Thursday, February 22, 2024

BOP teacher reboots hort in growers’ heartland

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Award-winning educator Hilary Johnson has watered, fed and nurtured the teaching of horticulture at Katikati College, and is now seeing it bear fruit.
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In this year’s Land Champions edition, we celebrate domestic and imported people in agriculture, from the Italian clan that owns a slice of North Otago wool production to the teacher rebooting ag education in the hort heartland if western Bay of Plenty.

The irony of horticulture as a subject being derided by students at Katikati College was not lost on the subject’s head teacher, Hilary Johnson, six years ago.
Katikati sits firmly in the western Bay of Plenty, arguably the country’s most productive high-value horticultural region, accounting for about 80% of New Zealand’s $3 billion kiwifruit industry, avocados and assorted niche crops. 

Yet in 2017 the local high school was struggling to get double-digit class numbers in the subject.

While agriculture has enjoyed a solid upward trajectory in high school student numbers in the past five to seven years, its high-value cousin horticulture has often struggled. Katikati College was proving no exception.

“Students were here really only doing horticulture because they often felt it was what you did if you could not do anything else, which was ridiculous, given where we are,” she says.

As a science teacher with 12 years’ experience at the school, Johnson was offered the opportunity to set up a specialist horticultural unit. Despite not having taught the subject, she rose to the challenge.

“I was told my skills set, having spent most of my working life in industry including strategic planning, as a marketing manager, and also running my own restaurant business, would be ideal to get it up and running.”

Her mission was to create a horticultural learning programme that was a centre of excellence, and to give the college a point of difference, and appeal for potential students.
She could not have anticipated that, after the position of horticulture teacher was unable to be filled, she would take on the role herself.

“I started out with 15 kids who did not really know why they were there, and decided I may as well learn alongside them.” 

Already equipped with a science degree, an MBA and plenty of real-world experience, Johnson has more than proven up to the task. 

She also acknowledges the deep pool of talent within the western Bay to call on for help with some of the practical aspects, like grafting and pruning.

Fast-forward from 2017 to 2023, and her classes in horticulture have gone from 15 to 105, with students on Levels 1-3, representing a full 33% of the college’s year 11-13s. 

The average number of credits gained by students each year has increased every year since 2017, now reaching a steady plateau.

Johnson is teaching them in a state-of-the-art facility that she personally worked hard to raise over three-quarters of a million dollars’ worth of funds for. 

Today’s students come to a centre they can be proud of. Opened only this year, it has clean polished-concrete floors, its own laboratory facilities, a full commercial kitchen, and an airy, naturally lit classroom space. 

One wall proudly lists the names of local families, trusts, companies and organisations that have made donations to complete the centre, some in the hundreds of thousands.

That hard work and success has also earned its humble initiator well-deserved recognition.

This year the Kudos Science Trust awarded her the Science Teacher / Educator / Communicator Award for her efforts. 

“We are also seeing a real shift in the reasons for why students are studying horticulture. They can see some interesting things to learn and progress with, and we have been careful to link up each year in a progressive way, something that was lacking before.” 

She has deliberately ensured the course includes not only industry-recognised unit standards, but also university-approved standards. 

The earlier absence of the university units meant students who could proceed to tertiary studies were simply not contemplating horticulture, despite the multitude of opportunities it offers across growing and marketing produce.

“So, what we now have is a good mix of both practical students and academic ones covering growing, orchard practice, science and marketing and even electronics and robotics.”

Offering 60-plus units across the three years is well ahead of the dozen required under NZQA standards and means a high workload, setting them up before the year starts to be ready to offer to students.

But it also gives Johnson the ability to mix up courses, tuning in to what students may be interested in, and to what the job market is seeking. 

Subjects have included how the kiwifruit sector responded to the Psa outbreak, a look at plant breeding programmes, and next year examining the potential of insects as a commercial food production operation.

Among her recent successful students, she is proud of those who in the past three years have graduated from the college with significant scholarships to go on to university study in horticulture and agribusiness, and those who will do the same later this year.

“There is an expectation there I think from outside that we would see results sooner. But it takes time to move students through, while ensuring they remain engaged and interested enough to want to stay, and we are just starting to see that.”
Thanks to the variety of topics she covers, more students are having their eyes opened to the many career pathways horticulture can offer and Johnson is starting to host interested peers through the centre to see its success first hand.

She is also thankful the heavy lifting of fundraising is behind her, with future funding more secure than most.

“There is a real appreciation and support there from all parts of the industry for what we are doing. And the results are showing – we have seen the numbers and the results improving every year.”

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