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  • Pinoy Vet Who Began As A Laborer In New Zealand Wins Its Top Dairy Farming Award

    “Winning is a great honor. It’s the validation of my 13 years of hard work and learning.”
    by Dahl D. Bennett .
Pinoy Vet Who Began As A Laborer In New Zealand Wins Its Top Dairy Farming Award
PHOTO BY courtesy of Christopher Vila
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    A Father’s Day surprise came early for New Zealand immigrant Christopher Vila. Last May 2021, he won the national title of “Dairy Manager of Year,” making him the first Filipino to win the top prize in New Zealand’s annual competition.

    “Winning is a great honor. It’s the validation of my 13 years of hard work and learning,” says Christopher, who works for JA BE Turnwald Family Trust, a family farm, in the community of Ohaupo in the Waikato district of New Zealand (NZ). 

    Billion-dollar dairy industry

    Dairy farming is a big industry in NZ, contributing nearly NZ$20 billion (more than Php600 billion) yearly to its economy. It is the eighth largest producer of dairy products in the world. So, yes, trying to vie for the dairy industry’s “Dairy Manager of the Year” on a national level can be unnerving.

    “The New Zealand Dairy Industry Awards is the highest awarding body in the country that gives recognitions to farmers,” Christopher explains. “Winners will be ambassadors in their respective categories for the year.”

    The competition process is like defending a thesis. Christopher here is presenting his know-how in dairy farming, the innovation and technology used, and his farm management style.
    PHOTO BY courtesy of Christopher Vila

    “The judges not only take note of your practices and (knowledge in) management but also in your personal goals and aspirations as well.”   The “defense” takes place on the farm before a panel of judges. The competitor must first win on a regional level before competing nationally.

    For his category, Villa bested 11 competitors, some of whom have joined the same competition as many as four times. It was Christopher’s first try.

    How this veterinarian made it to New Zealand

    Christopher is one of the fortunate immigrants who didn’t have to go through an agency to work here. His sister was already based in New Zealand, and when Vila gave her a visit in 2008, he tried his luck to look for work.

    Christopher was a licensed veterinarian in the Philippines and an area manager in the Cagayan region for a multinational feeds-producing company. He does not deny that starting all over again was tough.

    “One of the hardest things is transitioning from being a ‘boss’ in the Philippines to a laborer in NZ. [Although] I will admit, it did hurt my ego a bit knowing that I did six years of vet school and passed the board at the same time,” Christopher said as he recalled his early struggles.

    Securing a working visa was a ‘nerve-wracking’ experience each time. “You don’t know how many years will be granted to you at the end of each contract. On top of that, rules for migrant farm workers change every so often as the country would like to prioritize its citizens and this makes work uncertain for farmers like me.”

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    “In every job, there are always challenges not only with the work but also with the people you work with. Having said this, I endured all the hardships and focused on my goal to be better, and accumulate knowledge and experience,” he shares.

    Christopher first started as an assistant on a farm with 1,200 cows. He learned farming the ‘Kiwi’ way. “I had to adapt to their culture. They are upfront and tell you what they really feel on matters,” he says.

    He tended to the cows, milked them, treated them when needed, and worked late during calving season, a period when calves are born. His day would start at 4:30 a.m. with an hour each for breakfast and lunch until he resumes work in the afternoon.

    “If it’s calving season, we go back to the farm at around 9 p.m. and sometimes stay until 11 p.m. or beyond, making sure, babies are born safely.”

    Christopher worked his way up, applying in different farms until he reached a managerial position at JA BE Turnwald Family Trust, where he has been for eight years. The family-owned company is one of the biggest suppliers for Fonterra, a dairy cooperative that works with world-renowned brands that produce dairy products.

    One of the perks of Christopher's job is free housing. He lives on the farm with his wife Jonah, and their 3-year-old daughter, Lily.
    PHOTO BY courtesy of Christopher Vila

    Future share-milker

    Christopher’s early struggles are well worth it because New Zealand is one of the best places to live and raise a family. While its average cost of living of NZ$200-300 (Php6,729 to Php10,000) per person per week is high, the benefits are definitely one of the most desirable.

    New Zealand has free hospital/medical services, including dental for children under 14 years, paid parental leave of up to 26 weeks, and free education for children ages 5 to 19 in state schools.

    “This allows families to either save money for the future or, if on a tight budget, help make ends meet,” says Christopher.

    As Dairy Manager of the Year, Christopher got NZ$22,000 (Php740,190) worth of gifts and prizes, most of which are tools and products that will help him jumpstart a career as a share-milker — he can buy his own machine and cows and farm it on the company’s land. Vila, in fact, has been offered to buy in as a partner on the sharemilking business of his current employer.

    On his win as dairy manager of the year, Christopher says, “Winning means a lot, especially to migrants, like me, who started out with no connection, networks, nor mentors.”
    PHOTO BY courtesy of Christopher Vila

    To other Pinoys who want to make it here, Christopher gives this advice “You need to strive hard and constantly improve yourself to be noticed among your peers so that employers will trust you and know that you are indeed capable.”

    Take it from the dairy dad who made it work for his family in New Zealand and, despite his achievements, continues to work hard to achieve higher goals.

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