Animal and Plant Health NZ Opinion piece
By Mark Ross
Young, bright, passionate all-round high achievers are a few chosen words to describe the horticulture and agriculture scholarship winners we’ve celebrated over the years.
The calibre of young people we’ve met through our long-running programme has been phenomenal – their enthusiasm for our industry is inspiring, and most have gone straight to paid employment in their chosen fields. Their backgrounds and reasons for choosing agriculture as a career are as varied as the goals they set out to achieve. Common to them all is a passion for agriculture – embracing it as a desirable career for the diverse opportunities and experiences that come with it.
Some recipients were inspired by those already working in agriculture and the fascinating stories they had to tell; others saw the potential of science and sustainability working together, and those more business-minded individuals claimed agribusiness as their chosen pathway.
Our 2014 scholarship winner Yvette Jones wanted to work on solutions for horticulture, with her friends forced to move away from her hometown in the Bay of Plenty after the PSA virus decimated their kiwifruit crops. Intent on becoming a leader in consumer-centric and sustainable food production, our 2020 winner Alexandra Tomkins was keen to share New Zealand’s story and put high quality and nutritious products on the world stage.
Our agricultural scholarship winners have moved on to established careers, from vine managers to nutrient specialists, business managers and consultants. Some went on to complete overseas scholarships before taking on management positions in New Zealand. So, it was surprising to discover that fewer students were choosing to study horticulture and agriculture at a recent Animal and Plant Health NZ leadership forum.
It raises a sense of unease for the future, especially given the trajectory of the primary industries. Now, more than ever, we need progressive, smart and educated individuals to help innovate and drive change for growers and farmers – to enable them to survive in a changing climate, during a time of increasing political interference and escalating consumer demands.
New Zealand is touted as the food basket of the world, but with intense regulation from governments – both here and overseas, people are needed to seek solutions to meet these demands and drive productivity in farming. With pressures to slash emissions, be productive and support the economy, New Zealand farming is in a vise. It must find solutions to producing more with less – using fewer resources, emitting less, and on less available land. Managing these pressures requires innovative thinking and ideas.
Farming industries are crying out for Bachelor of Agricultural Science students to keep abreast and help manage the myriad of issues the sector faces. High demand also exists for horticultural graduates to keep pace with our booming horticultural industry.
Tragically, New Zealand universities have experienced a downturn in student numbers in recent years, resulting in too few agricultural and horticultural graduates to meet industry demands. Associate Professor in Weed Science at Massey University, Dr Kerry Harrington, suggests some causal factors for this downward trend. The Covid restrictions created difficulties for secondary school students. New Zealand is also in a period of low unemployment combined with a high cost of living, so the temptation for people to be lured into earning an income versus studying and accumulating debt could be a contributing factor.
Despite there being no fees in the first year of study, the cost of university education is a major turn-off for many. Student allowances have barely increased in many years. Universities have had few funding increases which, in turn, affects future fee structures for students.
Another thorn in the side of agriculture is the negative publicity that the industry endures, especially around issues such as methane emissions and leaching of nutrients into waterways. Schools can also put students off studying ag, for similar reasons. But perhaps what they’re missing is the pathway to solutions. Trained professionals are needed more than ever to help farmers modify their practices to ensure the continued sustainability of agriculture.
Studying agriculture or horticulture at university doesn’t require a string of prerequisites. Secondary students interested in either degree must only have studied some sciences at secondary school. It’s not obligatory to have studied agriculture or horticulture. Studying from home is one way of tackling the increasing costs of tertiary education – as it can make it easier for students to work and keep costs down. This is becoming increasingly popular, says Harrington. Massey University and other universities have developed expertise in distance education over the last couple of years. The pitfall is that students miss social interactions, one of the highlights of university life.
Scholarships are more important than ever to convince more people to study horticulture, according to Harrington. “Some of the larger funding bodies such as DairyNZ and Beef + Lamb have stepped back from scholarships, just when help is badly needed with attracting students into these programmes.”
Agricultural graduates are essential for our primary industries, as people with the vital role of producing food seek to front-foot the various challenges and pressures affecting them – now and into the future. Schools, industry, parents and universities need to encourage more people into these fields of study to ensure that New Zealand can continue to feed the world and support our economy.
Mark Ross is chief executive of Animal and Plant Health NZ
Animal and Plant Health NZ represents the New Zealand animal health and crop protection industries as well as rural retailers. The industry association promotes the benefits of safe, effective, quality products and services for the health of animals (including pet care) and crops. Its members are committed to the responsible use of products from research to disposal.
The association was formerly called Agcarm.
Alexandra Tomkins, our 2020 scholarship recipient’s story
Read more about our scholarships