Thursday, December 7, 2023

Hands-on training to develop future farmers

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A few years ago Gisborne farmers Dan and Tam Jex-Blake recognised the need for another pathway for young people into careers in the sheep and beef sector was critical and decided to do something about it. The end result was the Growing Future Farmers programme.
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AS MOST farmers know, sometimes if you want something to happen you’ve got to get in there and give things a push yourself, rather than wait for action from elsewhere.

That was certainly the case for the Growing Future Farmers (GFF) programme, which recently signed a funding agreement with Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) to help it attract and train more young people in the red meat sector.

After winning the B+LNZ Sheep Industry Trainer of the Year award in 2016, Dan and Tam Jex-Blake realised that if they wanted to do something about the skill shortage facing the sector, they had to be proactive themselves.

Jex-Blake says there was and still is an absolute need to get more skilled people on-farm and the pipeline of young people wanting to enter the industry was drying up.

“We recognised that if we didn’t do something about it ourselves nothing was going to change,” Jex-Blake said.

“Growing Future Farmers literally came about because of that need and it’s grown since then.”

After starting with just two students in 2017 and 2018 as part of a pre-pilot, the programme grew to include three in 2019 and 10 in 2020.

There are currently 45 student trainees on farms throughout NZ and it’s expected a further 70 first-year students will start the programme’s two-year essential farm skills course in February.

The course is aimed at young people who want a career pathway in the sector.

They don’t need to have come off a farm or have proven farming capability before they start.

Dan says having the right attitude and a willingness to learn is more important than that.

“If you’ve got someone with the right attitude, you’re more than happy to put the time in because they will flourish,” he said.

“We like them to have a big heart, so they can do the mahi, and empathy for animals is important too.”

Those who complete the course, which is fees-free, receive an NZQA level three qualification.

He says the GFF entity provides the learning framework and the farm provides the training platform, plus farm trainers, who have to augment the industry training that GFF provides.

Industry specialists provide students with off-farm training that includes learning how to fence with a professional fencing contractor, attending a shearing course, a farm vet session where they are shown how to provide animal health products correctly and WorkSafe, who provide advice around areas such as ATV, tractor and chainsaw use.

Students also do roughly one day a week of theory.

At the start of the course students receive a heading pup, provided by the farm trainer.

A dog trialist teaches them how to train the pup, along with a Huntaway pup they receive roughly halfway through the first year.

Jex-Blake says it’s important for farmers who get involved in the programme to remember that those on the course are students, not employees, although they do bring benefits.

“The farm itself is basically the training platform in a genuine commercial working environment, so students work alongside other people, while learning at the same time,” he said.

“As their capability improves, the extra set of hands becomes more useful on-farm.”

The programme involves staying on-farm, so farms involved provide fully furnished accommodation.

Pastoral care is a key component of GFF and there is a liaison manager for each region around the country where there are farmer trainers.

They act as an interface between students and farm trainers to help iron out any issues, should they arise.

The Jex-Blakes are proud that their approximately 2000ha (effective) Mangapoike sheep and beef farm, which is about 55km southwest of Gisborne at the top of the Waingake Valley, is a GFF training farm.

Mangapoike sheep and beef farm

As well as being involved in helping fill a need to train a future industry workforce, there is plenty of satisfaction seeing those young people involved develop.

Jex-Blake, who is the fourth generation of his family to farm the hill country property, says that satisfaction comes from taking young people, who have had no prior opportunity to go farming and seeing them grow on a personal level, while at the same time develop the skills that will enable them to become a valuable member of any farming team.

He says the change achieved by students in the first year is amazing.

“When they arrive they are often very green and know absolutely nothing,” he said.

“It probably takes three to four months before they find their feet, it’s a huge transition for them.

“Having often not really been away from home before they come into a totally foreign environment, with a totally foreign group of people, learning a totally foreign set of skills, things that they’ve never been exposed to.”

He says to see the lights come on slowly as that first year progresses is quite something.

“It’s not just their skills, it’s also their personal development, their confidence, their ability to recognise that we’re not a pack of strangers but we’re there to help them,” he said.

“By the end of the first year, when you look back on where they were when they started, they’re just completely different.”

He says year two builds on that and by about the third month of the second year the students are starting to be a very valuable member of their teams.

“All the way through they can help, they’re another set of hands, but as that skill base develops they can go away and do jobs on their own and it reflects in their attitude and their positivity,” he said.

“It’s huge to go from where they start to where they finish.”

Jex-Blake says GFF offers a vital component to the landscape of farming down the track.

“It’s vital to the reinvigoration of the industry, getting young people coming in and actually getting them trained in a manner that’s going to be relevant for future farming,” he said.

“But at a more granular level, on-farm these students are learning but they are also a useful set of hands on-farm.

“Training young people is a win-win. For the student, on-farm and as a wider industry.”


He says as the programme grows it will offer an invaluable network of trained staff to other farmers and once that momentum builds and others become aware of it, the result can only be positive.”

Jex-Blake sees a bright future for GFF, but says there is more work to be done so that training does not end at the end of the two-year essential farm skills programme and is instead built on, something that is in the pipeline.

He understands that GFF is working on an advanced skills course and beyond that business management for graduates of the initial essential skills programme after they are employed.

“We want young people out of the city or who have no opportunity to go farming to know there is a definite career pathway in farming and, if they go through that career pathway and continue to learn and progress, then ultimately see a bright future as a farm manager, managing businesses that are worth millions of dollars,” he said.

“That’s the challenge for GFF, to execute on the rest of those steps.

“I think it will happen and it will be really positive for the industry.”

He says for that to happen more funding is required, as right now farm trainers carry a lot of the load.

“The reality is at the moment the bulk of the funding is being carried by farmers,” he said.

“They are paying a sponsorship to the students, they are providing accommodation, they are providing all the tools, all the resources on-farm which these students use to learn.

“As a farm trainer I’m personally more than comfortable with that, but I’m aware there are a whole lot of other areas of training – be it leadership and communication, cultural competency, financial literacy, mind health – a whole lot of other areas that are extremely important that arguably aren’t being funded adequately.

“There’s a need for that and I’m aware of the millions spent on other educational programmes that are arguably not achieving the direct results that GFF is.

“Ultimately GFF is going to require more farmers to get on board with it, to want to train these young people.”

Dan says getting GFF off the ground has taken a huge amount of effort and a lot of time around the kitchen table thrashing things out around the “how to”, but ultimately the incentive and the drive came from the need.

“We never really thought about where it was going to go, we just thought it was needed,” he said.

“We had the idea and a couple of students as pre-pilots for proof of concept.

“There’s been huge support from other people and organisations who have got on board to make it happen and help get things to where they are now.”

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