Jim & Kathleen Rea

Innovative dairies built during West Coast boom

It was 1994 when Jim and Kathleen Rea could see that the dairy industry was on the cusp of change, they decided to take a leap of faith and dove head first into a new Westport business, building dairy sheds.

With Jim's engineering building experience and Kathleen's management skills, the couple offered new and innovative ideas that would change the way farm dairies were to look and function in the coming years.

"People used to think of the old dairy sheds as a dirty place where cows were milked for supply, feeding calves and pigs.  We wanted to change this perspective, create a farm dairy that would be known as a place to produce milk, a source for food,” says Kathleen.

Jim Rea Farm Engineering was established and they began building dairies to suit their customers' needs and future industry requirements. Kathleen says their building plans were ahead of the times, no longer written on a scrap of paper or on the back of a cigarette packet, but architecturally drawn plans for the farm dairy with landscaping and layout to the farm dairy boundary.

“It was the early 1990s and we knew regulations would be coming in within the next decade. We read the draft copy of the Code of Practice supplied from the dairy company. Farm dairies were going to be more regulated and strictly monitored,” Kathleen says.

“We wanted to meet the proposed standards in our dairies, and it mattered to us how and where the cows were to be milked, the flow of the dairy for the cows was important, and it had to cater for the workers’ needs as well.”

The Rea's farm dairy plans would cover every aspect of the farm owners requirements, including cow flow to and from the milking platform, effluent ponds, irrigation systems, vet races, backing gates that could split large herds during milking, wash down pads, toilets and showers, and staff rooms that could also be the crèche for children while parents tended to cows.

The idea to build dairies had been on Jim's mind for some time; as a young boy he helped his father milking cows. When the dairy boom started to take off in 1992 he left his job as a locomotive engineer after 30 years in the industry.

“When I was a teenager, in 1962, I joined the railway as a fitter and turner, and worked on steam and diesel engines; maintaining engines and I even attended many remote derailments over the years,” says Jim.

“In 1992, New Zealand Rail was restructuring the industry and I took the redundancy offered to set myself up in self-employment.”
Jim says he already had some side projects building steelwork for dairies on the weekends and decided the time was right to start a full time business focusing on dairies.

Jim and Kathleen made quite the team. Kathleen was no stranger to building sites as her father was a trade builder and journeyman and began his business Buller Bridge Joinery after the war. Kathleen and her siblings helped sweep the workshop floors, sorting tools and nails stacking timber from a young age.

“My father, brother, and sons were all involved in construction, engineering and mechanics, so I naturally slipped into those industries and have always helped out organising the workshops and attending to the administration,” says Kathleen.

"Kathleen played a key role for the team in ensuring our business was successful," says Jim.

Having raised seven children, the couple spent the next twenty years building dairies through the West Coast (Karamea to Whataroa) and various parts of Canterbury.

"We were also upgrading sheds all the time, farm dairies usually undergo a refit every 10-20 years as their lifecycle and technology changes", says Jim. 

"The Read plant has endured these changes and is still a popular milking plant installed in many farm dairies throughout New Zealand. Read Industrial is now third family generation owned and operated out of Rangiora,” he says.

“Through the dairy boom we saw many farmers retire as the new regulations came on board. Neighbours often bought out the farm next door extending their herds and operations that required building a new farm dairy to meet the demands for larger herds.”
Jim says that their objective was to fit out dairies completely, working with all the sub-contractors required to complete the project.

“We would’ve built between 30-40 major dairies, which ranged from a medium-sized herringbone to a 60-bail rotary dairy. Farmers could milk anywhere between 150 to more than 1000 cows,” he says.

“During this time our plans were becoming an integral part of farms, which required moving large herds to farm dairies for milking, and back to fresh pastures.”

Jim and Kathleen recently retired from their business, with their son Allan now running his own company, Rea Engineering. Around nine years ago the building boom was declining for farm dairies; Allan has established projects within the mining and fishing industries which is his main focus, though diary maintenance and new farm dairies continue in the Buller District.

Jim occasionally helps his son around the business when required, though much of his time is spent tending their gardens, which are more than two hectares that surround River Garden Retreat - their bed and breakfast enterprise that also caters to weddings and functions.

Jim says they have experienced and seen the dairy industry change significantly over the years, and are proud to have played an integral part in supporting farmers the West Coast for more than 25 years.