'Irish dairying is going through a similar growth stage as New Zealand a decade ago'

James Robertson is the current New Zealand Young Farmer of the Year. At 22, he is the youngest ever winner of the competition which is worth over €40,000 in prize money. This week he's in Ireland for the Ploughing Championships, and we caught up with him en route to Carlow

Field trip: James Robertson who is visiting this year’s Ploughing contest
Field trip: James Robertson who is visiting this year’s Ploughing contest
Margaret Donnelly

Margaret Donnelly

Tell us a little bit about yourself/your background… you grew up on a dairy farm -were your parents also from farms?

I was actually born in South Gloucester in the UK where my parents ran the family dairy farm. In 2002 the farm was sold and my parents moved myself (age 6) and two brothers (7 and 4) to New Zealand.

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We moved to New Zealand with no major intentions of going dairy farming, instead for a lifestyle change. However, it wasn't long until the country life enticed the family enough for my father Dave to take on a dairy farm manager's role in South Waikato.

After a few years of dairy farming the family bought an 85ha block of land slightly further north and converted it over time from beef cattle to a 200-cow pedigree Holstein herd. The pedigree herd focused on combining the best of the UK and NZ production systems, utilising pastoral growth and optimising production through genetics and supplementary nutrition where required.

The herd won multiple awards for average per cow production and both myself and my older brother owned cows within the herd. In 2015, whilst studying agribusiness at university, my parents sold the farm and semi-retired. My father had problems with his knee and the decision was made to take a step back from farming for the time being.

You're a business graduate - working with Fonterra. What's your role with Fonterra and how does an office-based person win Farmer of the Year?

I am currently a business graduate with Fonterra, New Zealand's largest milk processor and a co-operative owned by 10,000 farming families. My final three placements have been in the co-operative's head office in Auckland - in the centre city, far from any farms.

I spend most of my spare time keeping up to date with agricultural news and heading out of the city on the weekends to keep upskilled. I've always been a keen farmer but somewhat had to re-evaluate my options when my parents sold the farm.

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I was studying towards a bachelor of agricommerce majoring in international agribusiness and minoring in farm management, giving me a great understanding of farm practices and global markets. I have always been involved with young farmers and have won national stock judging titles and played around with other competitions such as fencing.

I have always set the Young Farmer of the Year competition as a life goal, taking every opportunity I can to learn, practise and upskill in all facets of farming, particularly over the past five years.

I spent time driving machinery on sheep and beef farms during my university summer breaks, assisting with general farm work when raining. Getting out of the city and onto farms in the weekends over the past year has certainly helped keep these skills up to scratch.

How far are the office and the farm from each other? Is your current set-up of office job and farming sustainable in the future?

The Waikato region is home to 28pc of New Zealand's cows, with an average farm size of 362 cows and 125ha.

My parents still farm, although more in a semi-retired sense, running some beef cattle on 20ha - and leasing ground for growing maize and silage.

My parents block is currently just over two hours' drive from where I live and work. I'd love to have the ability to live rurally and gain the opportunities of working in Auckland but at this stage that isn't quite possible.

My graduate programme which finishes at the end of this year has been a brilliant development opportunity. I've gained skills and exposure at a young age that wouldn't have been possible without making the shift to the city.

In some senses I treat the next five or so years of my career as studying, an opportunity to continue my learning and to set me up for a future in agribusiness wherever that may be. My long-term goal is to own a farm later down the track.

The competition is not just a form/interview process, the judges put you through practical tests...

The National (grand final) of the competition is a three-day competition, in which seven contestants - one from each of the Young Farmer regions from around the country compete.

The competition essentially has three qualifying stages: district finals (two from each district qualify through to the regional final); regional finals (eight contestants compete for the top spot to represent at the grand final). The district competition is held over one day and the regional over two.

The grand final tests contestants across everything agricultural, with all the tests and challenges remaining secret or unknown until the days of the contest. This helps to ensure that contestants have the broadest possible range of agricultural skills.

Contestants are put through their paces with media interviews on the industry hot topics and concerns and interpreting farm data and farm systems on the first day. Then it's the practical side, with fencing, machinery work, stock judging, farm safety, fertilisers and sustainability, butcher, orchard management, pest control, water reticulation all tested.

If that wasn't enough, each contestant must that evening give a speech!

The final day then has a three-hour test on farm sustainability plans, nutrient budgeting, financial budgeting and health and safety documentation.

Then it's the final interviews, including a presentation from the contestants. My report focused on creating a sustainable nutrient management system by combining organic household waste with an insect and vegetable farming system.

Part of the NZ$75,000 prize fund is that you win a trip to Ireland. What will you be hoping to see/learn as part of your trip?

Yes that's right, the prizes include a range of things including a 4WD motorbike, cash, the use of a new Holland tractor for the year, farm fertiliser products and a trip to Ireland to attend the Ploughing.

I have never been to Ireland, so obviously I'm keen to learn as much about the culture as possible and drink a few Guinnesses!

But, most importantly, I'm keen to learn about farming in Ireland, its opportunities, its challenges and its farm systems. Ireland seems to be going through a growth stage in its dairy sector, similar to that of New Zealand some 10 years ago. I'm keen to understand how New Zealand could benefit Ireland and vice versa.


Kiwi dairy numbers likely to start falling

New Zealand's dairy herd is likely to decline slightly in the coming years, according to the New Zealand ambassador to Ireland Brad Burgess.

Speaking to the Farming Independent ahead of bringing one of its largest delegations to the Ploughing, New Zealand dairying, he said, has reached its natural capacity and "that's a reflection on the need to have a balance between the environment and growth."

The dairy herd, he said, is expected to decline slightly in the coming years as it grapples with restrictions on water and land use.

He also said that in 1973 New Zealand went through its own type of Brexit, when it lost its main agricultural market in the UK.

But according to the New Zealand ambassador to Ireland, Brad Burgess, the impact forced New Zealand to focus on being internationally competitive.

"The government and sector realised we needed to focus on being internationally competitive. We had to remove some of the protections and expose New Zealand to international competition, lifting our performance, efficiency and productivity.

"That was supported by a focus on market choice and diversification for exporters.

"The lesson then was important, that our exporters were not placing all our eggs in one basket."

This year New Zealand will have its largest ever delegation at the Ploughing, with over 30 Kiwi businesses and agricultural research institutes coming to the event.

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