Saturday, December 2, 2023

Recognising NZ’s finest future farmers

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This will be the 55th year that Young Farmers has singled out the Young Farmer of the Year.
The Kaipara Young Farmers Club has four entrants in the two-day regional finals in February, including Zarnie Fergusson, who performs the duties of farm owner on her 89-year-old grandfather’s dairy farm in Kaukapakapa but whose main interest is in beef breeding.
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NZ Young Farmers has existed for over 90 years, and a large number of readers no doubt remember with affection their time as members of the organisation. The good news is NZYF is still flourishing and, even though farming has changed immeasurably during its lifetime, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest young farmers today are just as capable and every bit as passionate,  and willing to adopt new technologies alongside traditional farming methods.

The most impressive aspect of NZYF is its largely voluntary structure. Apart from a national office co-ordinating main activities like the FMG Young Farmer of the Year, and helping the clubs put on events, the whole organisation operates on a volunteer basis with some 1600 members and 140 clubs across New Zealand. These members hold over 800 club meetings and organise more than 150 events a year, including the qualification series for the FMG Young Farmer of the Year. The flagship event celebrates its 55th anniversary in 2023. 

The Young Farmers Clubs (YCF) throughout NZ provide the competitors to compete at seven Regional Finals, with the winners going through to the Grand Final held over three days at Timaru in July. The process of finding the qualifiers for the Grand Final begins in October for most of the clubs, when the competition starts to get serious with the District Finals finding the young farmers who will take part in the Regional Finals between February and April.

This year for the first time the organisers are trialling a shortened process in the Northern and Waikato/Bay of Plenty Regions, with a two-day competition on consecutive days, the first day equivalent to the District Final and the second to the Regional Final. The concentrated schedule is still designed to find the best young farmer to compete in the Grand Final, but to streamline the means of getting to that conclusion. If it is introduced for all clubs in future, NZYF CEO Lynda Coppersmith says, this will potentially reduce the pressure on members to deliver multiple events over a very long season.

Having said that, the local Kaipara Young Farmers Club, which is part of the Northern Region, has been busy putting on a series of skill days designed to prepare its member entrants for the competition. After hosting the 2022 Grand Final in Whangārei and producing the winner – beef farmer Tim Dangen from the Auckland City YFC – the Northern Region is keen to repeat last year’s success.

The Kaipara YFC has four entrants in the two-day regional finals in February, including Zarnie Fergusson, currently Northern region secretary and Kaipara chair; Daniel Richards, Kaipara vice-chair; and Kate Hawkings, who was on the Grand Final Committee last year as health & safety officer and is Northern region events co-ordinator this year, as well as secretary and publicity officer for the Kaipara club. The final member of the quartet is 20-year-old Jamie Hodges, who recently completed his NZQA agriculture internship through Whangārei A&P Society.

What is notable about these four young farmers is their enthusiasm for belonging to the Young Farmers organisation, their passion for farming and their eagerness to learn how to improve their skills. They are almost certainly identical in these respects to their counterparts in other clubs throughout the country, which holds out great encouragement for the future of farming, in spite of what sometimes look like insurmountable challenges.

Fergusson performs the duties of farm owner on her 89-year-old grandfather’s dairy farm in Kaukapakapa, which is run by 50/50 sharemilkers, but her main farming involvement is beef breeding. She leases land in Kaukapakapa and Waitoki on which she finishes whiteface steers and breeds registered Hereford bulls, having sold her registered Angus herd last year.

Her goals for the year are to produce sound, high-finishing-weight, low-birth-weight Hereford bulls with a focus on the dairy market, and she has been putting a lot of energy into the genetic recording and background of her Herefords in order to achieve this.

She is also experimenting with more obscure beef breeds for her finishing stock, trialling Friesian cross with Fleckvieh, Normande and Viking Red. She maintains “all three of these breeds produce excellent herd replacements, so if their male offspring finish well as beef steers, it will give dairy farmers another viable option for breeding their herds other than the standard Angus or Hereford”.

She finished fourth in the regional final last year and says she really enjoys the social side of the competition as well as the opportunity to measure herself against other young farmers, as she works alone most of the time.

Richards finished second in the 2021 Northern region dairy awards and is currently managing his family’s 300-cow dairy farm with split calving at Tomarata near Wellsford. He has ambitions to go contract milking or become a 50/50 sharemilker when the right chance presents itself. 

Hodges attended Taratahi Training Centre in Masterton for one day a week while at high school, completing Level 2 Agriculture before moving north to live on a farm, where he finished his internship. He now works on a bull beef farm at Topuni near Wellsford, gaining experience in stock and dog work, fencing and tractor driving. He has entered the FMG Young Farmer of the Year competition to learn the skills he knows he will need when he runs his own farm.

Hawkings currently works as a digger operator near Warkworth and finished first in the digger-driving module in her first District Final in 2020. She found the learning experience of working on the Grand Final committee last year very beneficial, as it gave her a much better understanding of the skills required to compete in this year’s competition; above all, she enjoyed the challenge of organising the Grand Final programme as well as its social side.

That sums up the Young Farmers experience – work hard, enjoy the friendships and learn a lot of new skills.

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