February 19, 2016

New Zeland agriculture. Dairy farming's biggest threat.

Clive Dalton


Question 1.  
 What’s the biggest national threat facing the New Zealand dairy industry in the next 5-10 years?  The low milksolids payout due to a world surplus of milk powder is the wrong answer. The correct answer is farm staff literacy and numeracy, as it’s now recognised that 50% of new recruits entering farming cannot effectively read or write to a level where they can keep records or follow a manual.  They also cannot do basic maths or measure accurately. They have never learned their times tables!

So calculating the volume of a silage pit (LxBxH), then knocking off 5% waste, and working out the length of a grazing area of 1.7ha if one side is 50m are complete mysteries, as is mixing a 7% teat spray solution.  And don’t ever mention fractions.

When at The Waikato Polytechnic I must have wasted hours trying to teach these basic maths. Thank goodness for metrics, calculators with a percentage and a square root button, if you could students to understand where they would be useful.

Question 2.  Who is going to fix this appalling situation?  Be very afraid, as the answer is ‘nobody knows’.

It’s an unbelievable situation, and instead of schools being able to solve the problem, they have to live with it, and look the other way at the end of the year when year 13 students leave for the last time, heading hopefully for further training.  

None of the teachers I talk to are happy about this situation, and are adamant that the latest education reforms will do nothing to solve it.  The Minister of Education keeps telling us that she wants every Kiwi child to have access to a good education.  Farmers wonder if they’ll live long enough to see it happen.

When I ask teachers for a solution, they point out that no school has the time, the resources or the money to fix things at their level.  You cannot hold back 15-17 year-olds, and put the hard word on them to do extra work till they become literate and numerate as happened in the old days.  This would now be classed as harassment!

So all I hear is blame!  High school teachers blame intermediate schools, which then blame primary schools, whose teachers tell me the problem starts in the home, with kids arriving at school with no vocabulary and never having seen books or have had stories read to them.  All agree that there just isn’t enough money spent in primary schools on support to fix the problem there.  These young folk are not dummies – the education system has let them down.

Old teachers bemoan the poor literacy and numeracy of new graduates finishing Universities with degrees in education.  How do they get accepted?

Something very odd going on  
With modern technology and social media, there have never been so many words written by young folk. So how can they be constantly ‘on line’ texting, tweeting, face booking and emailing and not be able to read and write English needed for the workforce? They are all keyboard wizards, so don’t need pens or handwriting, and they are not scared to learn new things by trial and error.

The problem is that the industry is full of labels and manuals written in technical English that even the literate can struggle with at times. This situation won’t change, due to legal requirements covering manufacturers, to protect them from mis-interpretation of directions and being sued.

The million-dollar question.   
How long can farming and other trades wait till all this education disaster is sorted?  The honest answer is that they cannot.

What are current dairy farmers doing to fix things, as they are the ones copping the result?  Not a lot I’d suggest at present, with the CTU estimating that only 50% of farmers spend any money on staff training, and few pay more for staff with training qualifications.

The solution is very clear to me, if the Minister of Primary Industry wants export earnings doubled by 2025, and needing 50,000 new recruits, the Prime Minister needs to give him a boost in the caucus pecking order so he has the clout with the Minister of Finance to pour some serious money into the Primary ITO as a major priority as we speak.

Then dairy farmers, Federated Farmers, Fonterra and other dairy companies, DairyNZ, LIC and everybody with an interest in the dairy industry has to push madly to pressure Treasury on behalf of the PrimaryITO – and pour more of their money into the pot.

 Primary ITO
The PrimaryITO are the only ones who have an overall view of what’s needed and who really understand how to fix things urgently, to stop all the duplication and waste by so many education providers, and to get modern technology into the teaching business pronto.

We don’t want any more inquiries, scoping groups, research and bureaucratic diversions.  The Minister of Primary Industry has to solve the problem by supercharging the Primary ITO, as the Minister of Education clearly can’t help the farming industry, and neither can the Minister of Innovation.

The fall-back solution in the very short term is more immigrant labour, but that’s not the answer as training them brings another set of cultural and religious challenges, which I suggest is not yet on the Minister’s priority job list. 

The other solution is more technology.   More robotics are on their way! 

Who will operate dairy farms in future?  Humans or robots?

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