From flight paths to paddocks

From charting coastal waters for the Navy to dairy farming and even running his own airline, Environment Canterbury resource management officer Terry Hewitt has had an amazing career but he says he now loves helping farmers comply with environmental regulations. He talked to Tony Benny.

“People said I’d gone to the dark side,” jokes Terry Hewitt, reflecting on his change from farmer and businessman to Environment Canterbury in the Ashburton water management zone.

“But I said, ‘Actually no. If you’re doing everything well, with good management practice, that’s just great’. We’re working towards a reduction in the nitrogen that’s coming out the bottom of people’s farms.”

As a sailing-mad schoolboy in Taupo, Hewitt had no idea what career he wanted to pursue until sailing great Peter Blake gave a talk at his yacht club.

“He said you’ll never be a better navigator than a hydrographer (nautical chart maker), so a light bulb went on and I thought, ‘That’s what I’ll do, I’ll join the RNZN’,” Hewitt recalls.

Still, at school, he applied to join the Royal New Zealand Navy and soon found himself at sea on a 72-foot motor launch, charting coastal waters around Great Barrier Island and Coromandel.

At the same time, he studied for a New Zealand Certificate in Land Surveying and looked forward to being sent to Otago University to do a Bachelor of Surveying but after a couple of years in the navy, he reviewed his options.

“One guy went to Otago every year and I had about five guys in front of me before I went down so I had another three years to wait.”

He’d already got through to fourth year level of the New Zealand surveying certificate, and finding that most of what he learnt from that applied to land rather than sea, he decided to leave the navy and go back to shore.

“I was a young fellow with a girlfriend who I only saw every second weekend so there were some aspects of being land-based that were quite attractive,” laughs Hewitt.

He worked for Auckland surveying firm D. F. Mackay and Associates. “That was great. I did engineering surveying for the steel mill at Glenbrook and that was pretty exciting and I also did a lot of rural work.”

Much of his work in the country involved splitting up sheep farms for dairy farms and he soon saw alternative career opportunities.

“One of the farmers I was doing some work for said, ‘If you’re interested in a farming career, you can go from having nothing to owning your own farm after 12 years, going through sharemilking system’. So we did exactly that.”

Terry Hewitt, Compliance officerLeaving the city life for farming in Canterbury

He and partner Wendy left Auckland and took a job on a town supply dairy farm in 1985. “It was a career move to increase our wealth because we had 60 per cent of my salary going to rent and there was no way we could buy a property.” Average house prices in Auckland then were around $350,000 and Hewitt’s pay as a surveyor was $18,000 a year.

“Yet I could go dairy farming and my first job was $32,000, nearly twice what I was earning. I got a house thrown in with it and there was this career path out in front. I knew nothing about cows so it was a great leap of faith.”

The couple learnt about cows and pasture management and worked their way up the dairy ladder, becoming contract milkers then sharemilkers, and winning the Bay of Plenty sharemilker of the year along the way.

They came south to Canterbury in 1995, sharemilking for Applefields (later known as Dairy Brands) and then the Rakaia Incorporation, and in 2001 they bought their own farm at Maronan, near Ashburton.

Hewitt replaced the existing border dyke irrigation that only covered four-fifths of the farm with far more efficient spray irrigation that watered the whole property and put in one of the first storage ponds in the area.

He increased production and then watched as the value of the farm and his milk company shares skyrocketed.

“I was saying to Wendy, ‘This is like a bubble, this is not right. In the entire history of the dairy industry we’ve never seen rapid growth like this’. So, I started saying, ‘We should put it on the market, we’ll get twice what we paid’. But she was going, ‘No’, because she loves farming.”

After a couple of years, Wendy relented and the farm was put up for sale. “We put it on the market for silly money and it sold within three weeks.”

With money in the bank, Hewitt was ready for a new challenge, this time pursuing another love, aviation. He already had his private pilot’s licence and now added commercial qualifications, including credentials to be CEO of an aviation company.

He formed Ashburton Air Services and bought a twin-engined, 12-seat Cessna 404 from the United States and was soon running a scheduled service between Christchurch and Westport, regularly taking Solid Energy staff back and forth, as well as locals.

The service was very successful but soon Air New Zealand, which was losing customers on it’s Wellington – Christchurch – Hokitika route to the upstart airline, took action, putting a lower-priced service on the Christchurch-Westport route.

Unable to compete, Hewitt discontinued the scheduled service and carried on with charter work, for example flying fish from the Chatham Islands. But then he was

offered a job in Australia as chief pilot for Skyways of Benalla, a small airline that specialised in flying staff in and out of remote mining settlements.

He did that for two years, coming home roughly every six weeks, before coming home for good, unsure what he’d do next.

“That was the first time I’d ever had to sit around with nothing to do and it’s as boring as buggery and I thought, ‘I’ve got to find something to do.” says Hewitt.

Finding new opportunities to protect Canterbury's waterways

He fed cows for three months and sold his plane and then he spotted a job vacancy with Environment Canterbury as a resource management officer, responsible for monitoring water takes.

“I’d been audited and monitored by Environment Canterbury in my days as a dairy farmer, so I thought, ‘That could be quite good fun’, and then the area I got was the area I’d farmed in. I was a shareholder in Mayfield Hinds Irrigation and now I monitor the scheme.

“I know all the farmers, and I know how they work,” he says, adding that he’d rather help farmers than take action against them for not complying with their water consents.

“If we find farmers having trouble with compliance, we get alongside them and work with them to get them over the line and that’s the best way to do it, instead of going along with legislation and saying, ‘Here’s a fine’,” Hewitt says.

“If we have a recidivist, someone who’s not even trying to improve, then we will go into enforcement action but that’s not our first port of call. It’s always education and to work with the farmer.”

Hewitt’s job is to monitor consents which specify how much and at what flow rate water can be taken. “Ninety-nine per cent of farmers want to be compliant, they want to be environmentally friendly, want to have sustainable farms.

“They’re doing everything they can to be sustainable because they want their farm to be there for the grandkids and generations after.”

Hewitt is thriving in his new role. “I’m loving it because we’re a great team.”