Lincoln University Senior Lecturer in Agribusiness, Nic Lees, recently conducted an online poll of his final year undergraduate class in agribusiness strategic management. He asked what they thought of a recent media statement from Federated Farmers that ‘sheep and beef farming could all but disappear’ if structural issues are allowed to continue.
Sixty one students responded, of whom 87% disagreed with the suggestion that sheep and beef farms are ‘on the way to extinction’.
The most common reason for disagreement was along the lines of ‘there is lots of land for which neither dairy nor trees are suitable’. Another response was that ‘New Zealanders are too passionately involved in the industry for it to become extinct and people will always demand beef and lamb.’
Many students believed that structural change was required, but were confident this would occur. They had recently been addressed by Owen Poole, the Chairman of Alliance Meat Co-operative, and hence they recognised that simply blaming the meat companies was not the way forward. Some recognised that farmers also had to take responsibility for aspects of the current situation. One student, with the benefit of youth, thought that it was time to ‘get some younger minds thinking innovatively’. He thought there were too many ‘old guys’ running the industry.
Many of the students showed a deep commitment to the sheep and beef industries. Some 53% come from a sheep and beef rural background, and 57% want to work with sheep and beef in the future, compared to 23% for dairying. In total, 92% came from a farming background, and 90% want to own or manage a farm in future.
This passion for practical farming by our students is somewhat different than is found in overseas universities, where students often study agriculture as a way to escape the land, and to get into off-farm agribusiness.
However, the majority of the respondents are also keen to spend some time in a non-farm job before going back to the land. Rural banking (25%), farm consultancy (31%), and other agribusiness management (21%) all scored highly. Only 8% were interested in sales and marketing, 2% were interested in research, and 2% in policy type jobs.
Despite wanting to follow their heart to sheep and beef in terms of a career choice, in terms of positive industry outlook they placed dairy first, then horticulture, arable, deer, beef and sheep in that order. Although sheep was lowest, it still ranked at 3.4 on a five point scale.
For those of us who work with students, there are no big surprises in these results. We know that our students are passionate about farming, and we have known that for a long time. We have also known for a long time that most of our students have been coming from a rural background. Thirty and forty years ago, it was quite different, with many students coming from the cities but having a connection to the land through relatives. These days the urban-rural divide is much bigger.