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Rural women supporting rural women: this is New Zealand’s Real Country

Contiki group with farm animals in New Zealand

New Zealand’s South island is truly unlike anywhere else in the world. Queenstown is an adrenaline junkie’s playground, the coasts are any photographer and videographer’s heaven, and animal lovers will have their hands full with the stunning bird and marine life. 

But we want to focus on Real Country, a MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Experience which does exactly what it sounds like it does: bringing New Zealand’s real country to our travellers in an authentic rural experience. Founded by Laura Koot, Real Country spotlights New Zealand’s long tradition of farming and agriculture and lets travellers get a taste for the simpler things in life. 

Animal interactions and unique activities, we love this experience so much, so we interviewed Laura to find out all the details, and discover how Real Country supports the rural women of the South island.

Hey Laura! Can you tell me about the creation of Real Country?

“I grew up on a farm, but my brother and I were never encouraged to pursue farming as a career because it’s very challenging, it’s hard to make a living, and my parents didn’t have a choice, but my brother and I did. So, I went to university, I got my MBA, and I worked a corporate job because that’s what I thought grownups should do. The only problem was that I was always a country girl at heart.”

“I was sitting at my desk one day and I started drawing this picture of myself sitting on the deck of a house I own, glass of whiskey in hand, a dog at my feet, a four-wheel drive truck in the driveway, and a horse in the paddock. I was surrounded by mountains in this image and once I drew that picture it just finally clicked that that’s what I wanted.”

“What I really wanted to do with my life was something that brought me satisfaction, and it didn’t matter to me whether it was a monetary success or not, I just wanted to do something that made me proud. So, Real Country was created in the middle of 2016, and from the get go the tagline has always been ‘experience the real rural New Zealand”

What has the history of Real Country been like since then?

“Initially Real Country was just taking small groups to a hunting blind, and we’d teach people how to shoot guns, crack whips, fire bow and arrows – that kind of thing. They’d also get a taste of real southern hospitality! I couldn’t see myself doing much more than that at the time, but I sent a bunch of cold emails to various tour operators, and this is where it gets really cool.”

“I met with Richie, Contiki’s ops manager in New Zealand, and he said he liked the sound of Real Country but wanted more. ‘We need a farm, and we want something that’s authentic and genuine.’ I had no idea where to start, but I had one year to prepare a farm show for Contiki.”

“I didn’t know how to run a working dog, I had very few farm skills of my own, and I didn’t even have any animals. But I found land, I rescued an ex-race horse named Ellie (she actually bucked me off during my first show), I collected more animals, all rescues and orphans, and I put on the first show where I rounded up sheep and cracked a stock whip. And that’s how Real Country got going.”

“It was my contract with Contiki that allowed me to work on this full time, and they helped me continue through Covid as well.”

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What kind of activities does Real Country offer?

“We’ve expanded more since 2016 which is great, so now when travellers come to visit Real Country they get to go through the farm with a local farming host, either myself or someone else. The farm show is quite hands on, and I really want everyone to participate. Everyone has a go at cracking a stock whip. We also offer clay pigeon shooting events, farm skills workshops, and various group activities which include axe and knife throwing.”

“We also host a training weekend in September every year for new recruits, and you get to come along and learn about the culture. You don’t need to know anything beforehand, at Real Country all you need is the right attitude and we teach the rest.”

“Really what this is all about is getting people to do things they wouldn’t normally do. It’s just to demonstrate that just because you haven’t done something before, it doesn’t mean you can’t. So with all the fun, it’s really about inspiring people. If they think they’re just here to watch a show, they’re wrong – they’re actually here to take something away from it.”

stock whip demonstration New Zealand

Image source:Real Country

Real Country started with just you and one other employee – how many employees do you have now?

“We employ four casual staff staff members. When they aren’t working at Real Country, two are full time female shepherds and they do it because they love sharing their passion with others. And the other two are rural mothers who don’t have any other career apart from raising humans (which is the most important career!). When you live in these really rural areas of New Zealand, there isn’t any day-care here, so, these rural mums wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to work, so being able to give them the opportunity to work here is really great.”

“Generally when one of us isn’t hosting, we’ll have the kids at my house as a sort of day-care while the other women host and run the shows, and vice versa. I’m also a mother of two so it just makes sense for us all to be helping each other out and doing things we all really, really enjoy. And the kids all get a playdate out of it! This is part of the way that we look after our staff because these women are absolutely incredible: they’re farming women through and through and have so much to offer.”

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How did you teach yourself the farm skills you now know?

“It was very much one thing at a time. I was really useless, even hammering a nail, which is something we do on the farm show, I was just terrible at. But learning these skills all came down to the community.”

“As an example, I needed to learn how to train and run my working dog, but I had no idea how. I started volunteering at a local dog trial club. I went to the first meeting and had no idea what they were talking about, but the idea was that if I volunteered at the dog trial then maybe someone would be willing to spend some time with me to teach me how to operate this retired working dog that I had just adopted.”

“All the skills that I have now I have from people in our community, people in the farming community. I think a lot of it came down to the fact that I refused to feel embarrassed to ask for help and give things a go, and I think that’s the biggest thing that gets in people’s way. But you’ve got to leave the fear at the door and you’ll realise that people aren’t laughing at you, they’ll applaud, and when you realise that, you really are limitless!”

Real Country, New Zealand

Image source:Real Country

What is the agricultural industry in New Zealand like? Are women typically involved?

“It’s still a very male dominated industry, but 20 years ago you wouldn’t have seen any female shepherds, whereas now there’s plenty of women around doing those jobs. But they are still significantly under-represented, especially in positions like stock manager or farm manager. Like I said before, I think a lot of that comes down to women lacking confidence. We’re bloody good at our jobs, we’re incredible stockmen, but many of us lack the confidence to put our hand up and volunteer for the roles.”

“I set up a charity called The Foundation which is all about helping women in New Zealand’s agricultural industry, which Contiki donates to, and it’s so entwined with why I set up Real Country and why I’m so passionate about building up people’s confidence. Everything we do at The Foundation and at Real Country is about bringing women out of their shells and showing them that they’re absolutely more capable than what they ever dreamed of.”

What does this work mean to you?

“Something I always ask my Contiki groups is what their definition of success is. For me, it used to be a number in a bank account. But now it means being fit and healthy, making a living doing something that brings me satisfaction, having full autonomy over how I work and how I live my life. And having a house full of love.”

“This work really redefined how I viewed success. We’re not a supremely profitable business, we get by, but what we offer and what we do within our community is priceless. I feel so privileged to have a job that I love and that I feel so passionate about. I wake up every day and I know I have this incredible business that brings me joy. And I have a family, as well – I don’t have to choose between one or the other.”

“Not everyone wants my life or my work, and that’s fine, but I do and it’s amazing to be able to encourage other people, and women in particular, to think about what it is they personally want and value, and sharing the understanding that nothing is off limits.”

Real Country, New Zealand

Image source:Real Country

What can Contiki travellers expect when they visit Real Country?

“The first thing that happens is the Contiki groups get an introduction from the farm hosts who talk a bit about themselves and their background, and then they get to meet my gorgeous horse Faith. We talk about how you can get the most out of horses and get a couple of volunteers to demonstrate the ‘horse handshake’. Then we move on to the working dog demonstration, and we talk about how essential they are to our jobs in rural New Zealand.”

“Then everyone gets a go at cracking a stock whip, and this is a compulsory activity so if they don’t do it they have to do 20 pushups in front of the group. This is an activity that’s completely unique to Real Country, so it’s very exciting. Then we get volunteers to participate in the Real Country Rural Games where they have to do things like wind up a temporary fence, hammer nails, roll barrels, etc. And then once all that is done, they get to visit the friendly farm animals and interact with them.”

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Is tourism a big part of your business, or are locals equally as engaged?

“Tourism is a big part of the business, yes, but we also have a lot of local workshops. I started this workshop called The Southern Girls Finishing School, which was kind of a play on traditional British finishing schools where girls are taught to be ‘ladies’. But it just so happens that my definition of a ‘lady’ is someone who’s practical, capable, and confident. So, during these workshops we take teenage girls for a day and teach them how to change a tire, shoot a gun, jump start a battery, and these sorts of things to help build their confidence.”

“But when Covid hit we doubled down on these types of workshops and started them offering them to men, women, and we also worked with a lot of at risk youth groups. And the premise is the same, it’s all about building their confidence and getting them to work with each other. Using farm skills as a vehicle to develop confidence in our groups is a big part of what we do, and travelling groups and local groups alike come to experience that.”

Real Country, New Zealand

Image source:Real Country

Do you have a favourite farm animal?

“It has to be the working dog. There’s just something incredibly special about training your own working dog because they just become your best friend. They’re your ride or die, and they save your ass over and over again when you think your stock is going to get away rom you. And they’re just so stoked every single day to be going out with you.”

“The bond you create with your working dog is something really special, it’s second to none and it’s the most incredible thing. So they have to be my favourite.”

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