By: Anna Campbell

For as long as I have been involved in agriculture, our industry has lamented our poor image and the fact that we struggle to attract young people.

I have heard people say we need a rebrand, agriculture is a term which brings to mind a lack of sophistication. In the game of cricket, an “agricultural batsman” is someone who dispatches the ball to “cow corner” in a rather basic manner!

Suggesting an agricultural career to a youngster will not automatically make them think about producing the finest food in the world, advanced genetics, machine learning, international food chains, global food security, financial modelling or GIS mapping. Yet, those of us in the industry understand agriculture encompasses all of that and so much more.

Various government and industry initiatives have produced scholarships for students and held open days to attract youngsters. This has helped, but we need more – we face an aging workforce, challenges in world food supply systems and a growing rural-urban divide. It will take a commitment from all agriculturalists to turn the tide – what might that commitment look like?

This year, AbacusBio has taken on 11 interns, we have been supported by Callaghan Innovation and the Dunedin City Council and we also commit our own funds and energy into growing these young people.

This year, of the 11 students, only one comes from a course directly connected to agriculture (forestry engineering at Canterbury University), the rest are general science, IT or commerce students. The students stay with us for 10-14 weeks. In non-Covid times, we also take on international interns, who work with us for three to six months, sometimes in partnership with other agricultural companies.

The internship programme is a win:win for us and the students. We are able to get students working on projects we haven’t got the time or head space to investigate. This year’s interns are working on a wide array of projects including: an engineering model for a bioforestry initiative (converting forestry waste to packaging as a replacement for plastic); understanding the genetic diversity of the New Zealand honey bee population, determining how AbacusBio can grow the market for our genetic analysis product, Dtreo and a business plan for growing nigella sativa (black seed) as an alternate crop.

The interns bring vitality and energy to our business and they certainly add much good cheer to our Christmas party! In return, the students learn from us technical and business skills and they learn about the breadth of our wonderful sector in what is often their first agricultural workplace. Some of the interns will go on to seek employment in agriculture. We also employ the occasional intern ourselves. One of our previous interns, Fiona Hely, is now a partner in our business.

So here is my challenge to you as farmers, industry bodies and agri-businesses. Imagine if every agricultural company in NZ took on, or shared, a summer intern. A farmer who has thought about shifting to Xero for their accounting needs, but never quite got around to it. The farmer could work with an accounting student, maybe in partnership with their accounting firm, to help them shift the business over, manage greater automatic coding and model differing financial scenarios for their business.

A farmer who has long thought about modelling their environmental footprint and identifying and planting trees in areas of low productivity, could work with students to GIS map, footprint and plant new areas of their farm.

A stud breeder could bring on an intern to assist with data management and developing a social media marketing campaign and, of course, a little fencing and stock work will never go amiss in a youngster’s life skills.

As for larger agricultural companies, if AbacusBio can take on 10 interns, I see no reason why meat, milk, financial and fertiliser companies could not take on 30, or even 50 interns. Interns can sign confidentiality agreements within their contracts and a good programme co-ordinator can really help embed these young people in many parts of the business.

Let’s think big here – the future of our industry has to be worth the investment and from a personal perspective, youthful enthusiasm does help sweep away the cynicism and negativity which creeps up as we age!

  • Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio, a Dunedin based agri-technology company.