Save the date 2021 Festival 21-31 October

Award-winning columnist Rachel Stewart tells Sandra Simpson why closing her Twitter account has been one of the best things she’s ever done.

Rachel Stewart began writing weekly opinion columns for her then local newspaper in 2010. Six years later, much to her own surprise, she won the Opinion Writer of the Year title at the Canon Media Awards, shortly afterwards moving to the NZME stable where she’s been happily ensconced ever since (her columns appear in the Bay of Plenty Times every Wednesday).

A former president of Whanganui Federated Farmers, Rachel often shares forthright opinions on dairying and climate change.

“It’s hard taking on the backbone of the economy,” she says of criticising Fonterra in particular. “I’ve taken lots of hits.”

But the worst “hits” came after a column late last year about her concerns regarding trans-gender females. “I got so hammered – told to kill myself, all of it. The abuse I cop is coming from the hard left and it’s a new form of misogyny. Lesbians seem to be particularly vulnerable at the moment, we’re persona non grata.

“I’m a bit of a leftie but can generally have a conversation with people on the right without things getting personal or abusive. Not so with the hard left, it’s got totalitarian.

“Twitter was a toxic, horrible environment. My life has been a helluva lot better since I got off it.”

The devastating Manawatu-Wanganui floods of 2004 destroyed Rachel’s home, her stock and her land – and were the trigger for her ongoing environmental activism.

“We watched our life wash away and although I already understood that you can overburden the land, that was the moment things got a bit different for me. I started to educate myself about climate change and amped up the volume on my reading.

“Personally, I don’t think we’ve got long, we may not even be here in another decade but that doesn’t mean I’ve given up.”

Her life has never taken an obvious course. Brought up on a Whanganui farm, she was confidently – and competently – driving vehicles of all sizes from a young age. So at 21 Rachel decided to apply for her “dream job”, little realising she would become a trail blazer as the first female train driver in New Zealand.

“That was one of the best – and steepest – learning curves of my life,” she says. “At the end of it all I realised I could drive a 1000-tonne beast of a train in all weathers.”

But she wasn’t readily accepted by all her work colleagues and certainly not by many of their wives. “It was a bit of a storm in a teacup,” she says now, although has written in the past about “a gaggle of train drivers' wives” planning a protest until talked out of it by their husbands.

“The irony is that I wasn’t the least bit interested in their men, in any men come to that.”

She’s sorry her later career moves – into the more solitary occupations of farming, from which she’s now largely retired, and as a columnist – have meant less contact with males.

“I miss working with men and getting a job done. We’re doing some home renovation so we’ve got tradesmen coming in and out and I’m hanging about to see if I can give a hand. Probably being a pain in the butt but I like hanging out with male energy.”