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Special reunion for Wales and New Zealand farming friends

Ailsa & Geoff Neilson

A New Zealand farming couple, who over 40 years hosted more than 200 UK agricultural students and visitors, is inviting them to a special ‘friendship reunion’.

Geoff and Ailsa Neilson farmed near Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island, and plan to travel to Wales in the new year to meet up with the many friends they have made through their long association with the Welsh Agricultural College in Aberystwyth (now the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences).

Between 1977 and 2019, the Neilsons opened their home and their sheep and beef farm to students – offering them the valuable experience of working on a New Zealand farm, and seeing different aspects of the industry.

Down the years, the couple has stayed in touch with many of their students and visitors, and subsequently forged friendships with their families too.

Making what will probably be their last major trip to the UK, Geoff and Ailsa have decided to hold one large gathering and will host a friendship reunion with a continuous afternoon social commencing at 1.00pm and a reunion dinner in the evening in Aberystwyth on January 21st, 2023.

Also, in 1997 a Welsh Sheep Strategy was formed and included a scholarship for Welsh Sheep farmers to come to New Zealand to look at various aspects of New Zealand farming, food processing and marketing.

All the names of the past students and scholars are recorded in the farm’s visitor book, and the couple is keen that as many as possible have the opportunity to join them on the reunion day.

To ensure their invitation reaches as many friends as possible, Geoff and Ailsa have issued an appeal for those whose contact details may now be out of date to get in touch.

Geoff said, “The dinner will be complimentary for our former students and visitors, their partners and families, and we look forward to meeting up again with as many of our friends as possible.”

One of those past students is Alun Jones, chief executive of Menter a Busnes, who is helping the Neilsons with the reunion’s arrangements.

Alun says, “Nearly 40 years ago, I was lucky enough to spend just over 12 months working in New Zealand, and seven months of that time were on Geoff and Ailsa’s farm. They are an amazing and very welcoming family, and I learned so much. It was a wonderful experience, and I know I and others who were fortunate enough to spend time with them made friends for life.

“We’ve stayed in touch over the years, and Geoff and Ailsa have visited Wales and the UK on several occasions. But this time, instead of travelling around, we hope everyone will come to them for what I’m sure will be a wonderful day catching up and reminiscing.”

Geoff began farming when he left school at 15, working on sheep farms.

He said, “I’m not from a farming background, but I’ve never known anything but a love for farming. When Ailsa and I got married, we had the opportunity to start farming on our own with the help of special loans for first-time settlement farms, and we started from scratch.”

He visited the UK on a Nuffield scholarship, and as a board member of a training college in New Zealand, he was interested to see UK colleges and so visited the Welsh Agricultural College in Aberystwyth.

“The principal asked if we would accept a couple of students a year on work experience, the first arrived in 1977, and it grew from there. Later, as part of the Welsh Sheep Strategy, we also hosted scholars looking at various aspects of New Zealand sheep farming. It was a real privilege to have been part of this programme and to have spent the time with the scholars in New Zealand.”

Geoff adds, “It has been a tremendous experience for our family and our farm. We have truly established an understanding of each other’s cultures and established life-long friendships. With absolute honesty, there is not one of our friends who have visited we would not welcome back into our home, and indeed some have been back!”

A booklet is also being produced detailing those who have visited the Neilson’s farm over the years – all of whom are invited to the reunion.

Geoff and Ailsa have come to realise over the years that there is no greater experience in life than that which allows one to meet new people for the first time and from which lasting friendships are made.

“These were heady days for us as we established our farming business, and to have these folk with us gave us an impetus to grab the opportunity to farm in our own right. We owe them all a real sense of gratitude, something for which there is no practical measure.”

With the friendships, there have been moments of light-hearted rivalry too. Geoff recalls one day when some of the New Zealand shearers were having a bit of rugby banter with one of the Welsh students. But after lunch, they returned to find ‘Llanelli 9 – All Blacks 3’ painted on the wall with a sheep branding marker.

“They never mentioned rugby to him again!” said Geoff.

Former students and visitors who stayed with Geoff and Ailsa Neilson who would like to attend the friendship reunion should contact Geoff Neilson [email protected] or Alun Jones [email protected]