17 May 2018
When Mike Short entered the 2009 Fieldays Rural Bachelor competition on a whim, he never dreamed his life would change so dramatically. Fast forward four years and the Golden Gumboot winner was sitting on hay bales on the back of a Ute having his wedding photos taken with his new wife Ryley, who he first met at Fieldays.
Many people find the latest agricultural products at Fieldays, but Mike and Ryley Short (nee McGougan) found love. Mike and Ryley's story has been made into a short film, part of a new documentary box set, Fieldays Stories, available on TVNZ OnDemand. The box set of five short films, created to mark the 50th anniversary of Fieldays, captures the stories of people from around New Zealand and the impact that Fieldays has had on their lives.
Mike says that he never planned to enter the Fieldays Rural Bachelor competition. The Fieldays Rural Bachelor of the Year competition – as it was then called – invited single rural men to compete in a series of skill-based challenges during New Zealand Agricultural Fieldays. Eight selected contestants would receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Mystery Creek, near Hamilton, to tests their skills to find the most eligible farmer in the country.
Based in Feilding in the Manawatu District, a trip to Mystery Creek near Hamilton seemed far away. "I heard an ad on the radio a few times one day, probably while I was out feeding the calves, and thought I’d have a week off the farm and see what happens,” says Mike, who admits that the challenge of the competition and the massive prize pool were the key draw cards.
The eight contestants went through four grueling days of competition which included everything from wood chopping to cheerleading and using an excavator to pour tea. “It was a pretty intense environment, living in the same house with seven other guys you don’t know, competing all day, having functions every night, and not sleeping much before waking up at early to compete again," says Mike, who was then aged 26. “We worked long days farming but being in the public all day is really tiring."
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Mike’s wife-to-be, Ryley McGougan, was working for Mystery Creek as an Events Coordinator for the VIP function center. “I remember seeing him compete on a number of different things, but I was pretty busy working,” says Ryley who was then aged 22. In between heats, the contestants were shepherded through the competition by Mystery Creek staff, and Ryley and Mike managed time for a few brief conversations. "There was a bit of banter," says Ryley, who was taken by Mike’s mop of curly hair and quick wit.
On the final day of Fieldays Mike was awarded the title of 2009 Fieldays Rural Bachelor of the Year and the coveted Golden Gumboot. He also won $20,000 worth of prizes including trip to Rarotonga, a year’s supply of beer, a Stihl Chainsaw, a spa pool and an assortment of Swanndri paraphernalia.
Shortly after winning the title, Mike told reporters he had no idea what his ideal woman would be like and would “just have to wait until I meet the one”. He returned to Feilding, not realising he'd already met her. A year later, the stars aligned and the two met again at the 2010 Fieldays event. As reigning Golden Gumboot champion, Mike, still a bachelor, was invited back to judge the 2010 Fieldays Rural Bachelor competition. Ryley, who was also recently single, was still working for Mystery Creek coordinating events. On the first morning of Fieldays she was stationed at a busy ticket booth when Mike arrived, and asked to see the event manager. He looked different from the year before. “I’d had a year away, a hair-cut, spruced myself up a bit,” admits Mike. Flustered, Ryley ran into the office, slammed the door behind her and announced to her Fieldays colleagues, “I’ve just met my future husband!”
Laughing, she adds: “we always say it was love at first sight… after a haircut."
Over the four-day event the two enjoyed getting to know each other. On Saturday, they had time for their first official date, strolling through the Fieldays site. "He reckons he played hard to get, but he was just as much into it as I was,” says Ryley. “Oh no, I just played the perfect game,” says Mike. Four years later on a sunny March day (albeit amid a drought), the two were married at Ryley’s parents dairy farm in Gordonton. The Shorts are now farming west of Feilding on their 105-hectare, 200-cow dairy farm. They have two young children, Laney, 3, and Hudson, 1. Juggling the children and farm business has its ups and downs, but they enjoy it says Ryley.“Farming is way harder than I ever thought it was going to be, it’s not been a bed of roses," she says. "It’s a constant learning curve. The good thing is that we find we’re better when we’re working together.”
She says that farming offers them a great lifestyle, one that is good for them with young pre-school age kids. "The kids both love farm life and we are lucky they can experience it. They learn so much from being on the farm – it teaches them empathy for animals, they learn about the seasons and the circle of life." For the Shorts sustainability has always been a goal. They have low stocking rates, try to keep imported feed to a minimal, rear their own stock, and are mindful of environmental concerns. They are interested in how technology and innovations will change the future of farming. "It's exciting to see what the future holds for the industry," says Ryley. "There are so many challenges, including extreme weather conditions that you can't control, but there are lots of new developments happening all the time that can improve things too. So, the future of farming is scary and exciting at the same time."
This June, for the 50th anniversary of Fieldays, the Short family will be making their way to Mystery Creek. The family are VIP guests of the New Zealand National Fieldays Society.
Mike says he is looking forward to showing his children around Fieldays. He's also looking forward to checking out the Fieldays Rural Catch competition – which has been renamed, and this year includes both female and male contestants. Mike is supportive of the revamp. “I think it’s great to include female contestants. It was an awesome competition to be a part of, but needed to be reimagined,” he says.
Fieldays Rural Catch starts on Sunday June 10 with the Farmlands Road Trip, giving the four male and four female finalists the chance to get to know each other before the competition begins on Wednesday 13 June. The Shorts’ story will debut as a 30-second television commercial during Hyundai Country Calendar on TVNZ 1 this Sunday May 20 from 7pm. A longer version of Mike and Ryley's story is available in the new documentary box set Fieldays Stories, created by TVNZ Blacksand and available on TVNZ OnDemand (TVNZ.co.nz).
To celebrate the Shorts' story, and the 50th anniversary of Fieldays, an event will be held in Feilding at the Newbury Hall, Rangitikei Line from 12 noon on Saturday May 26.
Fieldays marketing manager Taryn Storey says the Feilding event is "for the entire community" and will feature a free sausage sizzle, family-friendly activities and games and the event will be MC-ed by popular radio host Jamie Mackay from The Country Show. Doug Avery, author of The Resilient Farmer will also be speaking at the event at 2pm. This will be the second in a series of events happening across the country in the build-up to Fieldays on June 13, says Storey.
“We want to invite the people of Feilding, Palmerston North and the Manawatu region to come down to the Newbury Hall on Saturday to share in the fun and celebrations,” says Storey. “Fieldays is a national event that means a lot to people all over New Zealand, and this is a chance for people to come and share their memories of Fieldays and their stories about farming life. It’s also a chance for the rural community to get together, catch up with old friends and neighbours and have some fun.”