Friday, July 1, 2022

A future in food

With a primary sector that’s seeing rapid growth and a workforce desperate for young talent, Feilding High School has stepped up to the plate and is leading the way in preparing students for the diverse opportunities that come with a career on the land. Charlie Williamson took a look around campus.

Feilding High School teacher Kain Nixon reckons it’s a combination of passion and infrastructure that has contributed to the school’s progress.

Feilding High School’s agriculture department is unique in that it provides students with theoretical and practical experience in almost every aspect of the agriculture industry.

The school has its own dairy farm, equipped with a DeLaval robotic milking system, as well as a sheep, beef and forestry block a short drive up the road.

These resources, in combination with four passionate staff members – Nixon, John Beech, Corvette Black and Kate Redpath –have been a recipe for success.

This year about a third of the school’s 1600-strong student body enrolled in agri-related subjects and it boasts the largest school TeenAg club in the country.

Along with this, Nixon says he’s noticed a switch in students’perception of agri-related subjects and the industry in general.

“These students now realise that it’s not just about going into a manual laboured job and working at the bottom. Given the size and diversity of the industry, there are so many different opportunities either directly or indirectly associated with it,” he says.

“Because all four of us are totally passionate about our subjects, we’ve tried to create courses to match what the kids want. The kids all have a strong passion for agriculture, so as long as we’re fulfilling that passion then they are able to enjoy school and actually want to be here.”

Students are given the opportunity to study agriculture and horticulture separately right up to Year 12.

They then combine into one class at Year 13 called AgHortSci, which Nixon says filled two full classes for the first time in the school’s history.

Students who take agriculture courses at Year 10-12 are rostered onto farm duty, which involves working on the farms throughout the day for two days a week.

They carry out the daily tasks required to run the different farms alongside the farm manager.

Students are also encouraged to take the primary industries course, where they can gain a more in-depth understanding of the valuable practical skills that farming requires such as crutching and shearing, fencing, stock-work and so on.

Nixon says that this course has seen overwhelming interest in recent years, from more practically-minded students but also students who are achieving academically as they understand how applicable these practical skills are in the sector regardless of where they end up. 

“We’re getting our more academic kids who know they are going to university, but know there is a practical element of their courses, opting to take our primary industries course to complement that,” he says.

Farm manager Mary Bartlett assesses the pasture with a student on Manawanui Farm, the school’s 90ha sheep, beef and forestry block near Feilding.

“In the past these two pathways were usually kept separate, but we are now trying our best to mash the two together.”

He says that in the past there was often stigma around the primary pathways course, but since a complete overhaul several years ago around the entry process and discipline for students while on the course, it has seen massive improvements.

“With primary industries we have an interview process to get into that course and once they’re in we have a three-strike rule, so it holds them to account in sort of preparing them for what work-life is going to be like,” he says.

“It’s a lot of the attributes that cadetship farms are looking for now, so Smedley, Otiwhiti, Growing Future Farmers. They’re all looking for kids with good attitudes and none of that bad culture and that’s what this course has been setting them up for.”

“Probably 90% of our kids are from a sheep and beef background, or have a desire to go into a career in sheep and beef one way or another, so these skills really sets them up to do well for a future in the industry.

“These students now realise that it’s not just about going into a manual laboured job and working at the bottom. Given the size and diversity of the industry, there are so many different opportunities either directly or indirectly associated with it.”

Kain Nixon
Feilding High School

The two school farms are called Ngakaunui and Manawanui, and for the past two years have been managed by ex-pupil Mary Bartlett.

Ngakaunui is a 16ha dairy farm adjacent to the school, milking 56 Friesian cows at peak and producing around 23,000/kg MS annually with a target of 24,000/kg MS.

In 2016 the milking system was converted from a small-scale herringbone to a DeLaval VMS (Voluntary Milking System) robot, making Feilding High School, at the time, the first school in the Southern Hemisphere to have this technology.

The dairy herd from Ngakaunui is milked all year round and is wintered/summered on Manawanui and returned prior to calving.

Manawanui, on the other hand, is a 90ha total, 78ha effective flat to rolling sheep and beef farm on the outskirts of Feilding. 

Here they run about 100 ewes, with a lambing rate of 160%, as well as fattening about 1000 lambs.

They also traded 3000 lambs in the last calendar year.

The school’s robotic milking system was installed at Ngakaunui Farm in 2016, giving students the opportunity to experience industry-leading technology.

Alongside this, Barlett says Manawanui is used to carry about 100-head of Friesian-Hereford dairy-beef cattle, as well as grazing their dry dairy cows from Ngakaunui.

“For our cattle on the property, when we’ve got a whole lot of grass we buy in stock, but our biggest goal is to use all of our Friesian dairy cows for it,” she says.

“So, all of our dairy cows get covered with the Hereford bull and then we have Friesian-Hereford calves that we try to bring on from that.”

Bartlett also notes that thanks to the recent support of H&T Agronomics in Feilding the students have been given the opportunity to test different varieties of grass.

“We have a grass comparison up there, which is nine different varieties of grass in a paddock, and we’re trying to compare them over a couple of years to see which ones grow the best and which ones the lambs do well on,” she says.

“So, H&T pretty much organises most of that at the moment and it’s pretty cool to have that opportunity for the kids, especially at the moment when there isn’t much grass seed around.”

Carrfields livestock is also heavily involved with the school farms as main sponsors and give students the opportunity to participate in work experience there.

This gives students the opportunity to get a base understanding of career options other than traditional farming and takes their learning from the classroom and applies it to real life situations, which Nixon says is crucial in setting them up for whichever career pathway they choose in the industry.

Students are also given the opportunity to pursue several other extra-curricular activities including inter-house shearing, agri-sports such as TeenAg and the Rural Games, and even marketing and selling their own primary products grown on the school farms.

Students at years 10-12 are given the opportunity to work on the farms alongside the farm manager, helping out with daily tasks.

“So, we have Feilding High School eggs, which we sell internally to staff, and then we’ve also got Ngakaunui Hives which is our honey brand alongside Manawanui Meats, which is currently a lamb brand, so we sell lamb racks and boneless lamb legs,’’ he says.

“The Aghort committee has come up with all the designs, the branding, the logos and then they’ve been sent on to non-ag kids like digital tech students to create the final visuals for it. But these students are ultimately responsible for the final product.”

The committee is led by about 10 student leaders, and that committee is then split into three main portfolios.

The first is TeenAg, where the students lead around 140 active student members in the club.

The second group is focused more on the agribusiness side of the department, taking responsibility for all the primary products such as Ngakaunui Honey, Manawanui Meats and eggs.

And the third group is in charge of things like interhouse shearing and other similar events, which Nixon says has seen a considerable rise in popularity in recent years.

“We do crutching and dagging courses mainly for our junior kids, and then they move on to introduction to shearing courses pretty quickly and then they have had elite shearing courses run through here,” he says.

“We also promote shearing as a sport as well, so we are going to a lot of the shearing shows now so Pahīatua, Apiti, NZ Shears in Te Kuiti, and we’ve been trying to go to the Golden Shears but with it being cancelled two years in a row that wasn’t possible.”

He says more students are deciding to pursue shearing once leaving school too, which he says has been rewarding. 

“We have kids every year leave and go shear, whether they stay in that career in the long-term is up for debate, but they at least go and shear in school holidays and stuff and go and apply those skills in an industry that can be so rewarding,” he says.

“We also held our first ever all girls’ shearing course a few weeks back, which was an initiative to get more girls to give shearing a crack or build on their current ability.”

With the support of H&T Agronomics, Manawanui Farm has a grass comparison trial, where students are able to test nine varieties of grass to see which varieties perform best.

Students are showing their passion for the sector through not only their own extra-curricular activities, but also on pressing issues impacting the wider primary industry.

In March, the two head students of the Aghort Committee, Alyssa Brazendale and Ben Symonds, presented to a parliamentary submission on the future workforce needs of our primary industries.

They highlighted what they think needs to be done to attract more young people into a career in the industry, drawing on some examples of the curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular opportunities which have been given to students studying agriculture at Feilding High School.

“The comments that Alyssa and Ben made focused on understanding what primary industries actually are and how broad the industry is. It’s not just dairy or sheep and beef, there’s apiculture and forestry and all those sorts of industries which fit within it,” he says.

“And I mean that’s probably why we’ve got so many things going on here, out in the hort block we’ve got hydroponics, we’ve got bees going on, we’ve got forestry blocks up at the top farm, we’ve got sheep and beef, we’ve got dairy, so exposing them to all those different industries I think allows them to find their own niche and where they want to go in the industry.

“I think it’s also so important that these students can make their own decisions because there’s obviously some bad press around the industry, and by giving them the opportunity to understand the science around it then it means these kids can actually make their own informed decisions.”

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