Address by Dr William Rolleston to the NZIAHS Canterbury Forum - Towards 2030 - Lincoln University

21 October 2016

Thank you for the opportunity to speak here today.

Answering the question ‘where is the next generation of farmers going to come from?’, the glib answer is ‘the  next generation’.   While we need to be more specific and targeted than that we also need to be open minded.

Farming is already a technically challenging career.  I am in constant awe of my fellow farmer who every day must make complex decisions, dealing with the vagaries of weather, biology and the market.  My grandfather came from a medical background to farming and found incredible satisfaction in the challenge.  I too am a medic who has turned his head to agriculture.

In an era of an ageing population, skilled workforce shortages, a digital and biological revolution and increasingly discerning food consumers there are plenty of challenges ahead as New Zealand’s primary industries fight for a share of bright and innovative workers, managers and leaders.

Fortunately, agriculture and its downstream sectors have amazing and diverse career opportunities.  It’s not just down-on-the-farm labouring jobs, although we still need them too.
The problem is not only one of convincing the next generation that a career in agriculture is satisfying and dynamic, but making all members of society aware of agriculture.

Kiwis have a love of the outdoors, and there is a lifestyle that goes with rural New Zealand that we need to do a better job of selling.  That lifestyle is a very viable and attractive alternative to long city traffic commutes, a day of being stuck behind a desk, and a lifetime hobbled by a crippling city mortgage.

 As I’ll outline today, increasing use of technology on the land will take some of the more mundane and repetitive tasks out of the work day, giving farmers more time to innovate and take advantage of export markets hungry for top quality produce, and for niche products further along the value chain.

No-one can argue that satisfying the future workforce need is a critical challenge.

In a decade’s time there could be eight billion people living on a planet that 50 years ago was home to three billion.  Or put another way, about every three weeks the world’s population grows by one New Zealand – four and a half million people.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that agricultural output must increase by 60 per cent by 2050 to meet that growth.  That means the amount of land available for agriculture to feed each person on Earth will shrink.  While in 1960 one hectare was needed to feed two people, by 2050 one hectare will be needed to feed six people.

New Zealand cannot feed the world, but we can play a part – and we need an increasingly skilled and technologically aware workforce to do it.

One hurdle is that 86 per cent of New Zealanders live in urban areas.  Ironically we are considered one of the most urbanised countries in the world.  A recent Rabobank survey showed that as many as 75 per cent of city teenagers are only dimly aware of what primary producers do.  They associate milk and meat with supermarkets, and wool with fashion retailers and don’t really have an appreciation of how food gets from farm to plate, and wool from the sheep’s backs to our backs.  Viewed from that perspective, it’s hardly surprising there is a lack of knowledge of primary industry career opportunities, and false perceptions about what those careers entail.

But today’s young people are digital natives, and farming – if it’s pitched to them a compelling way – will be appealing. Successful farming increasingly relies on digital and technological tools to boost production and deal with the kinds of global issues farmers have shown willingness to tackle, such as climate change and reducing our environmental footprint.

Part of our task in creating the future agriculture workforce will start in schools.  

The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman identifies two key purposes for education in science – that of pre-professional education, that is teaching the skills that will be built on in a scientific career and secondly citizen-focused objectives.  Creating a generation of New Zealanders who can sort fact from fiction and who have the skills to participate in the many science based decisions we make as a society.   Agriculture is no different and to some extent we can piggy back on the science objectives.

It’s a positive that more and more primary and intermediate schools have their own gardens, and involve pupils in grasping that link between a planted seed, the weather and soil nutrients required to provide healthy food.  But we need to be careful this doesn’t romanticise agriculture by giving an unrealistic impression of modern agriculture’s requirements and challenges – for challenge gives opportunity for satisfaction and draws our curious and talented minds.

Federated Farmers vice-president Anders Crofoot recently led a project with the Soil, Food and Society group to create an on-line resource to help educators teach primary and intermediate students how to think scientifically.  

The resource also promotes discussion and understanding around the critical role that the primary industries play in our society. The resource’s exploration of the soil system and of plant life as the source of our food takes science learning right back to basics, and will help sow the seed in young minds that a future job in such a vital sector is worthwhile. The Young Farmer’s Agrikids programme seeks to engage school students in fun farming activities and challenges.

Later, at college level, we have more challenges ahead of us. The government has set an aspirational goal of doubling the value of primary exports by 2025. The Ministry of Primary Industries has estimated more than 50,000 workers – 26,000 of them tertiary trained – will be needed to meet that goal.

Yet as Federated Farmers underlined in its submission to the Tertiary Education Strategy, we have too many secondary school teachers and career advisors who do not see a job in agriculture as a viable option for intelligent, academic students.  That sort of attitude becomes a major stumbling block for tertiary education institutions trying to attract good students for agricultural disciplines.

Nevertheless, there are bright spots. More secondary schools are coming on board with promotion of agricultural careers.  For example St Paul’s Collegiate in Auckland has developed an agricultural curriculum that includes risk management, microbiology, food science and agribusiness accounting.  

St Paul’s in 2014 saw 16 of the 20 Year 13 students go on to study for an agriculture-focused degree.

The college is pushing for a national roll-out of the course options next year.

The Primary Industries Capability Alliance which seeks to “work together to grow people for a vibrant future” is also targeting secondary and tertiary students to ensure they are aware of the career opportunities available in agriculture and that we have the infrastructure to deliver the training necessary.

The next generation will be attracted to farming for myriad reasons as they are today, but there is no doubt there will be more opportunity 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.

Science and technology is changing the way we manage farms, improve productivity and reduce our environmental impact.

  • 3D printers may mean that delivery of that spare tractor part is only an email away.
  • robotics and driverless vehicles will no longer mean a single driver on an even larger machine but rather swarms of autonomous machines with a lighter footprint and greater precision.
  • The internet has the potential to bring producer and consumer closer together, bypassing the supermarket.
  • And then there is the massive potential of gene editing to eradicate pests and accelerate productivity – if we can only get wider society to focus on science, facts and reality rather than mis-information and hysteria.
  • 3D printers may mean that delivery of that spare tractor part is only an email away.

Technology will take the drudgery out of many mundane farm tasks.   Such things as spraying and moving the electric fence could well be done by robotics.

There is growing use of drones by farmers - In checking livestock, fence lines and water troughs, assessing crop health, monitoring for disease and capturing data for analysis.  Drones can save farm staff a lot of time stomping around paddocks in their gumboots, and can provide more accurate information on where fertiliser and sprays need to be applied.

Precision agriculture is on the rise.

One new robotic device scans the ground and detects where cows have urinated.  Because cow urine puts nutrients into the soil, the machine can target the urine patch with nitrification inhibitors and fertilise the rest. As well as saving money, nitrate leaching is reduced.

Soil sampling, electromagnetic mapping and sensor technology mean farmers can now work out the soil anatomy of different parts of a single field, and combine that information with modern tractor software to adjust how much water and fertiliser is put on each patch of pasture.

This kind of sophistication underlines why we need a more highly educated and technology-savvy workforce on the land.   The Government’s Careers website notes that in 2012, an estimated 44% of employees in the primary industries had formal, post-school qualifications.  By 2025, it’s anticipated this will need to increase to 62% to meet these new demands.

MPI’s 2014 “People Powered” report on the future capability needs in primary industries tells us as well as needing increasingly upskilled workers and managers, we need a larger workforce.

Their estimates are that by 2025,

  • horticulture will need a net increase of 7,800 workers;
  • through natural attrition and training, red meat and wool will need 16,500 fewer workers without post-school qualifications but 11,400 more workers with qualifications;
  • arable will need a net increase of 4,700 workers and dairy 2,300 more.

But it’s in the support services areas that the primary sector will see the greatest demand, with as many as 30,000 more jobs to fill by 2025.
We all want our fellow New Zealanders to take up those jobs wherever possible but the plain fact is there will likely continue to be some reliance on skilled migrant labour, especially in the dairy and horticultural industries.

It’s all very well for our elected representatives to make political capital out of this sensitive issue, but when primary industries make up 70 percent of our product exports, to get ahead the sector must not be starved of skilled migrants when positions can’t be filled locally.

Another important stream for agriculture’s future workforce is Maori.

Maori make up about 15,000 of the primary sector’s workforce, with most employed in the meat and fibre sector.    While statistics for Maori unemployment and education are not flash, our Maori and Pasifika populations are growing at a much faster rate than Europeans’.

 It could be argued Maori traditional cultural values such as kaitiakitanga (land stewardship) and their affinity with the whenua (the land) mean they have an affinity for the rural sector.  Maori are also amongst the largest farm owners in the country.

South Island iwi Ngai Tahu has extensive farming, forestry and fishing portfolios, and its farming arm is finding success in a collaboration with Lincoln University and Telford in producing graduates who progress to managerial roles after starting at farm entry level.

Ngai Tahu Farming said last year that it expected 300 students to graduate to employment in the farming sector in the next five to eight years. It also aims to establish Maori as leaders in agribusiness.

For the Wairarpapa-based Taratahi Agricultural School, the nation’s largest agricultural training provider, Maori account for 30 per cent of its students – that’s 584 out of 2,100 across all course disciplines.  A fifth of those Maori students are young women.

Scholarships and the Maori Pasifika Trade Training Scheme are ways more Maori are being encouraged to see agribusiness as a viable career.  

However, not so many Maori are enrolled in university agri-science courses – Maori last year made up just 7 per cent of such students at Massey, for example.  But university spokespeople say agribusiness is gaining traction with Maori students.

A report in Federated Farmers’ National Farming Review said Taratahi is noticing an increasing number of students now coming from urban backgrounds, with roughly 40 per cent of the current student body being ‘townies’.  Good pay rates, the opportunity to pursue independent employment, the alternative lifestyle and the opportunity to work with new technology and equipment are the major drivers for this upswing in interest from urban teens and twenty-somethings.

Taratahi’s farms are used as classrooms and that give students a more authentic and practical learning experience than sitting indoors.

Federated Farmers itself is experiencing success recruiting and retaining workers.   In regions such as the Waikato and Ashburton, Federated Farmers have set up new training solutions after comparing notes on what has worked well, and what hasn’t.  In essence, they are going back to the future by replicating the old farm cadet scheme of the 1970s, but with a 21st Century makeover.

A charitable trust, the Waikato Farm Capability Scheme, has been set up in collaboration with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the Ministry of Social Development, NZ Dairy Careers, educators and economic development agencies.  This trust is driving a training and employment scheme that is focused on career development and support for farm workers.  It assists employees for three years to get them to senior level and does so by overseeing and managing their recruitment, selection, employment, training and career development on behalf of farmer members.

There is a particular focus on progressing trainees to become, for example, senior farm assistants and herd managers.  School leavers and trainees are more likely to buy-in when they can see there is a structured career pathway if they work at it.

Those who enrol in the Waikato and Ashburton schemes get a realistic taste of farming so that they, and Federated Farmer members, can see whether farming is for them, while they learn the basic skills as an entry level farm assistant.  

A trial the Ashburton Farm Capability Society ran in Canterbury last year showed that of those previously unemployed who undertook the pretraining, 50 per cent were employed on dairy farms six months later.
It’s vital work.  Dairy NZ has indicated that in Canterbury alone, 1000 new junior farm assistants are required each year.

So, returning to the question we started with - ‘where is the next generation of farmers going to come from?’ – that answer is from a multi-pronged and sustained effort at all sorts of levels to show New Zealanders that exciting careers lie ahead in agriculture and agri-business.

Federated Farmers’ stance is unequivocal:
Investment in training and educating employees and future industry leaders is an investment in New Zealand’s future prosperity.  
The dynamic of skills is changing rapidly and it is critical that we continue to create the environment which will attract our best and brightest, not because it is the last choice but because it is the best choice.

Thank you.