Raised on a Waikato dairy farm, at 22 years of age James Robertson is the youngest ever to have won the Young Farmer of the Year title.
He's a former DairyNZ scholarship student having received an undergraduate scholarship to study agribusiness at Massey University. He currently works in Fonterra’s trade strategy team, based in downtown Auckland.
James sat down with DairyNZ to talk about some of what he’s found to be invaluable, but first…
James, who would you invite into the cow shed to help with the milking, and why?
Jack Ma (business magnate, investor, politician, philanthropist) – We always talk about feeding the richest 40 million people in the world, but what would it actually be like to have them milking the cows? What questions would they ask and why? Having Jack Ma, founder of the multi-national technology conglomerate Alibaba, in the shed would be a great learning experience.
David Parker – We constantly hear about the environment and the future of dairy farming. It would be interesting having David Parker out on the farm in his gumboots, having conversations about the future of food, rather than hearing from him only when he’s wearing a suit at a press conference.
James Cameron – Filmmaker and environmentalist James Cameron is an extremely talented individual who is investing heavily in tomorrow’s food production systems. But he’s made some statements that concern New Zealand farmers. Having the opportunity to discuss with him the integration of 21st century technology with traditional farming systems would make for an interesting milking.
My father, Dave Robertson – Having Jack Ma, David Parker and James Cameron in the shed would be great. But at the end of the day, the cows need to be milked. My dad has a great work ethic and I enjoy working alongside him.
How did the DairyNZ undergraduate scholarship assist you – aside from the monetary contribution?
As well as helping with tuition fees, the DairyNZ scholarship provides great development and networking opportunities that aren’t gained directly from tertiary study. The opportunity to be mentored and fostered by DairyNZ is invaluable. You can begin building a network even before you begin looking for roles post university.
How did you hear about the DairyNZ scholarships?
I first heard about the scholarship from my career advisor at Hamilton Boys’ High School and during a careers expo. The opportunities the scholarship opened up were confirmed when some of the scholarship recipients and DairyNZ’s education facilitator Susan Stokes visited our school one lunchtime to talk about the scholarships and dairy career opportunities.
How was your experience in applying for the scholarship?
Applying for any scholarship is a daunting process, and your first application is always the hardest. Learning how to write a good CV and putting together an application that stands out is key. I asked friends, family and teachers for advice. It also never hurts to reach out to current and past scholarship recipients – they are always willing to help.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about the DairyNZ scholarship?
DairyNZ scholarships are open to not only those in their final year of secondary school, but also students already underway at university. My advice is don’t be afraid to apply in your first or even second year of study. The scholarship experience helps to put you outside your comfort zone, whether that be the semesterly interviews, networking evenings or school visits. Each of these experiences helps to develop your confidence during your course of study.
What’s been your lightbulb moment in life to date?
I will always recall being in my Year 11 agriculture class at Hamilton Boys High School with the old TV set on wheels sitting in the front of the room. Our teacher, Mr Steve Godsiff arrived with a video tape in hand. That tape was the 2012 Young Farmer of the Year which he had recorded the previous weekend. I recall the exciting challenges the contestants were put through and Michael Lilley coming out on top. From that day on, I wanted to find ways to test my skills outside the classroom and take every learning opportunity that the agri-sector provided.
Name two people who’ve been and continue to be your inspiration, and why.
Tim van der Molen, former dairy farmer and rural banker, and now National MP for Waikato. Tim’s been someone I’ve looked up to for a while now. He’s always got the time for a reply to a question and wants the best for his community and agriculture. He’s came through the Young Farmers pathway and now represents the farming sector in the Beehive. It’s crucial to have people like him involved in the sector and helping to shape its future.
I can never go past my parents as inspirations, in particular my mother Sue, who continues to be a great inspiration. Her ability to balance bringing up three boys with managing the finances of the family farm and an off-farm job – and still be involved in the local Ohaupo community – is humbling to see. She’s always had the time to push each of us growing up, but also be the first to provide support when things aren’t going to plan.
Why have you been and continue to be a part of the dairy sector in New Zealand?
There are very few jobs or careers that offer you the ability to build connection with your community, and, at the same time, consumers across the world. It’s humbling to know that every small win or extra hour on the job can have a real impact on my friends, family and dairy farming families across the country.
On farm, there is also that same feeling of accomplishment when you look back on a busy day. Every time you drive past that fence line, stack of bales or extension on the calf shed built last season, there’s a real kick too.
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