Agricultural course a game-changer

Agricultural innovation students Connie Searle (left), Archie White and Claire Booker are among...
Agricultural innovation students Connie Searle (left), Archie White and Claire Booker are among the first cohort of the University of Otago course. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
"I want to save the world through agriculture."

It’s a line that University of Otago student Claire Booker noted down while doing a personal development project and it remained her passion.

"Save the planet with farmers? Why not?" she said succinctly.

Ms Booker (21) acknowledged it was a lofty goal, and something that would not necessarily be achieved in her lifetime, but she saw many opportunities within the agricultural sector.

She was proud to be among the first cohort of agricultural innovation students who will soon graduate from the University of Otago.

The programme, a major within applied sciences, began in 2019 in response to the changing agricultural industry.

It was designed to focus students’ learning on the major issues and innovation solutions required to support the future of the industry, as well as developing leaders to drive it forward.

Originally from North Canterbury, Ms Booker’s family moved to a sheep and beef farm at Kaikoura, six months before the earthquakes in the area, where her father John has a Corriedale sheep stud. Her favourite place was being out in the hills with dogs.

She took a gap year after finishing school then studied media communications at polytechnic before working for six months at the Christchurch Star.

Unsure of what to study at university, she thought initially about Lincoln from the agricultural aspect, but then was "kind of drawn in by a new shiny degree and the sustainability side of things" at Otago.

Ms Booker liked the hands-on aspect of farming and the lifestyle it afforded.

"I just think I really connect well with farmy people. I like being outdoors and I like having lots of space but also being able to do physical work and have accomplishment at the end of the day."

Then there was the technical science aspect behind it and being able to return to the home farm and use what she had learned and "understand it a bit better".

Laughingly describing herself as quite vocal, Ms Booker said the lecturers had been very receptive to feedback.

She had also enjoyed the guest speakers, saying it was hard to take notes "when you’re so interested and listening to someone so passionate".

There were so many employment opportunities in the agricultural industry.

While there was a push sometimes for those from a farming background to take over the family farm, there was so much more to it than that, she said.

As for her own plans, she would eventually like to have a crack at running the farm in partnership with her father.

But, before then, she wanted to have a career.

She has secured a job at Silver Fern Farms in Dunedin, in sustainability and risk, as part of the company’s three-year graduate programme.

She was one of two successful applicants in a field of more than 150.

"I’m really excited to start . . . they’ve got some really exciting initiatives that they’re doing. I can’t wait," she said.

Connie Searle (22) grew up on a farm in North Otago and had always loved helping on the farm.

She never studied agriculture at secondary school but she studied biology and chemistry which were "building blocks" to science-applied agriculture.

She enjoyed food technology at school and, in her first year at university, studied food science.

It was in her second year that the agricultural innovation course came out and she already met the prerequisites.

She then decided to do a double major in it, with food science, the two pairing well together.

Having only previously known farming up to the farm gate, learning about the sector through the whole supply chain, through to the consumer, had opened her eyes.

A "huge" range of topics were covered, including genetics and breeding, soil, growing apples and kiwifruit and even the history of New Zealand agriculture.

A field trip to a medicinal cannabis operation, in its proof of concept phase, had been a particular highlight.

Ms Searle believed the programme would only get more popular, saying the timing was ideal for it — with what was going on in the wider sector — and because it paired so well with so many degrees.

"New Zealand is such an agri-focused country. I think lots of employers see it as a good thing to have under your belt. Employers have been quite intrigued by what we’ve learnt in this degree," she said.

Next year, she was doing Fonterra’s technical graduate programme and then a masters in dairy science.

From Kerikeri, Archie White (21) came south to university "on a whim". He had no set career path at the time but had always cared about the environment.

The agricultural innovation course appealed and he liked the fact it was new.

Initially not knowing what to expect, it had been a learning curve, he said.

He had enjoyed the ability to speak with lecturers, because of the small classes, and he believed the course would only get better as it became more refined.

Now looking for a job, Mr White said he wanted to do something related to farming, but more on the side of environmental sustainability.

All three were members of the newly established Dunedin Young Farmers Club, which met on the second Wednesday of every month at Ombrellos, usually at 6pm.

About 25 and 30 people attended the meetings and there were always new faces, they said.

Prof Craig Bunt, the inaugural professor of agricultural innovation at Otago, said there had been great support for the programme and it was exciting to see students who were so keen and passionate .

"They are great thinkers," he said.

With what was going on in the sector, such as He Waka Eke Noa and climate change, all of those issues had been fed straight into the course.

It was innovation which would help with solutions.

It was generating lots of discussion with students thinking of transferring from a minor to a major and many discussing the course with their classmates and flatmates.