by Sue Meade, HR Manager, Growing Future Farmers
When most people win awards they sit back and enjoy a job well done . . . when Federated Farmers members Tam and Dan Jex-Blake won a training award in 2016, they realised there was so much more they could do to help the agricultural sector.
True to form, these Manutuke farmers didn’t waste time in delving into how they could create a programme that would become a career pathway for students keen to work in the beef, lamb and deer sector.
The end result is Growing Future Farmers, and while still in its infancy, the programme is already making waves. Over the past three years there have been pre-pilots and pilots run to test out and develop a credible employer-led programme for young students. Fittingly, the first was at the Jex-Blake’s Mangapoike Station.
Tam was at a Rabobank Client Council initiative when members were asked to flag the challenges facing sheep, beef and deer farmers. “There is a critical skill shortage in our sector,” says Tam.
She was at a seminar when she heard former Zespri chief executive Lain Jager speak.
“He said sometimes you just have to stand up and show a bit of leadership and it had me reflect a bit and I thought, ‘yes we do’.”
The early pilots were funded by Rabobank but it was thanks to a grant managed by the Provincial Development Unit that GFF was able to come to life. “It was a game-changer for us,” says Tam. Students are further supported by funding from the Tertiary Education Commission, just as any other student would be in New Zealand. Also involved early on was PwC partner Campbell Furlong who Tam says has been invaluable.
From just two students in 2017 and 2018, the programme grew to include three in 2019 and 10 in 2020. This year there are 60 students spread across seven regions. Each is on a fees-free two-year course that will see them gain entry level essential farm skills, followed by advanced skills and then into business management, leaving with NZQA level three qualifications. Students are paid weekly, so graduate with no student loans, and at the end of their two years will also have two trained dogs at their sides.
Early on it became apparent students needed pastoral support, so each region now has a liaison manager. It was also realised that there was a need to build soft skills alongside the hard, which is being worked into the curriculum.
Both farms and prospective students are screened by GFF. “You can’t teach what is needed in a classroom,” says Tam.
She has had plenty of support from farm owners, farm managers and the wider industry.
“If we want GFF to be successful we have to have innovative programmes. Day to day has to be different. In 10 years this programme will probably be quite different, and that is fine, as long as we are meeting the needs of both students and the industry.”
The current hybrid model is lean, cloud based and most importantly, sustainable. The programme seeks specialists across the industry to teach the students, whether that be veterinary, dog trialists, Farm IQ, WorkSafe or anything else that is needed. Presentations can be done through Zoom, or regional hubs of students gather in a cluster for practical hands-on work. All of the student’s training and hours are logged through FarmIQ through a templated platform where all their learning can be recorded and proven.
“Technology also means we can tap into any great speaker and give the students to go on with – the key message is that they continue to train on the farm.”
But the challenge remains to get more funding to continue to take GFF to the next level. In July 2020 Cyn Smith joined GFF as the general manager. For the previous 14 years, Cyn had led Tihoi Venture School for St Paul’s Collegiate School in the Waikato. “I have always had an affinity with the primary sector – it has great people and GFF meshes well with my education background. This is an exciting space to be in at the moment.”
She says that GFF is employer-driven but industry-backed as a huge win for all. “We have the bones here of some really good stuff and it is now about getting it out there and making it happen.”
EIT are assisting with the delivery of some of the programme but moving the Certificate of Agriculture and Cert of Primary Industries completely online has not been without its challenges.
“We want to employ New Zealanders on our farms. The sheep and beef sector calls for a multi-faceted skill set. Students need time on farms for the vocational training.”
One of the key things both Cyn and Tam underline is that while the students train and study on the farm, and are there as an extra set of hands, they are not employees, but first and foremost students.
The ‘real’ hours logged driving tractors, quad bikes or on the end of a chainsaw, align with everyday life on a farm and mean on graduation, they are safe to work there. “There are a lot of people watching us at the moment to see how we are doing things, so it is even more important that we do a great job of our pilots and deliver on what we say we will – high quality training.”
Cyn is excited that GFF is so incredibly innovative and while it is the first digital delivery across the regions, it also uses local tutors. “We are building the hubs and basically moving ag training into the vocational space.”
The GFF board is connected and from the industry. “They will back us in all sorts of ways – not just money but important support.”
Drawing on her Tihoi background, Cyn says the students also learn about ensuring there is balance in their lives. She is looking forward to working more with tangata whenua so they too will have more of their own people running their farms.
It is an aspiration shared by Tam too, for a programme that is available to anyone who wants to make a career in the very industry that is what New Zealand has been built on.
“For me, the dream would be for a young school leaver to have a clearly-defined career pathway of both soft and hard skill training and practical skill sets all aligned . . . we are future-proofing our sector,” says Tam. “This has taken so much longer than I ever thought it would to set up, but I feel relief it is now in good hands with a strong future.”
Farms are inter-generational businesses. “It is not about farm ownership any more, but these kids can become chief executives of multi-million dollar businesses . . . and that is exciting.”