Agriculture has a major problem and it isn’t the Global Dairy Trade, it’s not the structure of the meat processing industry. It isn’t lack of irrigation or the Green Party demanding tougher standards from those that make a living off the environment. It most certainly isn’t those ‘nasty’ people at in Worksafe who have the gall to demand every single person can work without risk of serious injury or even death.
No, our biggest problem is none of the things that farmers find fashionable to moan about in discussions groups or around the bar leaner. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Bee Keeper or a Shepard, a Sharemilker or a Venison farmer, the problem is universal, it is historic and unless we all make a change, it is our future.
Simply, our problem is we do a lousy job at attracting the very best of the immensely gifted, the talented, visionary youth our country has to offer. We get a few and pat ourselves on the back. The reality is on simple numbers, we fall well short.
I believe that if we look deeply for answers, we will merely find justification for our own inward reaching beliefs. ‘The youth of today don’t want to work hard’ or ‘It’s too hard if your parents don’t own a farm’. Beliefs that were prevalent 23 years ago when I turned down an opportunity to go to university to join the Farm Cadet Scheme. The cause was the same then as it is now
The custodians of the Agriculture community do a poor job of relating to the youth of their time. I’d like to say we fail to catch the vast amount of urban youth, the reality is we aren’t even fishing in the right tide to have a hope of netting the best urban areas have to offer.
Our first failing is that too often we miss the boat and fail to engage with so the vast majority of youth. Our second is that when we do engage, we do it poorly.
Every industry leader should be beating down the door to have speakers talk at every secondary school in the country. Fonterra, Dairy NZ, Rabobank, Beef and Lamb, Zespri, Federated Farmers, Young Farmers to name but a few should all be vying for the time to talk to the best of Auckland Boys Grammer, Napier Girls High and frankly, everywhere else.
If you’re a company that values being industry leading, don’t pass the buck to Dairy NZ and the Universities. In all walks of life, competition forces people to raise their standards. Get out there and meet the people at our schools face to face. Fonterra should be actively competing with Beef and Lamb to encourage the best youth there are to study a matching tertiary qualification. This is a responsibility that should be shared by farmers. Every Industry Awards dinner should have tables right at the front for the best High School students. Let them engage and be inspired by award winners in their moment of glory
Why wait until they are ready to graduate before hand picking them? Rugby Unions don’t wait to see who got through High School, they identify the best of the talent while they are progressing through adolescence and start a relationship that fosters aspirations. We are skilled at nurturing seeds, so start sowing seeds in the minds of the best students at NCEA level 1. Get Year 10 students inspired to start tailoring the back end of their secondary schooling towards an Agricultural career.
It’s not enough though to just do a better job of getting in front of our youth. We need to present a message they will want to listen to.
My choice of title is very deliberate. If you think ‘Be Dope’ refers to the acquisition or use of a plant best grown in hydroponics hidden in your bedroom then you’re already on the path to failing to engage with our target market. Be dope actually means ‘be cool’. Some readers will know that but most won'twont.
Youth have perceptions of farming such as the hours are long, the jobs are shitty, there’s no cool technology, farmers aren’t great with the environment and more often than not, it’s for dummies. Remember, this isn’t about us taking the moral high ground and trying to defend those varying stereotypes. These young people are highly intelligent and the ones we should be targeting are most likely already developing their social conscious. They care about topics like water quality and animal handling and most likely have informed opinions.
So less about defending ourselves and more about where we intend to be in 10, 20, 30 years’ time. Sell an aspirational message about the future of agriculture’s relationship with the environment and the consumer. Young people want to feel like they are going to shape the future for the better. Embrace the idealism that grows the belief they can change the world. Show them we trust in their ability to make a positive change.
Giving these young stars the belief that through Agriculture they can conquer the world isn’t enough. We need to project the culture they want to be part of. When was the last time you saw a lineupline-up of checked shirts, moleskin trousers and RM Williams boots outside a fashionable bar? There is a fashion store in Gore, Carvin that will tell you farmer’s want to be trendy and modern. And the youth of any generation want the licence to dress as an individual. So when we do present ourselves in front of Schools, dress modern, god knows our whole industry could do with a makeover. First impressions count as much for a 16 year old as they do for an employer.
Often, the perception is digging posts in, crutching sheep and milking cows is for dummies. We have farms now that can open gates with their smart phone and the dog can go and round up stock. Technology is used to manage water resources, electricity, milking machines, mating. It should also be used to showcase the opportunities for people skilled with technology that there is a place for them among us. People we knew as Geeks end up being Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. I think we would all agree that we can use the capabilities of such visionary geniuses to ensure we are front and centre of tomorrow’s world.
Lastly, pick the people representing us wisely. Don’t send students who haven’t yet experienced a working life in this great industry. All their good intentions will be offset by their lack of experiences in the workplace. Integrity comes from having lived through high and lows. Don’t send in people who stand behind a microphone talking in a monosyllabic voice. This is also not the domain for the moleskins and checked shirts. Be vibrant, excited and passionate. Move through the crowd, engage them, use technology as that is the language of Generation Z.
Connecting with the best young talent coming through our schools is the cheapest investment our entire industry can make. People, not climate should be our competitive advantage. We have great people already but we need more.
Urban schools dominate our schooling population. It’s up to all of us to ensure every one of the youth see agriculture as a pathway to them achieving their dreams. If we do that, they will surprise us, stimulate us and take us to an agricultural world that creates wealth for all of New Zealand
Ever get that feeling you know someone before you actually met them? Well that's me. You know me already, I'm that guy who reminds you of Richie McCaw, without the height, good looks, rugby ability, humility and John Key doesn’t dream of me in his sleep I have the two children, 1 has Autism and he’s totally awesome, the other is 5 and she has me wrapped around her little finger and it is because of them and my wife that I find myself as a full time distance student working towards a Bachelor of Agri Commerce. This semester I’ll be juggling five papers, being a stay at home dad, helping my wife run a dairy farm all amid bringing peace to the world, feeding the starving and single handily stopping climate change. Hopefully I can keep you updated as to my progress without curling up in the corner in the foetal position crying myself to sleep. Good luck to everyone who like me, sees education as the tool to construct a better life for both myself and my family. Feel free to say ‘Hi’, in doing so you might help me keep my sanity.