Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Keeping 'em down on the farm

01 August 2006

Ninety high school students from Wellington to Wanganui put on their gumboots and went to a Manawatu farm to see what careers the meat and wool industry has to offer. Jill Galloway checked out the students and the tutors.

Gone are the days of urban kids going out to enjoy school holidays with their uncles, aunts, cuzzies, and mates.

Instead, and to lessen the growing gap between urban and rural New Zealand, Meat & Wool New Zealand have organised and funded a day on the farm at the Stewart family property at Tokomaru for Year 11 to Year 13 students.

The day was aimed to try to combat the growing town and country gap, and introduce students to the idea of a career in agriculture.

For some, this was their first look at the rural industry and their first time on a farm. As they arrived - the smell of the woolshed was the first thing that hit them.

Wrightson's stock agent Mark Stevens had students drenching lambs, guessing the sheep's weight and trying their hand at a three-way drafting gate.

More difficult than it looked.

It took seven students to push sheep in to the drafting yard - something the auctioneer could do with one dog.

It was a graphic illustration of the importance of farm dogs - and the dogs are more approachable than most teenagers.

They eat less, do not require an orthodontist, and they are not microchipped (although if they had a choice, it's something some parent's might consider for their offspring).

After drafting and drenching, the students took part in a mock auction of a pen of six black face lambs, which were well finished.

The bidding was spirited and they accepted at face value the auctioneer's patter about "getting a bargain" or "being well below the pen's true value." In the end, those lambs went for $79.

Mr Stevens showed them how to gauge the age of a sheep by looking in its mouth.

It was a hands-on demonstration and the students revelled in it.

Joanna Taylor is a director of Taylored, the company which delivers the "OutStanding in the Field" experience day on behalf of Meat & Wool New Zealand.

It is something of a catch-up for the sheep and beef industry - dairying was the first farming cab off the rank with courses designed to attract young people on to dairy farms.

"We are seriously short of young people to work in rural industries. Farmers are desperate for staff - in Gisborne, they cannot get a shepherd. The shearing industry as a whole is getting older," Mrs Taylor says.

Manawatu was the fourth experience day offered by Meat & Wool New Zealand, following three successful days in Hawke's Bay, Nelson/Malborough and Auckland.

The Manawatu day, held on Friday attracted school students from Wellington to Wanganui. Three schools came from Wellington, there was big interest from Palmerston North schools, Feilding, as well as Marton, Wairarapa and Dannevirke.

The students split into five groups of 18 and moved through shearing, wool classing, soil testing, rural banking and stock handling as modules as the day progressed.

There was also a session on education and training opportunities with people from Taratahi Agriculture Training Centre, Massey University, Agricultural New Zealand, land-based training and Tectra Wool training.

Health and safety issues meant there were few activities the students could actually have a go at. Shearing, and boning out meat were two that were considered too risky for them.

But a few did get to hold a handpiece, some did wool handling and for many of them, that was as close they had ever been to shearing.

Emily Woodward shears an average of 320 lambs or 280 ewes a day. She has finished a Bachelor of Applied Science degree and her shearing has paid off her student loan.

"My Dad taught me to shear on the farm in Pukekohe. I couldn't face another season as a rousie so I learnt to shear," she said.

The students saw the face of a young woman, who does a hard, physical job but who makes good money and has travelled.

"I've shorn in the UK and on the money I made, I travelled around Europe. You can work in Australia, the United States, Canada, all around the world," Ms Woodward says.

The combination of money and travel was attractive to the students.

They were interested in what shearers get paid.

"In a year I might make around $45,000 at $1.35 per sheep, wool handlers get between $15 and $20 an hour and pressers a bit more."

It is a really good industry to use as a career, or as a holiday job or stepping stone towards getting a farm Ms Woodward told the students.

They watched as Ms Woodward peeled out a beautifully shorn lamb, then fellow shearer, Sam Welsh showed them how a snow-comb leaves wool on the sheep to help protect it against the cold.

After the shearing module it was off to the covered yards to learn about stock handling.

Claramae Bishop is a year 11 student at St Peter's College in Palmerston North. "I come from town, but I just got interested in dairy. Today I'm just having a look at sheep and beef as well," she says.

She intends leaving school at the end of the year to start a job on a dairy farm and hopes to complete industry with the agricultural industry training organisation and perhaps later do a diploma.

"I like the idea of the hours, lifestyle and working as a team on a dairy farm. I see it as a career, not just a stop-gap measure."

Kristie Newton is a Year 12 student at Freyberg High School.

"I'm a townie, as much as I hate that, and I want to do agricultural science when I leave school."

Her aim is to own a sheep and beef farm.

Year 13 Freyberg High School student Casey Boyce hopes to study zoology at Massey University next year.

She lives on a lifestyle block and has worked for five years on an alpaca farm.

Animal behaviour and perhaps wildlife education is her dream. But Miss Boyce also likes the idea of farm ownership.

"A place for horses and alpaca."

They both agreed the careers day had been fantastic, especially seeing the hands-on approach by tutors and the opportunity to try some things as well.

Benjamin Bridgeman a Year 12 student at St Peter's College wants to be a veterinarian. But was keenly checking out other rural careers.

"I thought the shearing was pretty cool, to see how they do it. I didn't think it would be as easy as it is," he said.

Perhaps those shearers were so good they just made it look easy.

Farmer Gregg Stewart opened his farm gate to 90 students.

"It's just great to see these young people come out to experience farming first hand - better than reading it in a book or seeing it on a video. We need to get young people involved not only on the farm, but in service industries as well," he said.

When it came to the stock handling - the students watched with interest and a few had a try at moving sheep and drafting - but once again the questions were about the career structure.

"Our company has a training scheme, trainee agents might start on $20,000 and then progress to be a junior agent on $25,000 to $30,000," Wrightson's agent Mr Stevens said to students.

A good senior stock agent might make $70,000 to $100,000 he said. That made their eyes light up.

"The Auckland course was interesting - we only had five students who had been on farms before," Meat & Wool's Joanne Jensen said.

"It's not just mud and gumboots - it's so much more. We need sheep and beef farmers, research scientists, shearers, fencers, rural bankers, farm consultants, meat processing staff - hopefully some of these kids will get excited about possible careers in these areas," Ms Jensen says.

Meat & Wool New Zealand will hold one more OutStanding in the Field careers day, in Canterbury August 24.