After graduating from Massey University, James Robertson won a place on the Fonterra business graduate programme. Sheryl Haitana reports.

From growing up on a Waikato dairy farm, James Robertson is quickly making his mark in the New Zealand agriculture scene.

The 22-year-old Fonterra graduate will be the youngest finalist in the FMG Young Farmer of the Year Grand Final in July.

James’ history with the Young Farmers competition is strong: he joined Young Farmers while he was attending Hamilton Boys High School and won the Junior Young Farmers competition in 2013, with team mate Regan Kidd. He has entered a handful of district competitions since and is secretary of Auckland Young Farmers Club.

He is studying long hours to prepare for the Grand Final on top of his day job at Fonterra.

‘You get thrown a bone and told to figure it out. There is some assistance or guidance there if you need it, which is great.’

“At the moment I’m in the office until 8.30pm most nights studying theory. We also have to do a strategic innovation report.

“It doesn’t feel like work though because it’s something I’m interested in and keen to be involved in.”

After growing up on his parents’ 200-cow dairy farm where he spent all his spare time, James won a scholarship to attend Massey University and studied a Bachelor in AgriCommerce.

“I studied accounting and economics at school and I’ve always enjoyed the business side of farming.”

The degree covered a breadth of different agriculture industries which allowed him to learn more about the challenges the industries face and some of the opportunities.

In his final year at university, James was contemplating continuing his study overseas, but a lecturer recommended applying for the Fonterra business graduate programme.

Fonterra was a place that aligned with his background and his values, so he thought he would put his hat in the ring.

As part of the application process, James flew to Auckland where he was interviewed and given an hour to read a business case and then present a strategy on it.

“I really enjoyed the whole experience.”

James is now in his second year of the two-year business graduate programme, based in Auckland working with the Trade Strategy team. His role involves working with the wider team of trade analysts and strategists.

The work involves looking at free trade agreements and analysing how NZ compares to other FTAs and looking at access opportunities into markets.

“Every day is completely different which is great. In the morning we could be hosting a foreign delegation from Indonesia coming in to learn about opportunities for Fonterra to work with the Indonesian government. Then in the afternoon I might have a call with an account manager in Singapore who wants to understand the opportunities for their mozzarella cheese getting into consumer markets around the world.”

The exciting environment for graduates at Fonterra is getting thrown in the deep end, which makes you learn to swim fast.

“You get thrown a bone and told to figure it out. There is some assistance or guidance there if you need it, which is great.”

Trade strategy is James’ third six-month placement with the co-operative. His first placement was with the Sustainable Dairying team based in Hamilton, where he was involved with farm environment plans.

He then got the opportunity to be part of Disrupt – Fonterra’s entrepreneur programme which brings together people from across its global employees to generate business ideas or to solve problems.

“There were five people in our team, and we spent 10 days straight in an intense high-pace environment trying to find a solution to the problem. It was mind blowing, I was fortunate to be youngest in the team and I was exposed to people with a world of experience, even PhDs, and I got to throw my ideas around and learn.”

His team’s problem ‘Trash to Cash’ was selected to become an ongoing project and James was offered a secondment role which became his second placement.

The project was focused on how Fonterra could turn its manufacturing waste streams into added value products.

“We were looking at utilising waste yeast, looking at algae as a form of waste water treatment, and at using fat and protein waste products and turning them into salmon feed.”

The graduate programme provides great exposure to many parts of the business but it can be a challenge to be thrown into the deep end with a new placement every six months.

“You’re just finding your feet, starting to hit your straps, then you get put on a new placement and you’re lost again. It’s a steep learning curve but an awesome opportunity.”

Fonterra is a fundamental cog in the NZ dairy industry and it’s been a great start to his career to develop a good understanding of the co-operative, James says.

“It’s an extremely sophisticated business and it’s fascinating to see how it works.

“It’s the perfect spot to be. I’m keen to get as much exposure as I can from on-farm to the final customer.”

In the future, James would relish the opportunity to study a Master of Business Administration internationally, perhaps in the United States.

“America is an agricultural hub of the world. It’s like lots of countries in one, with each state being completely different. It would be a diverse place to go and study.”

In the short term he is looking for a job opportunity that might integrate some travel and in the long term he sees himself owning his own agricultural or food produce business.

  • The FMG Young Farmer of the Year is being held at Napier and Hastings on Friday 5th and Saturday 6th July 2019.

Graduate programme

Fonterra has three programmes; The Fonterra Graduate Technical Programme is 12-months long and offers an opportunity to develop capability and expertise from across the co-op’s sites. Grads also complete a value-add research project to complete a Masters of Dairy Science and Tech ology.

The Fonterra Graduate Business Programme runs for 24 months with rotations every six months, providing a breadth of experience across the co-op with the final goal of finding a permanent job in it.

Fonterra’s Summer Internship Programme is a 12-week placement providing skills development, training and professional experiences.

Fonterra’s Farm Source also offers the Agri-business Career Programme and the Agri-Business Internship Programme. These programmes open the door to agri-business, agri-commerce, agri-science, agriculture, environment, land, water and animal science students in their second-to-last or final year of study.

For more information about Fonterra Graduate Programmes visit: