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Zona Howell might have been looking a bit grubbier than she would in the classroom, but she was still smiling as she drenched and vaccinated calves on an Ida Valley farm last Thursday.
Zona, a year 11 pupil at Maniototo Area School, is among a group of agricultural pupils who take part in a twice-weekly, on-farm education programme at Sam and Deb Stevens’ farm Cairnlea, at Poolburn. The couple have a Poll Dorset sheep stud and they also graze dairy cattle and sheep.
The programme was the brainchild of Mr Stevens, a full-time agriculture, history and tourism teacher at the school, and then-principal Dave Hunter, in 2009.
Maniototo Area recently became a Trades Academy school for Primary ITO, in which pupils could do level 2 unit standards, with the credits counting for both NCEA and the national certificate in agriculture, in quad-bikes, tractor driving, stock handling and health and safety. It was the only school in the South Island accredited to level 3 assessment of vehicles.
While there were other schools involved with similar programmes, often pupils visited different farms rather than being based at one, Mr Stevens said.
It was a busy day at Cairnlea — there were pupils driving tractors to feed out to stock, lambs to be weighed, drenched and vaccinated at a neighbouring property, and cattle also to be weighed and drenched.
Mr Stevens usually picked up the pupils from the school bus at Oturehua about 8am and they were on-farm until after 3pm. Repetition of tasks was the key and that was how they learned the skills, he said.
Ultimately, he wanted the pupils to be employable. Aside from the skills they learned on-farm, he impressed on them the need to turn up on time, have a good attitude and be prepared to do a day’s work.
There was a maximum of five pupils at one time and it was usually about a 50% mix of rural and non-rural teens. How quickly those not accustomed to farming picked things up was "completely an attitude thing".
Often those from farms either had a preference for machinery or for stock but, at Cairnlea, they had to do both, and all enjoyed being out of the classroom. What they did in a day depended entirely on what was happening on the farm at the time. Many of the pupils coming through the programme either went on to further training, such as Telford, or were employed locally.
After she left school, Zona hoped to go to Telford and then embark on a dairy farming career, an ambition she had since a young age.
Some pupils who were struggling with literacy this year were also going to Cairnlea to use the experience to help them with their learning.
Mr Stevens was recently appointed to the agribusiness subject expert group for the Ministry of Education’s review of NCEA achievement standards.
He is also a member of the Beef + Lamb New Zealand Central South Island Farmer Council, initially seeking election over concerns about the perceived urban-rural divide. The next big push for Beef + Lamb was sector capability which tied in nicely with his teaching background.
On March 1, Mr and Mrs Stevens will open their farm gates for Open Farms, an initiative aimed at reconnecting Kiwis through food and farming. It was centred on a nationwide open farm day event, facilitating personal on-farm experiences, and it would be a good chance for the pupils to show what they had been doing, Mr Stevens said.