The Dairy Environment Leaders group provides some of those opportunities for connection off-farm. “You can get out of your own head and find other ideas,” Amber says. “It’s always easier to tackle things with a like-minded community behind you than on your own. Together we can make a huge difference.”

She is, she says, a glass-half-full person. That optimism will help her – and the DEL network – face anything that might come their way. “Although we have many challenges ahead of us, there are also so many opportunities. I think the future of the dairy sector is exciting and bright.”

Related Article: The Foxtrot Sisters on Family, Farming, and Mental Health

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