A Southern girl through and through, Laura Douglas is living her dream sharing and showing off the real rural New Zealand with overseas visitors. Based just south of one of New Zealand’s hottest tourist destinations, Queenstown, she is the founder of both Real Country and Kingston’s Southern Girl Finishing School. With a Masters of Business Administration, Laura initially pursued a career in the corporate world of finance and account management, however soon realised she couldn’t be confined to the walls of an office or the concrete jungle of city life. After spending time in Dublin, Ireland and Port Elizabeth, South Australia, in 2016 she threw it all in to start her agri-tourism venture, hosting authentic farm experiences, teaching guests handy farm skills and telling classic tales of what it takes to live and work on a farm. Not only does a guest learn their hand at mustering, cracking a stock whip, clay shooting and archery, but how to interact with all the friendly orphaned or rescued animals that have become an integral part of the Real Country family. Laura’s passion project, The Southern Girl Finishing School, helps 11 to 16 year old girls learn practical skills, where they are guaranteed to walk away with more confidence in their abilities.
When asked what concerned Laura about the health and safety of those in rural industries and communities, she talked about how taking unnecessary risks is unfortunately how many farm operators tackle daily jobs, right down to driving home after a few drinks at the pub. Upon hiring her first employee, Laura has made health and safety an explicit priority, knowing that while you can’t plan for every scenario – especially when animals are involved – but that by leading by example, staff are more inclined to follow your actions and aspire to the standard you set, rather than what you say.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
A Southern girl.
Tell us something interesting about yourself...
I grew up on a sheep and deer fast in Northern Southland and then pursued a corporate career in finance and account management, after studying a Masters of Business Administration at Otago University in Dunedin. At the time, I thought that’s what adults should do. My first job was with Deloitte in Wellington and then I spent six years in the corporate world, travelling all over, from Dublin, to Port Elizabeth in South Australia, Hawke’s Bay, Auckland and Christchurch. I was never suited to city life and hated being in an office all day, so in 2016 I quit my career and city life and founded Real Country, an agri-tourism business based just south of Queenstown. It’s my dream to share what rural New Zealand is really like with visitors and to delight people with authentic farm experiences. We run activities like clay target shooting, archery, sheep mustering and feeding pet lambs, we have a hands-on interaction with the animals, it’s more than just a country show!
What's one achievement you're most proud of?
An achievement I am most proud of is having launched my biggest passion project, the Southern Girl Finishing School. This is a workshop for 11 to 16 year old girls where they spend a day learning farm skills like changing a tyre, working with horses, shooting guns and using strops and tie downs with the aim that they walk away with more confidence in their abilities.
What makes you truly happy?
I am truly happy living my dream life that I have created. It’s simple, lots of animals, wide open spaces, a great man who’s recently asked me to marry him and being part of a rural community once again.
What do you love the most about being a rural woman?
I love being a rural woman because the resilience and practical skills we learn growing up on farms make us a force of nature. I am independent, I can lift heavy shit, solve problems and most importantly, we are adaptable. In tough times like what we are going through now as a nation with the COVID-19 pandemic, as a rural woman I am taking the bad with the good and just doing what needs to be done to get through.
Tell us about a time when you felt worried about your own or someone else’s health or safety.
I’ve seen accidents happen when tasks are performed with the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude. Not wearing appropriate safety equipment, not properly assessing the situation and taking unnecessary risks is unfortunately how many farm operators tackle daily jobs. I also get scared when this same attitude is applied to driving home after a few drinks at the pub. I have been guilty of doing this in my younger years and it is a practice that needs to stop.
What practical things did - or could - you or someone else do to prevent yourself or someone else from getting hurt?
I recently hired my first full time employee and health and safety was a big part of her induction. From a practical standpoint, you can’t plan for every accident, especially when animals are involved, but every incident or near miss was recorded in ‘The Book’. The Book was kept in the office at the farm and had to be filled in everyday with any thoughts, near misses, incidents or observations. It has helped us become acutely aware of any patterns.
Is there a time, place or scenario when your partner or those you work or spend time with are more willing to make changes to the way the work is done, or are more open to making safer, healthier choices?
I find the best time to talk about making changes that impact how work is done is after any near misses or prior to the start of our busy summer season. I also find that staff follow your example and actions rather than what you say. There is no point talking about changes if you don’t follow the rules every day yourself.
If you could give any advice to another rural woman about health and safety in rural industries and communities, about influencing change in business - or just in general - what would it be?
Lead by example, pick up that bit of rubbish in the paddock, fix that stray bit of wire poking out, hammer in that loose nail and don’t drink and drive, ever. People will always follow the example you set and will aspire to the standard you set.
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
Back yourself and share your knowledge. We have skills and confidence in our abilities to get shit done that town women just don’t have. So be generous with your advice and wisdom because you know more and can do more than you realise.