Pathway to prosperity

Be it in the classroom or out in the field, life-long learning is crucial to a successful career in modern agriculture.

The agriculture industry that Lincoln University students Nick Simpson and Zac Johnston hope will provide them with a career is not the industry of their grandparents. Data from the Ministry for Primary Industries shows that in 2012, an estimated 44 percent of employees in the sector had formal, post-school qualifications. By 2025, it’s anticipated this will need to increase to 62 percent to make the most of the increasingly sophisticated technology available to farming.

In contrast, 65 percent of boys entering farming in the 1930s had left school at primary level; in 1945, still only 72 percent had some secondary education. Lincoln College produced its first graduate with a degree in agriculture in 1913; in 1936 the college had only 33 students at diploma level and 14 in the Bachelor of Agricultural Science course. In 2007, about 4,500 students were enrolled there, many of them in subjects covering land use and resource management.

The trajectory has been similar at Massey University. When teaching began at the then Massey Agricultural College in 1928, there were 85 students, nine of whom were studying for degrees, the rest for diplomas. In 2007 Massey offered 150 qualifications across sciences, education, business, humanities and social sciences.

This rise in education levels has been in lock step with a rising need for farmers to be better educated to cope with the complexities of modern farming. Some see this as reducing opportunities in the sector but Juliet Maclean, who chairs the New Zealand Rural Leadership Trust, disagrees. “I think the range of possibilities for people to develop careers at all levels and accumulate assets and have a successful influence in the primary sector is enormous. I think it’s actually greater than it’s ever been,” she says.

Her comments echo those of Dr. William Rolleston, then National President of Federated Farmers, to a conference at Lincoln University last year. In a speech addressing the question of where the next generation of farmers would come from, he said there was “no doubt” there would be more opportunity in the sector for the technically minded and tertiary educated. “Farming will rely less on intuition and more on critical thinking as well as data and information processing,” he says.

Nick and Zac are two of this year’s Tom Cranswick Memorial Award recipients, which Farmlands has organised and funded since 2003. Shareholders, their children and the children of staff engaged in study related to the primary sector can apply for one of the five $2,000 grants. The award is in honour of Tom Cranswick, a founding Director and Board member until 1985, including 20 years as Chairman. The other three recipients this year are Emily Fraser, Rory Harrigan and Courtney Bragg.

Given the commitment required to make the cut for the award, it’s no surprise that all five are enthusiastic about their studies. They also all agree that completing their current course of study will not mark the end of their learning. Nick has just completed his second year of study towards a Bachelor of Agricultural Science. He says he has seen first-hand that university is not for everyone but “training is key, you want to be continuously learning”.

Zac is also 2 years into a degree at Lincoln. He readily admits he “never really tried too hard” at school, “but when you get to university you’re aligning your academic strengths and your areas of interest. You’re studying what you’re interested in so it comes a lot easier.”

For Emily, 1 year into a Bachelor of Agricultural Science degree at Massey University in Palmerston North, learning by experience works best for her but “there is a lot that doesn’t get taught out on the farm, especially in the science side of things”. Coursework in the university’s labs fills the gap – “That’s where we learn a lot more than we would out on the farm and on the job.”

Rory is finishing a 2-year cadetship at training farm Smedley Station and next year will begin 2 years of study at Lincoln University. For him, education is a pathway. “Education played a fairly decent role in my acceptance into Smedley and then Smedley’s been a really good learning opportunity. I’m looking forward to getting more of that out of Lincoln,” he says.

Courtney has spent 3 years studying towards a Bachelor of Management Studies majoring in agribusiness at the University of Waikato and hopes to continue her studies next year at honours level. For her, “the courses I am taking really help you to know everything that is going on, that you are up to date”. Her studies provide another avenue into agriculture, adding to “the practical experience I get just being out on the farm with my brother and dad”.

Scholarships such as the Tom Cranswick help financially but another advantage they bring is the networks they help students build. This year’s recipients join a long list of alumni furthering their careers around New Zealand and around the globe – what advice is there for those coming behind?

Nathan Ebbett won the award in 2009 while at Lincoln University. He graduated from there with a Diploma in Agriculture and a Diploma in Farm Management and headed to Australia for seasonal work in the arable sector, coming home to the family farm in Pahiatua through the winters. He is now Chief Operations Officer for a large arable farming operation near Moree, in northern NSW.

His advice? “Informally I treat every day as a school day,” he says, “with my eyes and ears open as I experience new roles and circumstances. Education has been crucial to my success and has given me the wide network I now have.

“My advice to someone weighing up education options would be to work out where you want to be, then map out a path to get there. Have a crack and don’t be afraid to put yourself out of your comfort zone. Once you make a decision, commit to it and work hard.”

Simon Horne was a 2013 recipient. He joined the FMG Graduate Programme after university and is still there, “learning the ropes out in the field”. Get stuck in is his advice. “It’s not the initial education, it’s the ongoing, always trying to reach the next step but enjoying it at the same time. Education doesn’t have to be sitting in the classroom, it can be out on the farm doing the practical side of things – whatever works best for that individual.”

Jemima Snook (2014 recipient) finished a Bachelor of Commerce degree last year at Lincoln University, majoring in farm management and accountancy. She then spent 6 weeks in Indonesia as part of a Lincoln University trip studying agribusiness and trade opportunities. On her return she took up a graduate position with accountancy firm BDO in Christchurch, where she works in its specialist agribusiness team. When The Farmlander spoke to her, she was just back from Europe, having attended the Youth Ag Summit in Brussels.

“Don’t be afraid to mix up your degree,” she tells those contemplating university studies. “If you like two areas, see if you can combine them. I liked ag and I also liked accounting so I looked at whether I could combine them and it turned out that it worked really well.

“There are a lot of options these days and I think the people who come out with the best degrees haven’t just done one major but they’ve done two or looked at two different areas. There’s a whole range of jobs out there that want you to have more than one set of skills and I think the more skills you can get during university, the more opportunities you’re going to see as you go through.”

Annaliese Goettler (2016 recipient) echoes that advice. The now part-time student is in her final year of a Bachelor of Management Studies (Agribusiness) at the University of Waikato and is working as a Product Manager/Marketing Coordinator for AgriHealth NZ.

“Have a long-term career goal for once you finish study,” she says, “but make sure it is written in pencil, not in pen. Opportunities will arise that you had never considered and if you are narrowly focused on a specific goal you will miss them. It is so important to be flexible and jump on opportunities as they come up.”

For all these current and former students, one truth is constant – If they are to have a successful career in agriculture, they will need to remain committed to life-long learning and to keeping up with the demands of a rapidly changing sector. Juliet Maclean of the Rural Leadership Trust remembers back to the start of her own career in agriculture, as a sheep and beef farmer in Northland, the Waikato and Canterbury. “When I started my career I was primarily focused on the livestock, the pastures, in some cases leading a team and profitability. Those were the four key pillars.

“Now the expectation is that a senior manager in a large business like that might have a budget of $5 million and they are expected to be the GM of the environment, the GM of HR, the GM of finance, the GM of sustainability, the GM of pasture and livestock – a huge range of really complicated business units all wound into one,” she says. “The same goes for owner operators of farms, they need a broad range of skills, even if the scale isn't so great.”

“That complexity is overwhelming for some people and how often do you hear people say, oh farming is not what it used to be. And the reality is, it’s not. That doesn’t mean that it is any more or less attractive. What it is going to be in 10 years is not what it is now either. And so the pace of change and the demands that creates are huge.”


‘Bit of study’ goes a long way

Ange McFetridge is proof positive of two things – that it’s never too late to start studying and that you never know where that study will take you.

Ange lives in Dannevirke with husband Peter and their two children, Claire and Robbie. She and Peter run hoggets and heifers on a support block for a larger farm in Martinborough but she has less and less time for that. She’s currently involved in course development for the Southern Institute of Technology’s online Diploma in Agribusiness and is also contracted to the School Trustees Association. Alongside that, she and colleague Phil Morrison have just finished a project for the University of Missouri helping Ukraine develop a better regulatory system for its agriculture sector.

Ange was nearly 30 when she and Peter took up the reins as assistant managers on training farm Smedley Station in Hawke’s Bay. She had gone straight into work from high school, eventually supervising a bovine Tb programme in the central North Island and Tararua regions.

“When we went to Smedley I decided that to fill in my time, upskill and to have some deadlines I would try a bit of study,” she says. A Bachelor of Business through the Open Polytechnic followed but that was just a springboard to Massey University’s Executive MBA course. That led to her studying under Professor Hamish Gow the market orientation of New Zealand red meat farmers and how it affected farm profitability. Ange credits the MBA with teaching her valuable critical analysis tools, ridding her of a lot of bias and pushing her to study outside her comfort level.

Next came a Masters of Agricommerce to increase her research credits. Looking around for a project, Ange learned that FarmIQ, a farm management software program developed by Silver Fern Farms, Landcorp and Tru-Test in partnership with the Government, was faltering. “Their marketing had stalled, sales had stalled, they had this amazing product but still only a small number of farmers who were really that keen on it. So they really wanted to find out why,” she says.

To help lift uptake, Ange researched what kind of farm management product would interest farmers. “It was as much about trying to identify what kinds of problems we were trying to solve,” she says. “We started out with a customer of one and really got to know them and who they were, what was it that they were trying to achieve, what were the most painful things in their lives that we could use technology to try and solve.”

Her research told her that the original FarmIQ program was excellent for farmers who were “super users” with a “high pain threshold for adopting new technology”. Meanwhile, though, “there were a whole heap of farmers out there who just wanted a really simple solution to solve one or two quite specific problems.”

Ange spent 17 months on that project. Professor Gow credits her with helping to turn around FarmIQ. The secret? That it’s no point just shouting louder at farmers in the hope they will come around, “any solution needs to be easy to adopt”, he says.

For Ange, education has meant access to “people and places and knowledge that I simply couldn’t have had otherwise”. Included in that is the “fantastic network of people” she gained from her participation in the Kellogg Rural Leadership Programme in 2015.

“There have been a lot of people who have helped me, from colleagues to farmers, Professor Gow and Dr. Brennon Wood and scholarships such as the ADB Williams Trust in Dannevirke.”

Ange is passionate about the benefits education can bring to the wider farming community. “I know from the MBA research I did that the farmers who are becoming more and more profitable are the ones who are really out there and prepared to learn, coupled with sound practical skills. So I think education, whether it be through an institution or whether it be through joining farm discussion groups or whatever it is, when people learn and apply things then generally their outcomes improve.”

Go out and be an explorer is her advice. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that being an expert in a certain area might be great but by crikey there’s a lot to learn from being a really good explorer as well. Increase your knowledge and I think, in New Zealand, increase your network as well.”