“Spectacular” – that’s how Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor describes the work of the Horticultural Export Authority.
And all the more as the rural-urban divide seems to be widening.
So it’s good news that one teacher is thinking outside the circle, with a Pathway for Students to Agriculture and Horticulture.
Dave Matthews, a native of northeast England, started out teaching in low-decile schools in south London before migrating to New Zealand in 1999. He first taught in south Auckland and north Waikato.
He became head of agriculture at Pukekohe High School in 2017, inheriting a department ‘treading water’ at best. He set about getting children interested in agri and hort, key industries in the immediate area.
His course now has about 150 students (year 10-13) from the school’s 1600 roll.
Many students already know about the sector, coming from farming families or the many lifestyle blocks in the area. Others choose the subject as they don’t always do well studying the three Rs.
At the start of their journey, year 10 students are given a general taste of ag and hort, learning why they are important to the area and broader NZ. They also look at plant science and get to grow crops from seed to harvest in growing units set up on the school premises.
“As well as the classroom stuff, we like the kids to get their hands dirty,” Matthews told Rural News. “But most of all they learn transferable skills.
“Even if they don’t pursue a career in the sector, maybe in later life they will end up with a vegie patch at the bottom of the garden.”
During the school year, students go on many field trips, eg to local dairy farms to look at milk production, and collect native seeds on Awhitu Peninsula. In due course, these are propagated at the school and end up on local farms to help landowners do riparian planting or create wildlife reserves.
The studies are aimed at “opening students’ eyes to the possibilities in the sector,” said Matthews.
Year 11 students visit properties such as Limestone Downs, a commercial sheep farm near Port Waikato. There they do day-to-day husbandry tasks such as ear tagging, drenching and tail docking.
As one would expect of the Pukekohe location, much of the course content is the food chain, with a focus on plants, fertiliser and soils.
Matthews says he spends a lot of time challenging students’ and their parents’ perceptions. They don’t always consider an agri or hort career viable.
His endeavours have drawn the attention of the local MP for Hunua, Andrew Bayly (Nat.), council people and, importantly, several prominent local businesses now offering workplace experience.
Older students spend one day per week for 10 weeks working in these businesses, experiencing day-to-day operations and learning, for example, fork truck operation, UTV driving and health and safety.
Students have found work in the sector after leaving school and have gone on to technical and mid-management positions locally, NZ-wide and overseas.
“The students just need their eyes opened to the opportunities out there, in many cases using technologies that other industries only dream about,” Matthews said.
“My job is to show them what they can aspire to. In some cases that means pupils... can get more hands-on skills and really shine.”
Matthews says not many NZ schools teach agri subjects and those which do are usually rural.