Is a degree a must for the modern-day farmer?

I'm doing my second farming editorial in a week. This is because; 1) I have spent many years as a farming reporter in the past and it is something I am comfortable writing about, and; 2) because it's farming page week in the Wānaka Sun. That's why this editorial is in the farming section.

Recently on a farming Facebook page that I read, a 17-year-old posted a query on whether he should go straight into farming, or spend a few years getting an academic qualification first.

The replies were extensive and split about down the middle. Some thought he should go straight into dairying and gain on-farm experience; some thought he should spend some time at Lincoln University or elsewhere, getting a qualification.

But is education necessary to become a 21st-century farmer? My opinion is yes! It could be the difference between success and failure.

Farmers today not only have to be experts on plants and animals, but they must also be computer literate, mechanically inclined, savvy in business, legal-minded and knowledgeable about world events.

They must also be politically astute because much of their farm income and operations are tied to government and local body policies and regulations; for instance, if you are required to have a consent to farm because of heightened nitrogen levels.

Increasingly educating yourself about farming and agriculture requires a life-long commitment. The 21st-century farmer must stay informed about technological developments to remain competitive both locally and globally.

With so much to learn, getting a bachelor degree is often recommended for wannabe farmers. Earning a degree is more important than the area of study chosen; a degree in business or political science, for example, may be as useful as one in agricultural science to a prospective farmer, especially one who was raised on a farm.

Developing a marketing strategy is becoming an essential tool for farmers. Marketing involves working out what products to grow and who to sell them to. It also requires knowing how to price a product to cover costs and understanding strategies that minimise the risk of fluctuating prices.

I know a farmer (let's call him Mark) who studied middle eastern history at university which didn't provide much direct value to his operation. But the indirect value was irreplaceable he says.

Learning how to do research, to write a paper, give a presentation and think critically have provided him with a lot of value when it comes to the farm.

To communicate clearly, verbally and in writing is important – in many cases, Mark's success has hinged on it. The ability to do his own books and to edit, interpret and analyse the farm's financials has been priceless.

Mark says that beyond the class university taught him about hard work, follow through and how to earn a grade. He reckons anyone with some post-secondary training has demonstrated their ability and commitment to self-improvement.

Whether it's a bachelor degree in history, accounting or certification in a trade, the direct application of skills learned to the farmer's operation is not as important as the effort given to achieve the end result. Learning how to put in that effort and what it feels like to do so is a vital part of any successful farm operation. University isn't the only way to learn it, but it is one reliable way.

Education is always an essential path to off-farm income which is becoming more and more critical in family farm economics.

In both ag and non-ag areas, a degree can provide crucial skills needed to provide financial support to rural or farm communities. Post-university incomes can diversify a farm's balance sheet and give the financial security required to keep a farm afloat during downtimes. A trade can provide significant advantages to the farm, be it welding a joint, understanding finance or fixing broken equipment.

University is expensive, and the direct applicability of skills to the farm may be low. But when you consider the broader lessons learnt at university, most importantly learning how to learn, the costs seem minimal to the enormity of the knowledge and skills gained.

Human beings are great at learning; the amount of information that can be jammed into our brain is incredible. Demonstrating a willingness to continuously use this natural learning ability to improve ourselves is in my mind entirely worthwhile.

But that's only my opinion. As always, the Wānaka Sun welcomes letters to the editor or Facebook posts with your opinion on this matter. Don't hold back.

View edition 984 of the Wānaka Sun here.



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