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May 17, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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There’s more to farming than just cows and sheep

Incorrect perceptions of what the agriculture industry in New Zealand entails may be turning young people off a career in the sector. Salient Editor Sarah Robson investigates why there is a demand for graduates in New Zealand’s biggest export industry.

I’m from a family with a background in farming. Although I lived in town, and my parents aren’t farmers, there’s no way of escaping the agriculture sector when you live in a rural service town like Feilding. Heck, my dad is a rural contractor, not to mention I spent a great deal of my childhood at my grandparents’ farm not far out of town. I fed lambs in the backyard, I trudged through paddocks in gumboots, I collected eggs from the chook house. My rural roots run deep, however, they don’t run so deep that I feel compelled to turn my back on life in the city to become a farmer’s wife. Visions of green grass, hay bales and fuzzy white sheep may seem appealing for a fleeting moment, but the romance of the countryside isn’t enough to compel young people to ditch everything to pursue a life on the land.

Farming has never been the sexiest of professions, nor has it gained popular acclaim among primary school children in the “what I want to be when I grow up” stakes. Nevertheless, it is farming, and land-based industries more broadly speaking, that have been the backbone of the New Zealand economy for decades. The agriculture industry generates 64 per cent of our merchandise export earnings—making it New Zealand’s largest and most important industry. Further in this vein, New Zealand is the world’s largest dairy and sheep meat exporter.

Agriculture Minister David Carter acknowledged in a speech last June that the agriculture and horticulture industries are “the only two major industries in which we have sufficient scale, market share and supply chains to be truly competitive in international trade”. If the New Zealand economy is so dependent on agriculture, then why are we seeing declining numbers of students enrolling in agriculture-related qualifications, at both secondary and tertiary level? Why are young people turning their backs on the profession that is the very lifeblood of our nation?

The economic reality

When it comes down to it, it is upon agriculture that the New Zealand economy relies. It is an industry where New Zealand excels, and can excel further in the future. However, there appears to be a turn away from promoting agriculture and other land-based industries as a cornerstone of our economic development. This is not a recent phenomenon, says David Rose, Health and Education spokesperson for Federated Farmers.

“In the 1980s and 1990s there was a real push at government away from the [agriculture] sector in the belief that tourism and services were the ‘new black’. They haven’t been, as agriculture has increased in importance.”

It is plain fact that agriculture rakes in far more money for the New Zealand economy, compared to glamour industries like film or tourism.

“The creative industries received exposure far beyond their capacity to offer careers or employment,” Rose says.

“The fact is that agriculture is not just being on a farm, but covers all aspects of a $24 billion industry and encompasses [everything from] wine (horticulture), cheese (agriculture) to mussel fritters (fisheries) and even that roof over your head (forestry).”

Figures provided by Federated Farmers last year clearly illustrate the ongoing importance of the agriculture sector to New Zealand. Farm productivity has outstripped every other sector of the economy for many of the last 27 years. Much of this economic success is down to the work being done in Crown Research Institutes, universities and by companies like Fonterra.

Need further proof? Federated Farmers again stated last year that the total estimated spend of all inbound tourists for 2008 represented a mere 31 per cent of Fonterra’s revenue for the year ended 2008. Agriculture is important, alright?

The problem of education

Despite the economic prosperity and promise associated with New Zealand’s agriculture sector, there is no avoiding the fact that the sector is failing to attract desperately needed young people. In October 2008, the Primary Production Committee presented a report to parliament on the declining numbers in agriculture education. The report states in its introduction that the committee was “concerned about what appeared to be a drastic decline in students” in the agriculture sector.

The committee was informed that between 2003 and 2007 “the number of students studying agriculture and horticulture at a secondary school level dropped by 13 per cent”. You can study agriculture at NCEA Levels 1, 2 and 3, and as of last year, agriculture is offered as a scholarship subject. The problem is, however, that agriculture is offered in less than half of New Zealand’s secondary schools.

At a tertiary level, numbers are looking a little more hopeful. The report states that the number of students studying agriculture and related subjects have “increased substantially” since 2000. However, much of this growth has been at the certificate level, as a result of new requirements associated with purchasing agriculture compounds. At the diploma and degree levels, the report paints a slightly different picture: “diploma enrolments have fallen by almost 30 per cent and degree-level courses by about 12 per cent”. A study by Massey University around the time of the release of the report found that graduate numbers in the “agriculture, environment and related studies” category fell between 1999 and 2005, but numbers have been on the rise again since 2006.

Certainly, a number of problems face the agriculture sector in terms of attracting people to study the subject. These problems are in need of a solution, as the sector potentially faces a future shortage of qualified graduates who can take up research, scientific, finance, consultancy and other related positions that are essential to the development of the agriculture industry in New Zealand.

Farming’s just not cool

Those who haven’t spent much time on a farm, or have little to no knowledge of what agriculture actually involves, may have a slightly skewed idea of what is actually entailed in a career in agriculture. In fact, there’s a lot more to agriculture than just being a farmer, milking cows and shearing sheep, says John Beech, the Head of the Agriculture Department at Feilding High School.

“[That’s the] perspective that we’ve had over the years—that [agriculture] is just for dummies to go in to,” Beech says.

“It’s more than that, and there’s a huge opportunity out there in the academic scene for students, not just milking cows, but in academic stuff like university, consultancy, Fonterra and all those sorts of places.”

The Primary Production Committee also acknowledged in their 2008 report to parliament that the agriculture sector suffers from a few image problems. Poor public perception could potentially be one of the factors putting young people off taking up study in agriculture.

“There is a widespread perception that a career in agriculture is unfulfilling, involving too much hard work for little reward, and a farming career in particular is better suited to non-academic people,” the report states.

This perception is largely incorrect, but it does have a popular following.

Current Vic student Aggie Galloway says that agriculture is seen as “a bit of a bum subject”. Galloway studied agriculture at Feilding High School, and was awarded an NZQA scholarship in the subject last year.

“I don’t think [agriculture] appeals that much. I suppose it doesn’t really seem like a hugely viable way to make money, even though it is,” she says.

Many of those who end up studying agriculture at Feilding High School come from farming backgrounds.

“A lot of kids who [study agriculture] come through from the hostel, a lot of them come from farming backgrounds, and of course Feilding is a rural community—it is a service town for a rural area,” Beech says.

Chelsea Hirst is also an ex-Feilding High School agriculture student, who is now studying first year Agriculture Science at Massey University in Palmerston North. Although she doesn’t have a farming background, many of her classmates do.

“The majority of people doing the agriculture papers that I’m doing, they’re from farms. The people who are getting into [agriculture] have had experience in some way or another, whether that be on a farm or at school.”

It seems that agriculture is a field that those who are unfamiliar with it are put off dabbling in. Misconceptions about what a career in agriculture involves, and an ill-informed assumption that it is “for dummies” is doing little to attract people to undertake study in the sector, ultimately hampering the development of the industry in our green isles. So what can be done to buck the trend?

Attracting people to the paddock

Agriculture is given little to no status by secondary schools in New Zealand. Generally, the subjects chosen during high school will go some way to determining future study and career options. Agriculture barely rates a mention on the lips of careers advisors, thus it comes as little surprise that students are uninspired when it comes to thinking about a potential career in the sector.

Rose says that there is “a real lack of knowledge about agriculture among careers advisors and parents, who do not consider the career as they have no personal knowledge of it and do not talk about it”.

The introduction of agriculture as a scholarship subject has given it greater academic standing at a secondary school level. Beech says teachers of the subject pushed hard to get scholarship introduced, but there is still some way to go in terms of providing support and resources for teachers.

While agriculture is a subject that is pushed and encouraged at Feilding High School—the school owns two working farms—Beech says it is left in the dust by other schools.

“I guess it comes down to teaching staff,” he says.

“If you’ve got someone with a passion, then it gets pushed, and if you haven’t, it just gets forgotten about.

“I haven’t got any silver bullets or answers for the problem, but maybe the government needs to put some more resources into making an awareness that it’s out there and doing a bit more marketing of it.”

Of course, agriculture is just one of many subject choices available to secondary school students. Given the smorgasboard of options on offer, some who decide to head into agriculture at the tertiary level may find themselves without the basic subjects that are a foundation for agriculture.

“There is also the reality that agriculture is science, so needs preparatory subjects, which some students have failed to acquire,” Rose says.

Federated Farmers has also endeavored to encourage young people to get involved in the agriculture industry. Rose says many of the initiatives currently in place are only a few years old. Considerable promotion work is being undertaken by levy-funded industry organisations, such as Dairy NZ and Beef and Lamb NZ, in schools. The Federated Farmers Farm Day is targeted at urban-based primary school children to widen their horizons towards agriculture.

“We have others like Jacqueline Rowarth from Massey University, who visit secondary schools to talk with passion about the exciting agriculture industry and how students could be involved,” he says.

“More should be done to promote agriculture from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, as there is only a finite amount of time and resource we have as individual farmers. We can only do so much.”

A host of scholarships are also available to young people looking to undertake agriculture-related study at a tertiary level, Beech says. Hirst has received two scholarships which will go some way to funding her studies at Massey.

“If you want to do a tertiary qualification in agriculture, or horticulture, or forestry, or any of the primary industries, you’re just about guaranteed to get your degree paid for,” Beech says.

Equipping young people with all the correct information and subject options will ensure, at the very least, that students are aware of the study and career opportunities in the agriculture sector. Failure to attract more students to agriculture will only worsen the current shortage of graduates facing the sector.

What next?

Given the importance of the agriculture sector to the New Zealand economy, it is essential that the workforce is rejuvenated in the coming years. If this does not happen, the consequences are dire. If New Zealand is to remain a world leader in agriculture, the sector needs to attract the best brains this country has to offer.

“The age profile for farmers is growing and productivity improvements have helped, but the simple fact is we do not have the number of skilled entrants coming into the industries to sustain performance,” Rose says.

“A strong New Zealand must have a strong agricultural sector, as everyone’s standard of living depends upon it.

“Think of it like this—12,000 dairy farmers directly contribute a quarter of New Zealand’s exports. We are truly lucky that our temperate climate allows our world-leading unsubsidised farmers to export our top-quality food to the world.”

Beech also has concerns about a potential shortage of graduates for the future of agriculture research in New Zealand.

“I suppose when you think of the agriculture industry at the moment, it’s facing a few hurdles. There are issues with effluent, there are issues with carbon trading, there are all sorts of different things, animal welfare and stuff like that.

“Now if we haven’t got the bright young people to research in those areas and find some answers to some of those challenges, then we are going to struggle,” he says.

“A lot of countries out there are concerned about the environment, and if we’re not doing it right, and we haven’t solved some of these problems to make our agriculture industry a bit more cost-effective and yet environmentally friendly, then these countries are not going to take our [exports] and that’s going to be a problem.”

If your BA isn’t going so well for you, perhaps it’s time to consider a change. Maybe there’s a career for you in agriculture? Agriculture graduates are in demand, and are likely to be far more employable in a whole host of different aspects of the industry. Remember, there’s more to farming than just milking cows and shearing sheep. In the end, agriculture is the lifeblood of the nation. It is one of the few industries where we are a true world leader. If interest in agriculture among young people continues to decline, where does that leave our most profitable export industry?

Job prospects for graduates of agriculture-related tertiary qualifications:

  • Research, science and technology. Fonterra, for instance, employs 350 researchers here and abroad.
  • Banking and financial products.
  • International trade.
  • Trade diplomacy.
  • Infrastructure, for example, water storage and broadband.
  • IT.
  • Industrial applications.
  • Retailing—the multi-billion dollar support industries.
  • Fertiliser. Ballance and Ravensdown, both cooperatives, are involved in exports too.
  • Shipping, distribution and logistics.
  • Food technology.
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About the Author ()

Editor for 2010, politics nerd, panda fan and three-time award-winning student journalist.

Comments (1)

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  1. Bill Barwood says:

    Dear Sarah
    Well done on putting into perspective the contribution of the agriculture sector to the New Zealand economy.
    I manage a major scholarship programme for the dairy industry. Currently DairyNZ is funding 52 full-time recipients at Lincoln and Massey Universities. 116 recipients have graduated from the programme which began in 2001. We have had a recipient from Feilding High School who is now a rural bank manager with close links to the dairy industry.
    All our recipients are supported and mentored through their studies, and all are required to promote the industry and the programme in thier schools.
    Please contact me for further information about the extensive career promotion programme DairyNZ provides.
    Kind regards
    Bill Barwood
    Industry Education Facilitator

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