Charlie Pearson reports on the 2018 Massey Agriculture Awards Dinner.

The best and brightest of Massey’s top rate agriculture, horticulture and equine programme gathered at the uni’s Ag Awards Dinner recently. In total, there are over 400 students across all levels, a number that has been steadily growing over the years. On that October evening though, the focus was on the most promising faces this programme has fostered, the third-year students soon to complete their studies and who of them would take away the nine most prestigious awards of the night. And this leaving class shows real hope for the wider agriculture industry; almost all those who have been looking for employment for 2019 have received it. Furthermore, the days of ag being a man’s business are surely receding, seeing a class of students split 50:50 boys and girls.

I spoke in-depth with some of the winners from the night, to learn more about them.

Alisha & Jacinta Harrop

You would think these Taranaki twins are crazy, keeping themselves as busy as they do. Aside from excelling in their studies (they both achieved Top Academic Awards for the first and second years of their degrees, sharing first place in 2016) they’re both heavily involved in the Massey Young Farmers club, Fire and Circus club, Anime society, Manawatu’s Steampunk society and Jacinta even makes time for the Massey Photography club. But it doesn’t stop there, both sisters also hold a 2nd Dan Black Belt in Shotokan karate (there are generally five levels within the black belt).

Alisha says, “I can be quite dedicated to my studies”, a state of mind that certainly seems to cross-over into whatever fields the sisters try their hand at. The 21-year-olds are both in the final year of a Bachelor of AgriScience with plans of continuing with further study. Going into their Masters of Agriculture, they carry with them high academic results. This shows in the accolades the pair were presented with, at the Massey Ag dinner, recently: Alisha was named the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science (NZIAHS) Leading Student and Jacinta received her third consecutive Top Academic award.

Jacinta says growing up on dairy farms, was what first got her interested in the field; “I loved being outside and being around animals.” Up until 2011, their parents were 50:50 sharemilkers, on a new farm each three years, but by the end of it they were looking for something more permanent. So, in 2011 they bought a farm near Oakura, where they have stayed. At New Plymouth Girls High, the twins took up ag as a subject and, spurred on by an inspiring teacher, both soon came to the same conclusion. “They made me realise that I really enjoy science and agriculture, and that I can actually get a career that combines the two” Alisha says.

As with most things, the sisters share a similar vision for their futures. They both enjoy agricultural research, with Jacinta, in particular, having done research assistant work in the past. Her interests also lie in pasture agronomy and soil science. Alisha knows she wants to be in a career that will benefit farmers throughout Aotearoa.

The sisters are grateful they studied at Massey. “I’ve learnt some great skills across a range of fields and relevant tools that I can apply to future jobs” Jacinta says. “The practical part of the degree was a great chance to try applying what I’d learnt and it gave me the chance to get experience in a sector I hadn’t been involved in before.” Palmerston North is also close enough for them to go home in the holidays, but still far enough away to have some independence, she laughs. They note how friendly the culture of the university is, and the high standard of ag lecturers.

When asked why she would recommend ag at Massey to other people, Alisha says: “there is such a demand for young people in the industry. I have seen many passionate, interested people when I have visited high schools for talks (through my DairyNZ scholarship). Sometimes they are unaware or just need inspiration to do it. It’s an interesting and ever-changing industry to get into.”

Mathilde van Baarle

Mathilde (pronounced ‘Matilda’) is no stranger to award ceremonies. Her love of agriculture and commitment to her studies has produced a slew of awards during her studies, of which the ‘Academic Excellence for Third Year (1st place)’ and ‘Agricultural, Horticultural & Equine Practicum’ awards, presented to her at the 2018 Massey Ag Dinner, are just the latest. In fact, this is the second year in a row she’s achieved a first place Top Academic Award, having taken out the same spot in her second year. In the first year of her AgriScience degree (with a major in Agriculture) she gained the Sally Newton Prize for the top student in 100-level Plants and Agriculture, and then earlier this year, the Lord Bledisloe Prize for the Best Undergraduate Agriculture Student and a DairyNZ Undergrad scholarship.

Given her immense success in agricultural studies, it’s surprising to learn that Mathilde didn’t originally come to Massey to study in the field but had a very different plan in mind. Originally from Tapanui, West Otago, she made the big move north in 2015 with the hopes of becoming a vet (she was enrolled in a veterinary science course). A year in, the Massey Young Farmers member decided vet wasn’t for her.

Changing to a degree in agriculture wasn’t a hard decision, and logistically, it went very smoothly. Mathilde had grown up on a 520-cow dairy farm with her parents and two younger sisters, and was well acquainted with farm and rural life. She says: “After choosing to opt out of my original degree, it made sense to stay up North where I was settled and the uni was very accommodating with the switch”. Not to mention, Massey Palmerston North’s agricultural offerings are top in the country, she adds.

And her decision certainly paid off. Aside from her academic success, Mathilde values how well-rounded her degree has been, giving her a full understanding of agriculture. “There is a good support and social network, it provides a community to the ag students” she adds.

Of her healthy trophy cabinet, the 22-year-old says: “It’s always a good feeling to have received recognition for the work that has been put in, but it’s not the underlying factor of why I have put the effort in. The recognition means that I’ve been able to get my name out there a little more and the hard work has paid off.” And paid off it certainly has; Mathilde has earned herself an internship with BakerAg. This is the first time the agribusiness consultancy has offered the programme, so she says it means her internship will be shaped around her specific skills and interests, giving her the opportunity to gain experience in a long list of potential areas.

Beyond this, the Otago native is keeping her options open, eager to carve out a path in the agriculture industry, wherever that may take her. After working to such a high standard throughout her time at Massey, going travelling would be a well deserved move, and one that Mathilde is considering for her 2019.