Growing Farming Talent in NZ Schools | On Farm Story by On Farm Story

Growing new farming talent in NZ schools

For nearly a decade, Kerry Allen has worked to pioneer agribusiness in New Zealand’s secondary schools, keeping that pipeline of talent open and growing the pool of young Kiwis eyeing careers in the primary sector.

Allen spearheads the Agribusiness in Schools programme at St Paul’s Collegiate School in Hamilton as the school’s agribusiness curriculum director, a role she has had since 2014.

The programme takes knowledge from the sector and uses it in the classroom, highlighting how careers in fields such as law, medicine, tourism and marketing can be incorporated into the sector.

“We’re aiming for those top kids who have business or finance acumen, or the top science knowledge that’s really needed for innovation and technology,” Allen says.

The nationwide scheme is in its ninth year of operation, having grown from a piloted plan in 2013 to being in 107 schools across the country as of last year.

Agribusiness in Schools evolved out of a 2013 St Paul’s parent survey, which concluded it was not meeting the needs of its students with rural backgrounds in encouraging them to consider pathways into the primary sector.

Teaching agribusiness has not been without its challenges. It was a new teaching subject without any recognised standards.

Early on, Allen used achievement standards from other subjects and recontextualised them for teaching agribusiness.

This led to her pitching to the Ministry of Education in Wellington in 2017, motivating for the creation of a new agribusiness subject and new achievement standards.

“There were a lot of barriers in the way because it was the first time a sector group had gone to the ministry to propose a subject. Usually, it goes the opposite way and the ministry tells you what everybody needs.”

But a year later, Allen got the subject its own achievement standards.

The new subject also withstood the Labour Government’s education reforms, and agricultural and horticultural science and agribusiness are now seen as subjects of national significance.

Ten schools came on board to trial the new standard – including state and privately run schools.

It was a St Paul’s initiative, but Allen says she has always seen the curriculum as something bigger than just being for them.

“It’s something that was needed across the whole country.”

Of the 107 schools currently teaching the curriculum, 57% are in urban centres and 43% in rural areas.

As of 2021, 79 schools are teaching Level 2 Agribusiness achievement standards, 74 are teaching Level 3 and 415 schools are teaching some form of primary sector education.

Over the past five years, 8577 students have also been taught agribusiness and 535 teachers have attended agribusiness conferences, personal development sessions or training.

The curriculum has seven achievement standards – four at Level 2 and three at Level 3, covering topics ranging from issues that influence the sector and future-proofing it, to strategies the sector can use to mitigate challenges.

It also looks at new and innovative uses for organisms, cashflow forecasting, business structures including cooperatives and iwi structures, innovation and adding value, and strategic expenditure within the agribusiness.

It includes field trips, where the students travel out to different farms to see how what they have learnt in the classroom relates to inside the farmgate.

Part of the innovation standard includes students or groups of students having to come up with an agri innovation, which they have to pitch to St Paul’s version of Dragons Den – The Crocodile Pit.

The top three then enter their innovation at the Innovation Awards at Fieldays.

St Paul’s Collegiate School also teaches agricultural and horticultural science with two classes at Level 1 and one each at Levels 2 and 3.

The agribusiness curriculum is also designed to keep it relevant to the region in which it is being taught, to provide opportunities for students to go out and see inside the farmgate or practice in action. For example, a Bay of Plenty school may focus more on horticulture than sheep and beef farming.

It also provides a pathway for students to study agribusiness at university with the subjects qualifying them for those degrees.

Teaching primary sector subjects has its own unique issues. The subjects are resource hungry, requiring access to farms or orchards as well as equipment the industry uses.

As more schools took up the programme, Allen hired Melanie Simmons, who is the agribusiness advisor to other schools, teacher training colleges, and the Government, to keep growing capacity.

Last month, Allen added a third person to her team to help with administration, communications and marketing.

There are no textbooks for teaching primary sector education in secondary schools, and Allen and Simmons had to create their own agribusiness workbook at Level 2 and are currently writing another for Level 3.

The content is always evolving, with the impact of new legislation affecting water and climate change affecting how the primary sector operates.

The curriculum has to reflect those changes, says Allen.

“Unlike maths where when you learn the content it generally stays the same, ours constantly changes and my role regarding the curriculum is to try and keep the teachers up to speed,” she says.

On the floor of Allen’s office is a large pile of books, newspapers and magazines filled with Post-It notes on articles she is reading to keep up with the latest changes in farming.

Both Allen and Simmons also teach the curriculum at St Paul’s to ensure they both retain that connection to the front line of education.

This allows them to gauge the success or failure of the teaching resources they create.

“If I write resources but don’t actually teach it, how will I know it will work? Sometimes they don’t and you need to be at the coalface to do that.

“It also grounds us … a lot of educationalists who write educational resources don’t actually teach students, and teaching has changed in the last 20 years, students are more instant, they are more visual, and they don’t read as many books,” she says.

The constant changes are why Allen loves teaching the subject.

“I’ve been teaching 27 years and there’s nothing that I taught back then that I teach now. It’s constantly evolving, which is what I love, but it’s also quite stressful because you can’t fall back on some of the resources you have got.”

Finding specialised primary sector teachers in a sector already struggling with staffing shortages was another challenge.

When a school has a primary sector teacher, it is important they get support. Too often they are one-person operatives and if they transfer to another school, the subject falls over.

Allen and Simmons help schools needing assistance in implementing agribusiness education, with Simmons regularly taking calls from teachers asking for advice.

They have also developed a website as a port of call for teachers looking for advice.

“We provide a huge amount of support. Sometimes we’ve taken calls in the middle of class when the kids are talking to you. Kids are very digital and want the answers now, and with us being available, we’re able to do that,” she says.

The programme, including Allen and Simmons’ salaries, is funded externally from groups and companies including Gallagher, AGMARDT, Rabobank, NZKGI, Fairview Motors, MIA, DairyNZ and Beef+Lamb New Zealand.

Allen has also had to counter the negative perception of agriculture in some quarters of the education sector.

“It’s seen as being there only for people who are practically minded and who are not that good academically and it’s for dummies,” says Allen.

“It’s not seen as a sexy subject and somewhere where top academic students should go. Yet farmers and growers are running multimillion-dollar businesses and need the best and brightest to work with them.”

She also works closely with former St Paul’s headmaster Grant Lander to try to get the curriculum into more of the larger Auckland schools, which may not initially see its value.

“We’re trying to make them aware that there is value. It’s the only thing that’s been keeping the economy going in the last few years. It’s growing and we need the students.”

The only way to change those teachers’ attitudes is to talk to them and open their eyes to the exceptional, high-salaried jobs that are available, Allen says.

“If I had this opportunity 30 years ago, I don’t think I would be a teacher. There are some great opportunities and they don’t have to be in one part of the sector, these skills are easily transferable to all of the other sectors,” she says.

Looking ahead, Allen says she wants to keep building on the 107 schools, but that goal is tempered by realism because of limited resources.

“If more schools are interested in it and more teachers are interested in it, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and teachers will change into the subject to do it,” she says.

If that happens, the curriculum will keep growing, providing further pathways for getting the next generation into dynamic careers in the primary sector.