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Empowering Agriculture's Next Generation

When New Zealand Young Farmer of the Year Emma Poole became the first woman to win the title in the event’s 55-year history this year she also shone a light on a path less trodden for women all over Aotearoa.

While she may have shattered the grass ceiling, it's no secret that farming in New Zealand is still primarily seen as a male-dominated industry.

This perception influences young women as they contemplate their future careers and higher education after high school. Ask most teenagers what farming means to them, and you might hear about the environmental impact and carbon emissions or hard and dirty work on the farm.

Few recognise the promising career prospects in fields such as science, public relations, consultancy, or the opportunities within the value chain, extending from paddock to plate. Traditionally, young women have been underrepresented in these areas.

As the father of two 'rockstar' daughters, I want my girls to have the confidence to reach for the stars, to be whatever they aspire to be. I want them to recognise and value their abilities, knowing they can achieve their dreams.

Emma Poole's confidence to pursue her dreams stemmed from the inspiring lineage of women before her who have showcased the vital role of women in agriculture. We must guide our young people, including our young women, to see beyond the farm gate to the exciting career prospects awaiting them.

According to Ministry for Primary Industry statistics, the current gender ratio in New Zealand's food and fibre industry is 65:35 in favour of men. However, change is in the air. According to Ministry of Education statistics, 56% of domestic students specialising in agriculture at a tertiary level in 2022 were female.

The growing trend of young women pursuing careers in agribusiness is also evident in the applicant pool for Perrin Ag's Empower Graduate Advisor Programme over the past three years. Female applicants consistently represent more than 60% of our total applicants. Each year, we prioritise selecting the most qualified candidate, but notably, the last three successful appointees have all been female.

Within our pipeline, there are many smart and capable women driven to make their mark in agriculture. They excel in their studies, yet their confidence sometimes wanes upon entering the workforce. To enact real change, these talented individuals need to nurture self-belief. Instead of remaining on the sidelines and conforming, they should assert themselves, disrupt the status quo, and boldly tackle challenges. This is when true magic happens. I’ve seen it firsthand.

As an industry, we must also step up. The Government has indicated that New Zealand's primary sector will require up to 50,000 more skilled workers by 2025. As industry leaders, it is our responsibility to nurture and encourage the next generation, both male and female, to step up and help shape the future of farming in New Zealand.

Working in the primary industry or as a farm consultant doesn't require living on a farm or coming from a farming background. Our industry needs young people interested in science, the environment, problem-solving, and aiding communities. Those with the determination to achieve positive outcomes for our environment, our people, and our businesses are just as qualified as those raised on a farm.

Since we launched the Empower programme in 2020, we've been inspired by the emerging talent. It fills us with hope for the future of our industry and has taught us valuable lessons. Not only should our values align, but young people also need clear paths for learning and career growth. To retain them in the industry, it is our duty to help them discover their passions and incorporate them into their work.

Not everyone needs to excel at everything. We make it our mission to reassure our new recruits that they have the strength of an entire business behind them.

As employers of this next generation, we also need to be inquisitive and ask questions. We must remain flexible and open to new approaches. Our young people offer fresh perspectives that challenge our thinking as leaders. They deserve a seat at the decision-making table. When they have something to say, it's our responsibility to listen and let their insights expand our horizons.

We must also make sure our businesses foster a culture of success. When success is achieved, you can be certain that contributions from every level of the business played a role, from recent graduates to company directors. Let's celebrate together and acknowledge everyone's input.

Emma Poole has illuminated a less-traveled path for New Zealand's young women. Yet, her light also reveals the opportunities available in the primary sector for all our young people, provided they are willing to step up, seize these opportunities, and let their own light shine.

 Michael Matthews is Business Manager at Perrin Ag, an agribusiness consulting firm based in Rotorua.