Fonterra business graduate James Robertson is preparing to represent the Northern region in this year's FMG Young Farmer of the Year Grand Final in Hawke's Bay. At just 22, he'll be the youngest competitor.
James Robertson is proof you don't have to milk cows to have a career in New Zealand's multibillion-dollar dairy sector.
The 22-year-old is an Auckland-based business graduate at Fonterra, a co-operative owned by 10,000 farming families.
Robertson joined the dairy giant in February 2018 after completing a Bachelor of AgriCommerce at Massey University.
"The graduate programme is split into four six-month rotations, which is giving me a broad exposure to Fonterra's operations," he said.
"I spent my first six months in Hamilton working with the co-op's sustainable dairying team. That was an awesome experience."
"I moved to Auckland to be part of an innovation project and in February this year I joined Fonterra's trade strategy team," he said.
Fonterra is the world's largest dairy exporter, selling products to more than 140 countries. It employs 22,000 people in over 45 countries.
The constantly-changing nature of the challenging role has been a steep, but welcome,
learning curve for Robertson.
"The trade strategy team supports and advises the business on approaches to changing geopolitical activity and tariff opportunities," he said.
"It's a crazy world of technical terms and acronyms, and the policy side involves a lot of reading."
"I was lucky enough to study international agribusiness while I was at university, so it's made the transition a lot easier. It's an area I have always been interested in and I'm really enjoying it," he said.
Robertson grew up on a 200 cow dairy farm in the Waikato. He describes moving to Auckland, which is teeming with people and cars, as "a massive lifestyle change".
"It wasn't something I ever saw myself doing, but it was an amazing opportunity to push me outside of my comfort zone," he said.
Being a member of Auckland Young Farmers has helped Robertson adjust to his new home and remain connected to his rural roots.
"It's nice to be able to go along to club meetings and have a chat about how rain in February is a good thing," he laughed.
"The club's a hub for young people who work in the agri-food sector and find themselves living in the big smoke."
Auckland Young Farmers members dominated the Northern FMG Young Farmer of the Year Regional Final in March.
Its members James Robertson, Tim Dangen and Cameron Massie took out the top three spots respectively.
The event in Warkworth, north of Auckland, was Robertson' first attempt at clinching the title.
"My initial reaction at winning was quite a bit of disbelief. I wasn't expecting to make it through to the grand final," he said.
"That was followed by the realisation of the work ahead to ensure I can give the final in Hawke's Bay my best shot."
It's not the first time James has competed in the grand final of a contest organised by NZ Young Farmers.
In 2013, Robertson and his Hamilton Boys' High School team mate Daniel Reymer won the TeenAg Grand Final.
"I can guarantee I probably wouldn't be in this position if it wasn't for my involvement with NZ Young Farmers early on," he said.
"I was the founding chair of the TeenAg club at Hamilton Boys' High School. It provided an awesome opportunity to start building my leadership skills."
"The club really exposed me to the opportunities that were out there, including studying at university," he said.
Robertson enrolled in Massey University in Palmerston North in 2015.
"Massey has the largest NZ Young Farmers club in the country and that was a huge
drawcard for me," he said.
Robertson went on to chair the club, which helped to build his "governance and strategic thinking skills".
Halfway through his time at university, James' parents sold their dairy farm and semi-retired.
"That was a hard moment for me personally. It forced me to realign some of my future career goals straight after university," he said.
Returning to the land "will always be on the cards" for Robertson, who is keen to grow his technical knowledge of the wider agricultural supply chain.
But a key focus at the moment is the FMG Young Farmer of the Year Grand Final in July.
"I grew up watching the grand final and it's something I have always been really keen to be involved in," he said.
"I'm a bit nervous about what this year's contest might involve after the recent overhaul."
"But it's fantastic that the changes give us more of an opportunity to help people connect with where their food comes from and to showcase what 21st century farming is all about," he said.
With age on his side, Robertson will be keen to soak up as much of the opportunity as he can.
Name: James Robertson
Occupation: Business graduate at Fonterra
- The FMG Young Farmer of the Year Grand Final runs from 4 th -6 th July in Hawke's Bay.