Thursday, April 25, 2024

Preparing the ground for farming’s future

Neal Wallace
Within a few weeks all 13 of this year’s graduates from the Smedley Station cadet training farm will have secured jobs for next year.
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This article was among Farmers Weekly’s most read in 2022.

Some things have changed at Smedley Station in the past 91 years, but one thing remains the same: the high standards required of students who want one of the treasured training spots.

Smedley Station has grown substantially in size since it its first cadets arrived in 1931, and now covers 5660ha. Production has greatly increased and the stock management and technology used are vastly different.

But the standards required of cadets still hold true to the values outlined by founder Josiah Howard when he bequeathed the Central Hawke’s Bay farm to the Crown in 1919 for the purposes of training young people in agriculture.

He stated that Smedley’s goal would be “to teach young people, so as to give them a wide knowledge and practice of better standards of farming and of raising, buying and selling stock”.

Smedley has never been about bums on seats, but from the start has sought to attract trainees who have the right attitude and culture to live and work as a team.

“You must find out whether these young people have the aptitude, energy and ambition. If they have not, Smedley might as well be planted in a garden,” Howard wrote.

Each year there are up to 26 trainees on the property, 13 in the first year of the course and 13 in their second.

Station manager Rob Evans says the station remains true to those values when selecting the annual intake of 13 cadets for the two-year course.

This was lifted from 11 a few years ago when the neighbouring Parks Peak property was purchased.

Between 60 and 100 applications for a position are received each year. About half of those applicants are interviewed for one of the 13 places.

In his seven years, Evans says, only two cadets have failed to complete the course.

Smedley Station cadets learn to fence.

Evans says applicants are expected to have spent time working on farm to ensure it is the career they want, but the primary selection criteria are character and the ability to work in a team, rather than a background in farming. 

“It’s about trying to find who these young men are, not if they have knowledge of farming,” says Evans. And not just young men – a number of female cadets have graduated over the years too.

“We don’t want individuals but team players that will fit into a team,” says Evans. In the past few years, cadets have come from Auckland city as well – welcomed as long as they have the right attitude, character and aptitude.

For two years cadets live in a hostel with 25 others and work on the farm with fellow cadets, managers and tutors, so selection is crucial.

“My theory is that you can teach a good person anything, but sometimes it is harder to do it the other way round,” says Evans.

To increase the number of cadets would potentially threaten that culture.

“We have a tight group at present. If it were to get too big, we could end up with groups within the group, therefore splitting up the cadets.”

Shearing school at Smedley Station.

Evans says all training is linked to the actual managing of a commercial farm, another reason enrolments are capped at 13 a year. A fence is built because it is needed for stock management, rather than erected to teach trainees and then dismantled.

Shearing is taught when shearing is required to be done, and stock management also linked to seasonal requirements.

Cadets must be school-leavers who have reached either Year 12 or Year 13, and once at Smedley they study towards a Certificate in Agriculture in levels three, four and five.

The academic part of the programme is provided by the Eastern Institute of Technology and delivered on farm by training manager Tom Goodger.

First-year cadets are introduced to the property and spend most of the year learning skills such as fencing, building, engineering driving, operating machinery and some stock work.

Also in their first year, cadets start using horses, which they learn to break-in in their second year.

The second year’s education begins in the first week of January with weaning, a precursor to a year that is mostly spent working with livestock.

Later they get introduced to more farm management functions, such as compiling regular farm reports, finance, feed budgets, breeding plans and livestock reconciliation.

Second-year cadets come back with a broken-in huntaway for the start of the year, then in mid-February they bring in a young heading dog, which they train with the aim of having it ready to trial at the Hawke’s Bay A and P Show in late October.

Evans says tutors and managers need patience, and instruction requires consistency, the maintenance of standards, and repetition.

“You don’t put three or four posts in, you put in whole fence lines.”

Regardless of a cadet’s previous experience, the teaching of skills to all of them begins with the basics.

Evans says the use of horses is a homage to the station’s past but also serves a purpose by teaching the cadets to look after, understand and care for animals.

Mustering from the back of a horse provides a different perspective, focuses cadets on the task, teaches stockmanship, discipline, respect for animals, patience and how to work dogs.

“It’s different to riding a quad bike or side-by-side which, at the end of the day, you park in a shed,” says Evans.

“After day’s work with a horse you have to wash and feed it, make sure it has got water and is in a paddock before you can finish.”

Smedley Station manager Rob Evans.

Likewise, learning to shear serves several purposes.

Other than lamb and winter shearing, cadets do the rest.

When cadets are learning to shear, their days start at 5am with a run before breakfast. The early start is so those cadets rostered to other tasks around the station can come and spend time in the shed too.

Shearing also satisfies the natural competitive edge among the cadets, with plenty of encouragement to perform between cadets and staff, who also pick up a hand piece.

A shearing school at the start of the year includes instruction on nutrition, hydration, how to physically prepare and look after themselves as well as the mechanics of tuning cutters, combs and handpieces.

Fence posts are dug in by hand, part of a general philosophy of teaching the basics to give cadets an understanding, rather than teaching them what is convenient.

“They need to know what to do if they are faced with a broken post, strainer or stay. They need to know how to replace it.”

Smedley Station, at Tikokino, 40km west of Waipukurau, incorporates four adjacent properties covering 5660ha, 3600ha effective, running breeding cattle, sheep and deer, velveting stags, trading bulls and heifers.

The home property is a 1200ha breeding unit. Ridgelands is 540ha running velveting stags, lambs and bulls. Parks Peak is a 1450ha breeding unit and Onepoto a 640ha breeding and finishing property.

The combined business runs 12,000 ewes, 500 hinds, 850 velveting stags and 500 Angus and Hereford cows along with trading bulls, heifers and finishing lambs.

All up it runs about 30,000 stock units.

Evans attributes part of its success and strong financial performance to the property’s scale – as well as utilising its size with policies and management that suit the class of stock and type of country.

Attracting high-performing staff and managers and allowing them to do what they are trained to do is also key.

“My role is overseeing and ensuring they have what they need to do their jobs,” he says.

Rather than just accepting something has to be done, Evans says, young people want to be involved and want to know why.

“If they don’t get an answer, they are not as engaged.” 

Funds generated by the farm cover the approximately $500,000 in training and living costs for the cadets. A small grant from the Tertiary Education Commission covers some of the theory training costs.

“The business has to perform well,” says Evans.

“But because we have scale, it means we don’t dabble in things.”

Twelve staff are employed: an overall manager, an administrator, two cooks, a fencer and deer manager, a builder and managers for training, the workshop, three farms and livestock. 

Individual block managers each week confirm their work schedule with lodge requests for how many cadets are required to help out.

Performing those tasks becomes their practical training.

Kim Rorrison, a Smedley student in 2014-15, now manages Parks Peak, which was bought three years ago and shares a boundary with Smedley.

Rorrison was born and raised near Hastings, but, other than having grandparents who farmed in the United Kingdom, had little to do with the sector.

That did not diminish his desire to work in agriculture.

“It seems to have missed a generation but I always wanted to go farming,” he says.

Local Hastings farmer Rob Savage gave him work at weekends and holidays, which confirmed his desire to pursue a farming career.

After graduating from Smedley, Rorrison headed to the South Island’s Mackenzie Country to work on Grampians Station, a 22,000ha high-country property running Merino sheep.

“It was hard country, extreme weather but an extensive breeding property, everything I love.”

Four years ago, Rorrison, then aged 22, returned to Smedley to run Ridgelands for a year before moving to Parks Peak when it was purchased.

Cadets spend the working week on Parks Peak, a 30-minute drive from the home station, so a three-bedroom hostel was built on the property. 

Being a former Smedley cadet, Rorrison says he has an advantage as a tutor.

“I’ve been through the system. I know how I learnt, what I missed and what cadets respond well to, so I can tailor it from the perspective that I have been there and done that.”

For a lengthy task such as dipping, Rorrison gradually shifts responsibility to the cadets as the job progresses, so by the end they are effectively managing the process.

He says Smedley provides cadets with hands-on experience and, rather than produce experts, it ensures its graduates leave with sound, practical, all-round farming skills.

“As a cadet it was the grounding I needed and it set me up,” says Rorrison.

 Evans was raised on a family farm near Taihape before attending Smedley in 1998-99.

On graduating he was torn between a promising rugby career and becoming a full-time shepherd.

Initially, rugby won. Selected to the 1999 NZ Under 19 rugby side and later a NZ Divisional side, he worked casually on Central Hawke’s Bay farms before a broken leg meant he had to choose between sport and full-time farming.

Parks Peak farm manager Kim Rorrison

He and wife Jenn leased a block of land and worked casually before managing a 600ha deer, sheep and beef property at Takapau.

In 2015 the manager’s role at Smedley came up and Evans successful applied for  it.

He says the property is embracing technology not only for the benefit of the business, but to pass on to the cadets.

FarmIQ, Farmax and electronic ear tags are an integral part of the business.

Electronic ear tags are being used on two-tooth ewes that produce multiple lambs, to create a high-performing flock from which replacements will come.

This will allow them to reduce the number of replacements they currently have from about 9000 to 6000.

Cadets are encouraged to have FarmIQ on their phones and to enter real-time data and information, such as when stock are moved, drenched or shorn.

Evans has also introduced mental health skills using a sport psychologist to equip cadets with the ability to deal with mental health challenges.

Another change has been an increase in the number of velveting stags to a current herd of 850.

Not all the cadet training is hands-on farming.

Under the guidance of builder Mark Winlove, cadets are helping to construct an education centre, about 90% of whose timber – both native (for which they got the required approval) and exotic – has been felled and milled on the property.

The centre includes a lecture room, administration centre and board room. The hope is that primary industry groups can use it for meetings when they are shown around the property.

Logan Blackburn’s parents farm sheep and beef near Ohakune, but he came to Smedley to broaden his skills.

He hopes to one day take over the family farm, and after he graduates at the end of this year intends to go shearing for a few years before working as a shepherd.

Fellow second-year student Reuben Crawford is off a Dargaville dairy farm and came to Smedley to expand his knowledge.

He also intends to go shearing next year as a way to see the country.

Both say they enjoy using horses and can see why they play a central role in stock work, and also enjoy working with and training dogs.

For Crawford, sheep dogs were completely foreign before he came to Smedley.

Graduates also find work on farms or in agribusiness, and some go on to tertiary studies. But only one or two of the 90 cadets who graduated in the past seven years are no longer farming, Evans says.

Smedley tries to create a family atmosphere, involving the cadets, staff and their families in cricket matches, barbecues and an annual horse sports event.

Cadets can hunt, fish and play rugby for the Onga-Tiko Rugby club.

Looking to the future, Evans says Smedley has to remain relevant, given the growing awareness of environment and climate change issues, and farm forestry.

But no change will compromise the teaching of practical farming skills or the culture or history of Smedley Station.

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