Otiwhiti Station

August 2017

Combining academic and practical farm skills at Otiwhiti Station in Manawatu

Otiwhiti Station Land Based Training Agricultural School is a joint venture between the Duncan family (owners of 2600 hectare Otiwhiti Station 16km from Hunterville) and accredited agriculture education provider, Land Based Training (LBT). Here, school-leavers with a passion for farming learn practical skills alongside theory. As a result the district is being revitalised by these young people, with many staying on after they graduate. The residential school is in its eleventh year of teaching practical farming skills alongside theory. 

Otiwhiti Station has a long history of philanthropy. Charlie’s grandparents, Sir Thomas and Lady Duncan, used profits from farming to fund a private hospital specialising in the treatment of polio. After polio immunisation became widely available, their Trust diverted support to rehabilitating accident victims. 

Whanganui-based Land Based Training also runs two other training joint ventures. These are with Atihau-Whanganui Incorporation (AWHI) at Ngā Mokai Marae near Ohakune, and Te Rua o Te Moko, an amalgam of four Maori trusts teaching skills on multi-ownership land in Taranaki amalgamated into a single dairy farm. LBT is also establishing a Beef Training Initiative in Botswana, under contract to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. 

Charlie Duncan of Otiwhiti Station first talked to Whanganui-based Land Based Training owner Rob Gollan about the idea of setting up a farm training school on his family’s property on December 12, 2006. Two months later Otiwhiti Station Land Based Training Agricultural School welcomed its first students. 

Charlie’s motivation was his growing frustration at employing a succession of 17 and 18-year-old shepherds with smart CVs and agriculture credits, but no practical skills. That experience was being repeated around a community also suffering from a lack of young people. Today Otiwhiti Station is home to Charlie and Jo Duncan and their four children along with 11 school-leavers. It employs seven fulltime staff, including a cook, all mentors and teachers as well as farm workers. 

The school’s main focus is teaching five practical skills considered essential for young farmers. They are: shearing 80-100 sheep per day, fencing, butchery, riding a horse and training a working farm dog. It also offers the credits needed to attain a New Zealand certificate in Agriculture level 3. Second year students complete level 4 while working off-site and those that stay in the district pass on what they have learned to the new first year students. 

Charlie and Rob have spent a lot of time and care ensuring that Otiwhiti meets Tertiary Education Corporation commitments by delivering the required hours of teaching and ensuring accurate records are kept of students’ experience. 

A major effort has also been made to structure the enterprise correctly. A not-for-profit charitable company oversees the facilities that are rented to Otiwhiti Agricultural Training School – responsible for day-to-day student management – and also accepts donations or sponsorship. Transactions with the Duncan Land Company (such as charging for power used) and Land Based Limited (paying a tutor) are clearly identified. 

Charlie says it’s been a steep learning curve to understand the responsibilities of offering education, as well using the correct terminology. Their greatest frustration has been dealing with the reality that the success of any farm-training provider tends to be based on book-based learning (which is relatively easy to assess). Whereas, Charlie points out that practical skills were harder to measure, yet it was the combination of the two that prospective employers value. 

Otiwhiti Station carries 27,000 stock units on its 2600ha, that are bred and finished on three separate hill country blocks that make up the property, plus around 500ha of leased flatland. 

Students live on-site, working long hours four days a week alongside farm staff and tutors through a farming year. On top of the five “key” farming skills they experience; mustering, drafting, dagging, crutching, docking, drenching, vaccinating and weighing stock. As well, pasture and stock management, basic tractor work, shifting break-fences and weed control are all part of the practical curriculum. Rosters also cover kitchen duty, maintaining grounds, feeding dogs, hens and pigs and milking a house cow. 

Every student gets a heading dog to train that is (if all going well) worth $4000-$5000 by the end of the course. Towards the end of the course they also take on a trained huntaway. 

This tech-savvy generation enjoys learning to use the station’s FarmIQ software, with daily and weekly timetables and tasks sent to their cellphones. Records of tasks completed are kept the old-fashioned way, in farm diaries, and transferred to records of learning. 

Students are learning from efforts being made to protect the property from erosion during extreme weather events. Otiwhiti Station is part of the Horizons’ Sustainable Land Use Initiative (SLUI), developed after the devastating February 2004 storm, which led to the loss of 200 million tons from the hills. Students are helping raise and plant popular poles grown in the station’s own nursery. 

With so many inexperienced young people on the farm, safety is paramount. Everyone riding a motorbike must wear a helmet, health and safety is covered in management meeting every month, vehicles are washed then checked every week and documented systems cover safe use of tractors, agrichemicals and chainsaws, for example. 

A day a week is spent in the converted old Otairi Primary School, covering paper-based requirements for level 3 passes towards a New Zealand Certificate in Agriculture with a tutor. They following year, students complete level 4 while working off-site. 

Close to 20 Otiwhiti past graduates have remained around the Hunterville area, including the manager of a neighbouring property and two that are working with local shearing contractors. There is now no problem finding a skilled shepherd or farm worker in the district, says Charlie. Local rugby, squash and bowls clubs are all booming, the school has its own Young Farmers chapter and shepherds’ dog trials were recently revived. 

Graduates are earning about the same as young people in town with comparable skills, especially with perks like a house plus phone and vet bills thrown in, says Rob. In addition, the Otiwhiti course is part of a pathway towards further qualifications with a few completing level 5 of a Diploma in Agriculture while working. Anyone who went on to university could usually complete an agricultural science degree in three years, and should have dogs and skills to sell to help fund their studies. 

Charlie recalls one graduate, for example, who shore sheep all summer making $25,000 towards paying for his university study. 

Rob admits when Charlie first approached him with the idea of running a joint venture school he knew it would be challenging incorporating NZQA training standards into a commercial business and having trainees on-site 24/7. Lessons quickly learned included that productivity benefits when one to two trainees working alongside farm staff. Make that six, and efficiency suffers. 

One disappointment has been increased turnover of farm staff, since the School opened.“It takes a special person to work with young people with no experience,” says Charlie. “Productivity and training don’t go together, for example we’ve been shearing sheep for 4-5 weeks now to make sure everyone gets experience with a hand-piece.” 

When Otiwhiti opened, it took all students that applied, says Rob. But as the school’s reputation has grown it has become more selective, last year attracting 30 applications, for 12 places. Many students are city-raised, and about 20 per cent are women but what all have in common is a burning desire to make a career in farming. 

Course fees are $15,000 including $9000 board plus they need to buy a heading pup for $300-$400 and a huntaway for $3000-$5000. StudyLink allowances and loans are available to anyone eligible. Students are paid an allowance of $80 per week while they are here. No drugs or alcohol are allowed on-site. 

“Students eat through most of their board,” laughs Rob. Each year they consume about 130 sheep, 3-4 cattle beasts, killed and prepared by the station’s fulltime butcher and students.

Costs such as feeding a couple of dozen dogs and running a fleet of motorbikes outstrips income by a considerable figure, says Charlie. A future challenge was making training more affordable and bringing the business to break-even by attracting sponsorship.

Beef + Lamb New Zealand was already on board, helping pay for an effluent treatment and collection system that was installed when an accommodation block from the now closed Flock House agricultural school was moved here in 2014. Beef and Lamb NZ, Hunterville Vet Club and Farmers Mutual Group (FMG) have also pledged on an ongoing basis. They are also in discussion with a major meat processor, Fertiliser Company and Bank at the moment. Farmers are being offered the option of sponsoring a student in return for having first pick of graduates, at the end of the year. These are all ways we are looking at to further fund the school, to make it more affordable for everyone.