Our schools are turning them into townies

HELEN HARVEY
Last updated 05:00 17/11/2012
tdn farm stand
ANDY JACKSON

Francis Douglas Memorial College year 8 students busy at work on the school farm. L to R Hayden Luckin, Eliah Bradford, Dylan Simpson and Jahmaeys Manu.

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For senior students, school's out for summer. For some, school's out forever. Some leavers will go job hunting. Others will go on to tertiary study. Surprisingly few will look to the agricultural sector for a career - only about three per cent out of an estimated 40,000 school leavers nationwide.

Agriculture is more than milking cows and shearing sheep. Subsidiary industries include agribusiness, agriscience, consulting, fertiliser companies, banking, rural businesses and contracting.

Despite farming being such a big part of Taranaki's economy and there being a shortage of skilled people, schools don't tend to push the subject, and the students who are encouraged to look at farming tend to be those who are seen as having no other options.

Some schools even try to talk brighter kids, such as James Lawn, 23, out of the idea.

Mr Lawn grew up on a farm in Okato and plans to have his own farm, but his interest wasn't encouraged in high school. Instead, he was directed towards more academic subjects such as maths and science, he says.

"I was always told ‘You should do this at Otago or this here'. I was pushed towards other things."

It was the less academic kids who were encouraged to do agriculture, but farming needs people with good chemistry, biology, physics or maths backgrounds, he says.

"It's the people who top these classes who should be doing agriculture."

Farming may have an image problem. "It's not until you get there that you realise the best side of things."

Mr Lawn went to Massey University in 2008 and graduated with a Bachelor of Applied Science degree, majoring in agriculture and rural valuation, and honours in agribusiness.

Now a consulting officer with DairyNZ in Balclutha, he doesn't think the "salary side" of the industry is advertised very well.

"I'd be one the highest paid out of my friends. All the offers that I received were between $45,000 and $55,000, straight out of university, and I get a car and a phone."

Many new graduates in the industry, whether consulting, rural banking or working for fertiliser companies, would be looking at a similar salary range.

However, despite the opportunities, there were only 820 people nationwide studying towards a bachelor's degree in farm management and agribusiness in 2011 and 1450 studying agriculture.

The industry needs to get its act together and market itself to young people, Mangamingi farmer and Federated Farmers Taranaki executive committee member Bronwyn Muir says.

"Otherwise, our very strong agribusinesses aren't going to make it. We need bright heads to take our businesses to the next generation."

It is a subject that is close to her heart. A few years ago, she was looking for students for her courses at Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre and visited a number of schools.

One told her there was no-one there who was interested in agriculture as a career. Others directed her to the detention room, the theory being that these students would not be much good for anything else.

Although people who are practical rather than academic often find a good fit in farm life, they still need basic literacy and numeracy skills, Mrs Muir says.

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"A lot of people coming into our industry just look at the lifestyle and don't achieve reasonably well at school, so they aren't able to grasp the financial and theoretical information we throw at them and expect them to be able to incorporate into their everyday decision-making. So a lot of young people become disillusioned and leave because they can't pick up on what we are trying to teach them."

One statement she has heard a lot is: "Don't go farming unless you have run out of other options. If you are brainy, go and do something else."

This was something her daughter, who has just finished a Bachelor of Commerce (Agriculture), experienced at high school, where her interest in farming wasn't encouraged. It took about three years for Mrs Muir to convince the school it should be promoting agriculture as a career option.

However, she doesn't want to point the finger at schools. It's an industry problem.

In 2010, she did a rural leaders' programme through Lincoln University.

Her research project was on how the agricultural sector marketed itself to young people. She focused on Taranaki and discovered that the industry wasn't "doing that well" and missed a lot of opportunities.

It needs to target students when they are younger, she says. Mrs Muir has met several young people who were ready to opt out of school at 15, but when she put a career path in place, including getting practical skills, they tended to stay on.

"I've heard that a number we encouraged to stay at school have gone on to university to do a diploma or degree in agribusiness or agricultural science, just because they got the right information at the right time."

Someone doing his bit to ensure the boys at Francis Douglas Memorial College get the right information is agriculture teacher Jon Wilcox.

In the year he has been at the college, he has rewritten the programme and his approach is working. This year, he has 14 boys doing agriculture for NCEA level 1. Next year, the number will be closer to 50 and it is not hard to see why. His enthusiasm for the subject is contagious.

"I'm trying to get them to think about what is important. I'm trying to make it relevant and bring it into modern society."

Agriculture draws on many different subjects and makes them real, he says. NCEA goes into the markets, economics, how land is used and environmental aspects. It's about making young people guardians of the land.

So don't say to him that agriculture is an easy option.

"That's an annoying misconception. There is a lot of theory and anatomy. We look at the scientific side and artificial insemination.

"It's high-level stuff. They have to be practical and have the brains behind it."

Since Mr Wilcox teaches science as well, he encourages students to look at agricultural science at university.

Of the 20,000 people who graduated from university in 2010, 70 were studying food technology, 100 agriculture and 2160 science.

How much this is influenced by the number of hours spent in lectures and laboratories compared with arts subjects is difficult to tell, says University of Waikato professor of agribusiness Jacqueline Rowarth.

"But comments from students in general are that life-work balance is important, and lower contact hours means opportunities to earn money and still have fun with friends and the income to support that fun."

They need to be shown that in the areas the world needs - sustainable food production along the innovation chain from paddock to plate - there are great careers in which they will find rewards.

"We need great people challenging the current thinking and bringing knowledge and innovation in to the system.

"New Zealand has a great record in sustainable food production.

"Note the recent headline in Britain: ‘Buy New Zealand lamb to save the planet'," Prof Rowarth says.

Students should be encouraged to study subjects to do with our major export earner - primary production and food - which include chemistry, biology, economics, food technology and agribusiness.

"At school, I would love the thinking to be: ‘What does the world need most, and what skills do I have that line up?'

"I think that when the world wants what you can do, a rewarding and satisfying career develops."

- Taranaki Daily News

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