An initiative by a Cambridge-based agricultural research and development company is set to combat the looming shortage of skilled machine operators in the farming sector.

AGTechnology Group, based at Hautapu, a few minutes form the central Waikato town, began as a contracting business in maize, silage and grass. But about 25 years ago it became the only company in the world with an exclusive arrangement with giant German agricultural machinery manufacturer Claas to test and develop its equipment in the Southern Hemisphere.

During the Kiwi off-season AGTechnology staff would often travel to continue their work with the company in Germany. However, the advent of Covid 19 presented the operation with a unique problem in which business owner Andre Syben saw an opportunity to create the AGDrive programme - as general manager Janine Peters explained.

AgDrive's Vinette Wilken and Niels Kleven. Photo / Geoff Lewis
AgDrive's Vinette Wilken and Niels Kleven. Photo / Geoff Lewis

"There was a lot of uncertainty in the contracting community around seasonal workers. We have about 3000 come into New Zealand annually from the Northern Hemisphere to drive specialised agricultural machinery.

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"This is essential to New Zealand agriculture and it became apparent this was not going to happen.

"We were wondering what we were going to do. There is a growing pool of unemployed people as a result of the Covid pandemic and we talked to the contractors and could see it was going to become a big problem for them and there was an urgent need to train more people.''

So Peters approached the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) with the idea of utilising AGTechnology's skilled staff to help create a driver training programme for the agricultural sector.

"In the old days anyone with a bit of farm experience could drive a tractor. But that is not the case today. These are complex and sophisticated machines which require a high level of skill to operate.''

The first intake of students selected by MSD were introduced to static tractors, loaned by local dealers, in the last week of July before being taken out on to land near Matangi for the introductory driving programme.

They will then be taken by local agricultural contractors to continue their training and gain further experience.

The AGDrive programme has also gained the support of the Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec) which will help "train the trainers" - six AGTechnology staff.

AGTechnology business development manager Vinette Wilken has been working with the contractors around the use of mechanical attachments and health and safety.

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"We're also talking to the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) about training in road rules for large vehicles as these machines often have to use public roads moving from one property to the next.

"We have a classroom at the back of our Hautapu site which we can use for instruction before taking students to the land to begin their practical experience.''

The initiative has also brought the Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec) into action providing training for the trainers, according to executive director of commercial initiatives Jo Douglas.

"In the AGDrive programme the guys teaching the subject matter are experts in their own fields, not teachers. What we are doing is helping to ensure their teaching is effective.

"We've had two of our staff with them looking at how they're doing the training, their methods, and how they get the message across.''

Jackson Contracting is based in Tauhei and services the central Waikato. The business focuses on maize, grass silage, baling, spraying, cultivation and bulk silage.

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Managing director Jeremy Rothery said the business was seasonal and employed eight full-time staff and another 4-5 over the peak periods. The full-time staff were usually employed to operate the pieces of equipment which required a higher level of skill.

AGDrive trainee Mata Rouru and trainer Niels Kleven. Photo / Geoff Lewis
AGDrive trainee Mata Rouru and trainer Niels Kleven. Photo / Geoff Lewis

"We realised what was happening months ago and that it was going to be more difficult to bring guys in from overseas. We made the decision to recruit locally. This was a bit of a moral decision too to help people feeling the pinch.''

Rothery said the local response from calls through social media and from people like farmers' sons, ex-farmers and people with HT licences had been good. However, the AGDrive programme was something the industry needed.

"It is something the industry has been crying out for. It should have been done quite some time ago.''

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Finch Contracting covers the area between Ngaruawahia and Waiouru employing up to 40 people during the September to May peak season doing maize, planting and harvesting, baling, grass harvesting, cultivation, planting and seeding.

General manager Gary Natta said the workload was not too bad for staff at the moment but they could do with a couple more on-board.

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"We usually get three or four skilled drivers from overseas. We can take new staff on but it will take several seasons to bring them up to speed. Our main worry with Covid is, how do we carry local staff through the off-season when usually they would go back overseas.''

The AgDrive programme is supported by local agricultural machinery dealers Waikato Tractors, Giltrap AgriZone, Claas Harvest Centre, Webbline and Agrowquip.