August 9, 2014

Agricultural education in NZ. Improving farmers' image of farmers

By Dr Clive Dalton

 NZ 2025 export targets
Fifty thousand new people needed for the agricultural industry to achieve our export targets by 2015 says the Minister of Agriculture and  Forestry by 2015.   He is quoted as saying that ‘we have got to get out and sell the primary industry story better than we have done.’  Indeed, we'd all agree but who are the ‘we’?

For a start, the bureaucrats and politicians should keep well out of it, as they couldn’t sell anything that would attract young folk into farming.  Look how they have gutted agricultural research, and offering scientists who move locations two years guaranteed salary. Isn’t that fantastic  - two whole years!

 School visits and careers' evenings
When at the Waikato Polytechnic (which now has no farming courses), I used to visit schools to talk to students about a farming career, and go to special careers evenings, along with other organisations pushing their barrows.

I learned one very clear lesson – the biggest problem getting in the way of promoting farming as a career is ‘FARMERS’.  Farmers criticise school careers teachers, who also handle problem students and slow learners.  I felt sorry for them, as in their tiny offices they had a wall full of box files starting with ‘Army’ and ending with ‘Zoo keepers’ – each organisation expected them to push their particular careers.  They had no resources and even less help.

I could pick farm kids arriving at careers evenings with their parents, and when asked if they were going to do some farm training, their guaranteed reply was that ‘farming sucks’!  When asked who told them that, they always said ‘Dad did’.  It was a losing battle, as I’d hoped these students would be good promoters of farming to their peers.  Now that idea did suck.

The Minister’s ‘we’ to find the fifty thousand had better start nutting out now how to change the farmers’ ‘image’ of themselves, as that’s where the problem starts and ends.  Forget everything else in the meantime.

 Draw a farmer
Ask any primary school child to draw a farmer, and you’ll see what I mean, and then work out where they got that image?  I bet the farmer is a he, and is not looking at his iPad in the paddock.  He’ll be in gumboots and a black singlet for sure. Fred Dag didn’t help, neither did Murray Ball, Edna or David Henshaw’s Jock.  Note the farmers in TV drench adverts during test matches, and the dirty udders cups are put on during TV news clips about dairying issues.

My biggest failure was trying to change some basic images with dairy students on our Polytech Herd Manager’s course, which was a cracker which we had to kill when the NZQA dumbing down Units came in.

The health food business
I started by banning the word ‘shed’, on the basis that sheds are where tractors and bikes are kept, calves are reared and rubbish stored.  Milk is harvested in a ‘farm dairy’ or even a ‘milking parlour’ because it’s a ‘human health food’ or ‘neutraceutical’. 

So ‘milkers’, (many in the Waikato are called ‘hairies’) were to be ‘milk harvesters’, and when asked what their job was when they went to town on a Friday night, they told enquires that they were milk harvesters, and their business cards (which the boss was to provide for them) showed the details:

  •  Joe Blogs
  •  Senior Milk Harvester, or Assistant Milk Harvester 
  •  Meadow Lee Farms Ltd, 333 Whatnot Road 
  •  Dairyville 
  •   Phone number and email
  •  Location map on reverse side
  •  Motivational slogan such as - ‘We harvest and export nature’s best health food to the world’.

One student actually got himself some business cards and followed my advice, and he said it was amazing the improved response when he shopped in town and handed over his card.  He said the assistant called him ‘Sir’!

Students arrived at class in spring with hands like 40 grit sandpaper, with green stain embedded deep in the cracks and open sores that never healed.  I used to tell them to keep well away from their girlfriends till well after calving.  It took a long time for it to be OK to wear milking gloves in those days.

 Clean overalls each day
I suggested that employers provide clean overalls for every milking, and they pay for the laundering done commercially.  I even suggested that they even milk in white overalls like we pommie students were made to do under the eye of a ‘dairyman’.

 Farmer comments
You can imagine how this went down with employers, whose reported comments at the next class were unprintable. I was simply trying to get students (and their bosses) to be proud of what they did – harvesting the world’s most important health food that was fed to infants, invalids and seniors because of their special nutritional needs.  As I said – the idea was a total wipeout.

Employers killed it all because they didn’t believe in an image change themselves. This is why the Minister’s ‘we’ has to start with farmers.  Don’t waste any more time or money goading farm trainers and teaching institutions, with so many different outfits competing with each other all over the country. It’s a dog’s breakfast that will need a big sort out before long.

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