Australian agriculture is set to become a $100 billion industry by 2030 and education will be critical to achieving that.
Former farmer and councillor Jo Marshall has started a $38 million project to help entice the next generation into agriculture and show consumers where their food and fibre comes from.
She is behind the proposed Australian Agricultural Centre (AAC), dubbed the ‘Questacon of agriculture’, where people will be able to learn about farming on a property situated between Crookwell and Goulburn.
If funded, the AAC is predicted to attract 80,504 school students and tourists, and employ up to 40 full-time staff per year, contributing more than $11 million to the regional economy.
A $57,538 NSW Community Building Partnership grant was recently awarded to the AAC to start building onsite accommodation for up to 200 students plus teachers.
“What we are doing is repurposing the old shearers’ quarters so it is an authentic experience for students when they come to stay at the AAC,” said Ms Marshall.
The accommodation facilities would mean students an hour away at Yass High School could enjoy a longer experience at the AAC, said principal Linda Langton.
“It’s a shortened experience for the students if we have to transport them there at the beginning of the day and get them back in time for buses home,” she said. “Having accommodation to visit the AAC for two days would be fantastic.”
The AAC will apply for capital grant funding at the end of this year and hopes to start major construction works by the end of 2022.
Inside the AAC will be fun and interactive hands-on farming experiences, a demonstrative farm, formal learning and conference rooms, and a paddock-to-plate restaurant.
“Employment opportunities in agriculture weren’t as vast when I left school as they are now,” said Ms Marshall.
“There needs to be a greater appreciation of where our food and fibre come from and what’s involved in the production. The broader population does not understand this and, therefore, the value doesn’t come back to the producer.
“A better narrative needs to be constructed around agriculture and careers in agriculture to excite the next generation. And the next generation doesn’t have to be teenagers; they could be 20 or 30-year-olds looking for different opportunities.”
The AAC will develop educational programs aligned with the school curriculum.
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A sign of things to come is the AAC’s STEM Connect program during the 2020 National Science Week (15-23 August) which already has more than 100 schools from every Australian state registered as interested.
“The program focuses on science in agriculture,” said Ms Marshall. “The initial idea was to have a hands-on program, however because of COVID-19 we’ve had to think outside the box.
“School students will enter a virtual reality world and enrol on a quest. They will have the chance to watch videos from the Soil Research Centre [Soil CRC], University of New England Poultry Hub, Cotton Australia, Meat and Livestock Australia, Canberra Institute of Technology, South East Local Land Services and Charlie Arnott from The Regenerative Journey [podcast].
“A lot of schools are required to teach agriculture to years 7 to 8, and STEM has become a major focus for schools. Teachers are being asked to teach this new curriculum but haven’t had much time for teacher development so we will assist them with this content.”
At Crookwell High School, agriculture teacher Jacqui McIntosh sees students outside of agriculture also benefiting from the AAC.
“I see the centre as a potential resource for subjects including food technology, hospitality, geography and maybe history, depending on the set-up,” she said. “The AAC could also cater for primary school students as there are basic agriculture units in their syllabus.”
The 40 full-time employment opportunities at the AAC won’t only be for young people but also for existing farmers in the area who can educate visitors. There will also be opportunities for a farm manager, tour guides, hospitality staff and roles in administration, tourism, marketing and finance, among others.
The AAC could also provide work experience for local students.
Crookwell mother Kimberley McIntosh is excited her three daughters could have access to jobs in agriculture close to home.
“Growing up, I wanted to be a farmer but all that was available were wool classing courses or shed work,” she said. “If you wanted more, you had to move away to study, which meant I would have had to leave our family farm. That couldn’t happen so I signed up to childcare at TAFE and studied while working on our farm.
“My girls will hopefully have the opportunity to follow their interests in agriculture now that this agricultural centre will be so close to the family farm.”