22 Oct 2023

School leavers grow into hardy shepherds on high-country cadet farm

From Country Life, 9:38 am on 22 October 2023
Coleridge Downs

The view up the Rakaia Gorge from a paddock at Coleridge Downs Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

Coleridge Downs overlooks the Rakaia Gorge on the northern side of the mighty river, and the scenery around the station's rolling hills is spectacular. 

Mount Hutt, Peak Hill and the Benmore Range are constant reminders of the Southern Alps and the harsh environment it holds.

Cosmo Kentish-Barnes is there to find out about a farm cadetship programme that turns fresh-faced school leavers into hardy, no-nonsense shepherds.

Coleridge Downs

Jack Innes at the on-farm accommodation unit for the cadets Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

He first meets Jack Innes, a second-year cadet who was just 17 years old when he arrived. But despite his age, Innes says it was easy to settle into the new environment. 

"Everyone was pretty friendly so you fit in pretty quick."

Innes was given a working dog pup when he arrived. Now he has three. 

"And I'm planning on buying another broken-in heading dog at the end of this year." 

Coleridge Downs offers four cadet placements each year, for a two-year cadetship. 

Practical training is provided through working alongside senior staff in the day-to-day management of sheep, beef and deer farms.

In total, across the four stations are 9000 hectares running 45,000 stock units.

Coleridge Downs

Bringing lambs in for tailing Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

Coleridge Downs

General manager Tony Plunkett Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

General manager Tony Plunkett says the cadetship programme has been running for nine years, but it all began with his own sons. 

"We were looking around for a training program for them and just found that there wasn't a lot out there."

By pure coincidence, a good friend was pushing to start a programme in the South Island. And the rest is history.

The four cadets for next year's taking have been picked out of 30 that applied, Plunkett says.

"We probably see the other side of the industry. We get a bit sick of hearing about no young people coming into the industry and yet we've got this cadet thing going.

"We've got 30 kids apply for four. Of that, we could easily take 20 of them who all want to get into agriculture. They just need the opportunity to start."

Coleridge Downs

Second year cadets Charlie Coakley and Louie O'Donnell Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

Coleridge Downs

First year cadet Lucy Moffatt Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

Further up the gorge, first-year cadet Lucy Moffatt is checking on a mob of sheep.

Moffat said she had always wanted to work in the agricultural industry but did not want to head to university straight out of school. 

"School wasn't really what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something a lot more practical and hands-on, and we're still getting a lot of learning.

"I'd love to go shepherding down south next."

The learning is centred around the farming calendar, as training manager Kristen O'Callaghan explained.

"[Right now] we'll be working really hard on everything to do with lambing and calving and feeding at the moment. 

"It gets a bit too busy through summer so we don't do quite so much classwork and then come next autumn-winter, we do a lot of classwork through those times."

Coleridge Downs

Training manager Kristen O'Callaghan in the farm-based classroom Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

O'Callaghan admitted the students got stroppy if they have not had a class in a while. 

However, class time was also a good opportunity for her to check on the students' welfare. 

"A massive part of it is pastoral care. They just can't succeed unless they are looked after.

"A lot of them are 17 when they arrive. It's not always smooth sailing. It's always fun for the first week. And then by the end of a couple of months in the hot, dry summer, there's usually a few tears for most of them."

Coleridge Downs

Alexa Gunson comes from Hawkes Bay Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

O'Callaghan said that was her job as 'Camp Mother' to put a bit of care around them and get the students going again.

She also echoes the sentiments of Plunkett: "There's so many kids out there that are keen and just want that start and it's so hard to get that good start without them being soured."

O'Callaghan believes other farmers need to be prepared to put in time to train and support young workers - and then there might not be such a shortage of workers.

Coleridge Downs

First year cadet Jack Hamilton Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

Coleridge Downs

Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

Coleridge Downs

Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

Coleridge Downs

Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

Coleridge Downs

Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes