Training key part of success for Otago Southland Young Farmer of the Year

23 April 2024

Award-winning Southland farmer Zac Thomas is urging others to take up training, saying it’s the best way to prepare for a career leading to farm ownership and business success.

In early 2024, Zac won the Otago Southland final for FMG Young Farmer of the Year and is preparing for the national finals in Hamilton in July.

Zac farms at Charlton, between Gore and Mataura, on a 370ha family farm running 2500 ewes, 80 head of beef fattening cattle and about 100ha of cereal crops – something outsiders from Southland might not be so familiar with.

“It’s a great cereal cropping area. We grow some of the best oats in the world in Southland, a lot of people tell us.”

After leaving school, Zac joined the Air Force for three years as a safety and surface technician at Blenheim and Whenuapai, working on air crew survival and safety gear. “We did a lot of sewing work, packing and repairing parachutes, and aircraft finishing like painting, refinishing and decals.”

He says the call of the farm brought him home and soon afterwards he started training with Primary ITO as he got back into the swing of farming.

Unlike employees at other farms, on a family-owned farm, Zac didn’t have a strict job title starting out, but was encouraged to enrol and learn by his family. “It was encouraged and they’ve seen the value come through.”

After progressing through Level 3 and 4 certificates he took a bit of time off before he and wife Laura bought a small block, which for now he runs separately from the bigger family operation. That was the right time to enrol in a New Zealand Diploma in Primary Industry Business Management, which he says has been a good mix of theory and practical.

Like many learners spoken to by Primary ITO, Zac found the opportunity to meet colleagues from different workplaces just as important as the core teaching and learning.

“The best thing I learned wasn’t just in the curriculum, but the networking and talking with people in the class. Especially when you get into the Level 5 diploma, everybody’s there because they want to be there, not because they have to be. So being with other people with the same mindset, where you get to talk and bounce ideas off each other, is really useful.”

Primary ITO Training Adviser Rebecca Dawkins is one of several Primary ITO staff who’ve supported Zac through his training, although she’s come in as his latest formal training has finished. She says Zac’s a great example for aspiring farmers.

Zac Thomas at the Otago Southland Young Farmer of the Year final. Photo credit NZ Young Farmers.

“He began with Primary ITO introductory programmes as he started his farming career and has continued learning as his career has progressed. The New Zealand Diploma in Primary Industry Business Management adds fantastic tools to his toolkit.

“These are things like evaluating a farming business across key areas, strategic planning, workplace compliance, environmental sustainability and building the skills to make timely decisions to drive profitability, which will help to set him up for whatever the future holds in farming for him, whether that’s senior leadership or farm ownership.

Photo credit: NZ Young Farmers.

“We find that people like Zac who enrol in the diploma with Primary ITO have recognised that it offers a pathway to develop the knowledge and skills that they are wanting to gain to equip them to be taking the next step in their careers.

Winning the Otago Southland Young Farmer of the Year at his third attempt was a thrill for Zac. “The learning I’ve done through Primary ITO helped give me a great base and grounding, so I have to give Primary ITO some credit!”

Between now and July, Zac is learning some new skills and preparing for the national finals for the FMG Young Farmer of the Year.

“There’s a lot of reading on things I don’t know much about, doing a lot of talking with friends who’ve been through it, and a few practical elements to brush up on. Also technology is more and more a part of everyday life in farming.”

At Charlton, it remains very much a family farm. As he spoke to Primary ITO, Zac’s grandfather was driving the header and his cousin was away with another chaser bin. “We all pitch in and help out when we’re needed and get involved in the things that interest us. We work together well as a family and that’s been a strength of ours.”

Zac’s great-grandfather bought the original 100 acres and his grandfather and grandmother have added to it. Zac and Laura, who’s a high school teacher in Gore, one day plan to farm on their own, but for now, with their first child on the way, life’s good on the family farm in Charlton.

He’s encouraging other farmers to enrol in training. “As much as farmers are feeling the pinch, these things come in cycles, and there’s a real future in it or I wouldn’t be doing it. As young people coming into it, we have to have that long-term vision to know things will come and go. The biggest thing you can do is preparation, be ready, and part of that is learning.”

To learn more about the New Zealand Diploma in Primary Industry Business Management click here.