New Zealand primary industries are ripe for opportunity, if we want it, writes Richard Hegan.

The urban-rural divide debate isn't new. It's been a regular topic of conversation over the past 12 months, particularly as the spotlight shone on water quality, a key talking point of the 2017 general election.

Whether or not this divide truly exists remains up for debate but it's undeniable there is a growing number of urban Kiwis who aren't aware of the breadth of New Zealand's primary sector or the opportunities available to those who think outside the traditional corporate box.

The New Zealand economy relies on our primary industries; it's therefore in our best interests to see it thrive. We need to attract talent from across industries. We need creative thinkers and problem solvers to help us work smarter and increase productivity.
But how?

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We need to widen our conversation. The agriculture industry offers much more than just milking cows and mustering sheep. In fact, I think this might just make up as little as 1 — 2 per cent of all agricultural opportunity. By 2025 it's estimated there will be 140,000 support service jobs in primary industries here in New Zealand. These roles include everything from researchers, consultants, and veterinarians to engineers or those in robotics and IT.

Real opportunity waits for those who dare to jump the fence; we just need to show them the stile.

We need to broaden our audience. If we want our industry to grow, it's imperative our audience does too. In the past our sector hasn't necessarily "sold" the rural dream and that is evident in the way future generations view the opportunities, or lack thereof, available. My observation is that we speak to our people; people who grew up on farms, people who already know and take advantage of the opportunities. That needs to change.

To continue to thrive we need diversity in our thinking from people with different backgrounds and knowledge.

I'm proud of the way the ASB Mount Albert Grammar School (MAGS) farm has extended the agriculture conversation.

The ASB MAGS farm was established in 1932 to bring farm life to the middle of urban Auckland. It has been a cornerstone plank in delivering an expansive agricultural programme to its students and has played a vital role in connecting rural and urban communities and is part of Auckland's rich agricultural history.

One of those students is Fatima Imran. As a Year 10 student, a Muslim of Pakistani decent, who — like her classmates — had no connection to farm life, she started a conversation with her friends about what subjects to take the following year.

When Fatima suggested agriculture, the response was stereotypical — "agriculture? Why? We need to do something useful with our lives."

It was hearing that last comment coupled with a determined mind that pushed Fatima to ignore her peers, and go on to study agriculture.

She's since grown a passion for it because she now truly understands the connection between the primary sector, business, and the future prosperity of NZ.

"I thought we were going to be driving tractors and milking cows and that's it. But I've ended up learning it's literally science and commerce. Things like soil components, food technology, foreign trade, business and sustainability. Some of us enjoy the animal part of it, some the business part, while others the practical parts. I love it," says the now Year 13 student.

Fatima has subsequently shared her views as a young leader at various agriculture forums and next year she's heading to Massey to do a degree in AgriCommerce with a major in International Agribusiness, a minor in Finance, and a conjoint with political science.

She is just one example of what can happen when urban youth are exposed to the primary sector, which is why we established an ASB MAGS Farm Advisory Group, currently working to redevelop the ASB farm at MAGS, as well as build a world-class teaching facility and experience centre that will demonstrate and teach best practices in innovation, science and environmental management used on farms across New Zealand.

This modern technology centre will increase the number of students exposed to the breadth of opportunity available and cement primary industries as a viable career option.

Of course this facility will reach out to a wider community audience as well.

Innovation is calling. Like most industries, technology has played a major role in revolutionising the rural sector. But unlike most industries, the scope of the rural sector's career opportunities isn't top-of-mind, at least here in New Zealand.

To encourage more people into the primary industries we need to think way more progressively and dig into the possible reasons why it isn't currently seen as a viable career choice by so many urban New Zealanders.

To make the sector more attractive we need to be more agile and start challenging some of the sector's longstanding unwritten rules.

As for Fatima, when I asked her: "Introduce agribusiness as a subject in all high schools to attract a wider group of students, but also start removing the stigma in primary school — don't just take children to see farm animals, take them to where food technology happens, show them the science, show them the possibilities from a young age," she said.

"Sure we need doctors and lawyers but the population is increasing, we need to feed them and personally, I love that everything starts here with agriculture.

"Everything starts from the land. New Zealand has a great image in the world, we just need to be encouraged to grasp it and use it for our own good right now," Fatima told me.

She is right; there's never been a better time for New Zealand's agriculture industry: exports are forecast to rise nearly 11 per cent in the year ending June 2018, reaching $42.4b, and December 2017 was the highest month ever for primary sector export revenue.

Now's the time to take opportunities. Now's the time to make progress. Now's the time build on our success.

The greener pastures of New Zealand's primary industries are calling.

Before starting his career in rural banking, Richard Hegan attended Lincoln University where he received a Bachelor of Commerce, Agriculture, Farm Management and Rural Valuation. Richard has worked at ASB for 18 years and is General Manager Rural, based in Christchurch.