New Zealand agriculture needs Kiwi graduates, who have an understanding of the industry, an industry leader says. By Elaine Fisher.

More university graduates with sound scientific and practical understanding of agriculture and horticulture are desperately needed in all industry sectors, including government ministries, says Mark Ross, chief executive of Animal and Plant Health NZ (APHANZ).

“Schools, industry, parents and universities need to encourage more people into these fields of study to ensure that New Zealand can continue to feed the world and support our economy.”

Mark Ross

Mark is concerned that many of those in government departments making decisions which seriously affect farming and growing, have no practical knowledge or understanding of the industries.

“On one pre-Covid lockdown field trip, many of the regulators from government ministries were excited to see and touch lambs – they had never been on a farm before.”

Lack of graduates has meant ministries have often employed immigrants to fill roles and while they may have the academic qualifications required, they have little understanding of NZ farming and agriculture.

“We need to get science back in the room. Currently pseudo-scientists are getting airtime and driving the public debate. Real scientists are not getting platforms and our industry faces an automatic perception of bias.”

One way of meeting those challenges is to encourage more young, bright, passionate all-round high achievers into agriculture and horticulture. Those are just the people who have won APHANZ (formerly Agcarm) scholarships in the past.

The 2022 winner was Sarah Wilson of Te Puke who is studying agribusiness at Massey University.

“It is important that consumers understand the value of agrichemicals and the effort that the industry goes to in order to keep consumers safe. Each product has been thoroughly researched and industry bodies are always looking at how they can use agrichemicals more efficiently.”

Their value spans far beyond the orchard gate.

“If we cannot get our products to market due to pest and disease incursions, we have the potential for economic collapse,” Sarah says.

For 2020 scholarship winner, Alexandra Tomkins, the journey of NZ’s high quality nutritious food from farmer to fork was the impetus in her drive to become a leader in food production.

“I’m passionate about the New Zealand primary industries and putting our high quality and nutritious products on the world stage,” Alexandra says. She was studying for a Bachelor of AgriCommerce at Massey University when she won the scholarship.

“I’m particularly interested in supply chain management and logistics; getting a product from the farm gate to final consumers around the world.”

However, Mark says while scholarships are more important than ever to convince more people to study horticulture, some of the larger funding bodies such as DairyNZ and Beef + Lamb have stepped back from scholarships, just when help is badly needed with attracting students into these programmes.

A decrease in the number of students studying agriculture and horticulture raises a sense of unease for the future, especially given the trajectory of primary industries.

“Now, more than ever, we need progressive, smart and educated individuals to help innovate and drive change for growers and farmers – to enable them to survive in a changing climate, during a time of increasing political interference and escalating consumer demands.”

“New Zealand is touted as the food basket of the world, but with intense regulation from governments – both here and overseas, people are needed to seek solutions to meet these demands and drive productivity in farming.

“With pressures to slash emissions, be productive and support the economy, New Zealand farming is in a vice. It must find solutions to producing more with less – using fewer resources, emitting less, and on less available land. Managing these pressures requires innovative thinking and ideas.”

Farming industries are crying out for Bachelor of Agricultural Science students to keep abreast and help manage the myriad issues the sector faces. High demand also exists for horticultural graduates to keep pace with the booming horticultural industry.

“Tragically, New Zealand universities have experienced a downturn in student numbers in recent years, resulting in too few agricultural and horticultural graduates to meet industry demands.”

Mark is at a loss to see how the problem can be addressed but suggests selectively targeting promising students at colleges and offering opportunities to investigate the varied careers the primary industries offer, may be one option.

Associate Professor in Weed Science at Massey University, Dr Kerry Harrington, suggests some causal factors for this downward trend.

“The Covid restrictions created difficulties for secondary school students. New Zealand is also in a period of low unemployment combined with a high cost of living, so the temptation for people to be lured into earning an income versus studying and accumulating debt could be a contributing factor.

“Despite there being no fees in the first year of study, the cost of university education is a major turn-off for many. Student allowances have barely increased in many years. Universities have had few funding increases which, in turn, affects future fee structures for students.

“Another thorn in the side of agriculture is the negative publicity the industry endures, especially around issues such as methane emissions and leaching of nutrients into waterways. Schools can also put students off studying ag, for similar reasons. But perhaps what they’re missing is the pathway to solutions. Trained professionals are needed more than ever to help farmers modify their practices to ensure the continued sustainability of agriculture.”

Studying agriculture or horticulture at university doesn’t require a string of prerequisites. Secondary students interested in either degree must only have studied some sciences at secondary school. It’s not obligatory to have studied agriculture or horticulture.

Studying from home is one way of tackling the increasing costs of tertiary education, as it can make it easier for students to work and keep costs down. This is becoming increasingly popular, Kerry says. Massey University and other universities have developed expertise in distance education. The pitfall is that students miss social interactions, one of the highlights of university life.

  • Formerly called Agcarm, Animal and Plant Health NZ represents the New Zealand animal health and crop protection industries as well as rural retailers.