Career

How I went from rural bank manager to winning the Fieldays Rural Catch award and taking on an entire farm

'I said, ‘No, I’m not applying!’ They said, ‘If you don’t enter this, we’re going to put you in Married at First Sight. You’ve got a choice.'

By: Lynley Ward

When Mairi Whittle's university friends gave her an ultimatum between entering a singles competition at the country's biggest farming expo or an arranged marriage on a reality TV show, she was tempted to run for the hills.

"My university girlfriends from when we were 18 and mad spotted the ad and said I had to enter," laughs the 28-year-old Taihape shepherd and newly crowned Fieldays Rural Catch winner.

"They actually threatened me. I said, 'No, I'm not applying!' They said, 'If you don't enter this, we're going to put you in Married at First Sight. You've got a choice.'"

Despite her initial misgivings, Mairi's application was not only successful, but she ended up acquitting herself with distinction across a range of challenges in the annual rural show at Hamilton's Mystery Creek.

With Billy the lamb in 1993.

Speaking to the Weekly during a lunch break after dagging hundreds of sheep on her rugged central North Island farm, the bachelorette beauty reveals that the experience ended up being better than she imagined.

"You were getting judged the whole time around crowd interaction, attitude and personality. I definitely didn't win it on the challenges alone, but they were all quite fun.

"Though I was terrible at using the digger on the back of the tractor," she admits. "I'm not machinery-minded!"

Back home in the gumboot capital of New Zealand, the spoils of victory – a bright red Suzuki quad bike – sits parked under shelter waiting for its first outing on the hilly, muddy farm tracks a week after snow and rain drenched the central region.

"The bike came last Friday but I'm too scared to get it dirty, so it's still parked in my garage," she confesses.

"We use side-by-sides on the farm, so I've just been using the farm one. I'll get my quad out soon, but it's so nice and clean!"

And with the coveted golden gumboot sitting pride of place on a display shelf, the former rural bank manager is focusing on her next ambitious goal – realising a childhood dream to own a farm.

"My family have a sheep and beef farm north-east of Taihape, and I've always wanted to go back there. I'm heading home in a month's time to lease the farm. I'll be on my own, but hopefully Dad will help me out.

"He's keen to retire and step back, but I'll start off leasing the land and then try buy it down the track."

Mairi won the title of Fieldays Rural Catch. She hasn't taken her prize – a Suzuki quad bike – out in the mud yet as it's so new and shiny!

Before her life comes full circle, Mairi has spent the last three years getting critical hands-on skills from farms halfway round the globe.

Tells Mairi, "Mum is Scottish and I went over with her three years ago. I did a lot of rousing, helping with shearing gangs, general farm work and even worked on a big hunting estate in northern Scotland.

"After touring Europe and having a good time with friends, I did six months as a cowgirl on a big cattle station in Australia," she adds, noting she had wanted to do this her entire life.

Returning to New Zealand last year, Mairi landed a job on a Taihape farm, ahead of the shift back to the sprawling 607- hectare Mowhanga property – and even her old childhood bedroom – in a few weeks' time.

Mairi leapt at the chance to work as a cowgirl in Australia.

"I've only been on this job since October, but I'm learning everything I can here to go back to the home farm.

"I'm getting better with a tractor, and schooling up on quite a lot of fencing and building, fixing-type jobs as well," she says, adding she can dag sheep fast enough but shearing still takes a fair few minutes.

As for prospects of a love match, the savvy stockwoman reckons her life is so full, there hasn't been much time for that to happen. "It's a very big year. And that's probably why I hardly worry about needing to look for a man because I'm so busy trying to learn everything I need to be learning. But it would definitely be helpful," she says with a laugh.

"Funnily enough, I always thought I'd be back there probably with a husband who would have been on the farm and I would have been helping out! But what I love about where I am now is that I've actually put myself in a position where I'm going to be able to do it myself. I'll be the farmer. That's not saying I won't mind a hand down the track, but I'm pretty stoked with how it's happened like this."