Friday, 12 October 2012

The bright future of agriculture


Within Waikato University's halls of learning, with laptops, notebooks and inquiring minds at the ready, future leaders of our primary industries are being primed to contribute to New Zealand, Ali Tocker reports. 

Energy, drive, intelligence - if that's what you want on your farm or in your business, look no further than the bright young minds studying agribusiness at Waikato University.

Future entrepreneurs, rural managers, consultants and bankers are being trained to think and act locally and globally, to help sustainably grow the economic powerhouse that is our primary sector.

Waikato Times Farmer wanted to see what goes on behind lecture-room doors and how our young people are shaping up, so we paid an impromptu visit to a class studying sustainable agriculture.

The class is led by agribusiness professor Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, who has become something of a lightning rod for the importance of agribusiness for the future, with a worsening global shortage of food needing to be addressed.

Rowarth is an outspoken champion of the need for more young people in New Zealand to study agribusiness at tertiary level, not least because it enables them to have rewarding careers.

"Careers in agribusiness bring rewards from doing something that matters, being well paid and having great variety in the job. Security is also something the Y generation wants and, with global demand for great people in agri-food, they get choices," she says.

The presence of a reporter and photographer in class did not faze these students, all aged between 18 and 23.

Unlike many of our modern-day politicians and captains of industry, they did not need media training, press secretaries or pre-prepared questions. They handled a round of agribusiness questions with intelligence and grace, proving they not only know who they are and why they are studying, but also what they want to give to their country.

They have an appreciation of the importance of primary industries to driving this nation's economy, an awareness of the importance of the environment and sustainability, and a world view.

They know that competitive advantage is important for our primary industries, and that societal, environmental and regulatory challenges abound

They believe the only way forward for farmers is to farm both profitably and sustainably. It's dollars and sense.

Sustainable agriculture is a second-year paper, covering the economic and social aspects of agribusiness. It can be studied as part of a degree, including a Bachelor of Management Studies.

Agribusiness is a relatively new major. It can also be taken as a second major or supporting subject within most degrees.

With Rowarth as the university's relatively new chair of agribusiness comes extra confirmation of the university's commitment to the primary sector.

The academic definition of sustainability reflects real-world realities, and would sit well with most farmers.

It's about agribusiness being economically viable, increasing or maintaining production, reducing risks, protecting natural resources from land degradation for future generations and being socially acceptable.

It's clear Rowarth loves teaching.

"The enthusiasm being shown by the students is really terrific, and bodes well for the future," she says.

There are no gumboots in the classroom. "This is the new era of agribusiness," but the students have opportunities to visit and work with local agribusinesses.

Two of them, Thomas Macdonald and Stephanie Wilson, already have solid work experience with local agribusinesses, Macdonald with stock nutrition company Seales Winslow and Wilson at Waikato Innovation Park. Both will work with Rowarth as research students this summer, signalling their potential as future agribusiness leaders.

Macdonald thrived on his experience at Seales Winslow, saying he got a lot out of it and that such opportunities can open doors.

He has a long-term, big-picture view.

"Everyone agrees we have to have sustainability - it's how we achieve it that is causing debate. The face of farming is changing. We're not looking at the traditional family farm any more. Agri-innovation is the way of the future."

Wilson says everything in agribusiness needs to be done efficiently to maximise wealth, while also protecting the environment. "We already have a huge gap between rural and urban communities and that gap has to be bridged."

Studying in Waikato is "phenomenally" helpful, she says.

"The business community is really supportive of the University of Waikato, and really getting behind the emphasis on the agribusiness major.

"It's really helpful to apply everything we learn in class on our back doorstep. It's only a two-minute trip to AgResearch or Waikato Innovation Park. There are cows literally in our backyard."


As part of their study, the students research and write a report on a key issue impacting sustainable agriculture.

Because sustainable agriculture is a second-year paper, the research is literature-based. At third-year level, real businesses are involved.

The students explain here what they are looking for from their study.

Layla Croker

Croker is studying environmental planning with an interest in sustainable soil management and ecology. She wants to work in conservation, saying agriculture is very important to New Zealand.

She grew up at the beach, in Papamoa near Tauranga.

Research report

"I'm researching biosecurity, looking at the border management processes and what went wrong with the kiwifruit vine disease Psa and how they're going to manage it.

"The cost to the Government of Psa is about $800 million over 15 years and about $400m for the next five years.

"There's a lot of miscommunication between the industry and government authorities. A lot went wrong with Psa, with people not informing each other what was happening.

"I find it interesting such a small thing could have such a huge effect in New Zealand.

"The Government definitely needs to do more. I don't think people are educated enough to understand the real effects."

Bryce Fausett

Fausett is studying for a Bachelor of Management Studies degree, majoring in agribusiness. He grew up in Morrinsville and wants to be part of the agribusiness sector when he graduates.

He wants to encourage other young people to consider a career in agribusiness.

"I think it's extremely important more people get involved in agriculture and study agribusiness in New Zealand, especially the younger generation."

Research report

"My report is on biofuels, looking at it as an alternative to fossil fuels. In particular, I'm looking at it from a New Zealand perspective and in terms of sustainability and competitive land use.

"If you use land to make crops for biofuels, you lose that land for food production, so have you the tradeoff effect.

"I think a balance needs to be found, and it all depends on what the future holds in terms of crop yields for biofuels, what other methods there are of creating fuel and how much fossil fuels are left."

Daniel Jaques

Jaques is in his fifth year at university, studying for a Bachelor of Management Studies, with an accounting major and agribusiness specialisation. He is also doing a graduate diploma in strategic management.

He wants to go into rural banking, accounting or consultancy.

He grew up in a small rural town in Wairarapa, with farmer parents.

"My background at university is in accounting, so the sustainable agriculture paper has been great for me to learn about the science side of things.

"I have knowledge from working on farms and living on farms that I'm using in my study."

Research report

"My project is based around erosion and its impact on sustainability.

"Erosion is a fairly natural process, mostly involving water. My research is not so much about stopping it from happening It's more about preventing or minimising the damage once it is happening.

"I am looking at what councils and farmers have investigated."

Steven Law

Law is in his third year of study, after cross-crediting his first two years at Waiariki Institute of Technology towards a Waikato University degree in management studies. He finds the workload a bit more intense at university but, other than that, finds the learning similar.

"I love this class because it is a small group," he says.

Law grew up in the Bay of Plenty.

Research report

"I'm studying nutrient management, including the application of fertiliser, effluent and issues surrounding that. I'm looking at nutrient runoff and how it's degrading waterways.

"I'm looking at the management side of it, including how you much runoff can be reduced by effective management, for example, with fertiliser management plans, investing in different infrastructure, stand-off pads, building herd shelters.

"Herd shelters will be one of the ways we can help reduce and control animal effluent.

"I've done a couple of cost-benefit analyses. I'm looking at the management plans that have no or minimal cost associated with them, and a bonus of being socially acceptable in the community.

"We want to find a sustainable method to go ahead into the future."

Thomas Macdonald

Macdonald is in his second year of a Bachelor of Business Analysis degree, majoring in agribusiness and finance. His goal is to work in rural finance.

He grew up in Gordonton.

Research report

"I'm looking at the implications of water allocation and water quality, including Waikato Regional Council's Variation 6 and Horizon's One Plan.

"What's that going to cost our dairy farmers? How do they get their opinion across? I'm looking at any economic or environmental implications it inflicts on our farmers and what's it going to mean for them.

"Both plans are blanket policy. I don't think that works for farmers. Obviously, both covered a whole region and farmers don't really agree with lots of it.

"I'm hoping in writing the report to bring out a lot of the facts. There have been a lot of emotive-based arguments."

Taylor Spence

Spence is studying for a business management degree, majoring in human resource management, with agribusiness as a second major.

She grew up on a dairy farm on the Hauraki Plans.

Research report

"I'm looking at whether New Zealand is doing enough to protect against foot-and-mouth disease entering the country, and the implications if it did hit New Zealand and whether it could be managed.

"Most of my research has been looking at Ministry of Primary Industries information, and a Reserve Bank simulation of potential effects if foot-and-mouth entered New Zealand, including its effects on gross domestic product.

"Foot-and-mouth affects all cloven-hooved animals - beef, dairy, sheep, deer and pigs. The national animal identification and tracing (Nait) scheme will help, as animals will be more easily managed if there is a disease outbreak."

Monique van Heuven

Van Heuven is studying for a Bachelor of Science degree. She chose to study sustainable agriculture, as she wants to understand how the world will address the global shortage of food and how farming practices need to be more sustainable.

"We need to produce higher crop yields and better pasture to support demand."

Proving she has her feet firmly in the real world of farming, van Heuven can often be found looking after her own farm animals, including pigs.

Research report

"I'm looking at a report on conversion from forestry to dairy farmland and whether or not it's sustainable for New Zealand. We have a conversion in Tokoroa, where 29 farms were converted - more than 29,000 hectares - and a new community has been produced.

"I'm looking at an economic view of whether there is more money to be made in forestry or dairy conversions and the environmental impacts. You plant a tree and you have to wait 30 years before it can be cropped. The forestry industry isn't going as well as the dairy industry."

Stephanie Wilson

Wilson is in her third year of a Bachelor of Management Studies, with a double major in agribusiness and supply chain management. She aims to work with farmers in implementing innovative ideas on their farms to improve their production capacity, and help bring middle-sector farms up to be top-level farms.

She came from an orchard enterprise in Hawke's Bay.

Research report

"My project is in land use and how to grow Hamilton without using all the agricultural land. It's about striking a balance between being a productive city but also having a cool city centre.

"I'm looking at urbanisation, the spread of suburbs and the cost of converting land into housing developments. I'm also looking at the implications of losing the productive capacity of that land."

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