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Initiative seeks to connect people, land

Initiative seeks to connect people, land

Growing up as the sixth generation on a dairy farm near Auckland, Aimee Blake largely took her rural roots for granted.

It was not until she was into her tertiary studies that she discovered how disconnected people were from food systems. Now she is on a mission to connect people back to the land.

Primary industries were much more than just farming; there were myriad opportunities to have a meaningful career, she said.

And that was how Ms Blake ended up as co-founder of Girls Who Grow which was now on a mission to grow the next generation of female change-makers, leaders and environmental guardians in agriculture.

Born out of Creative HQ’s Govtech accelerator programme in 2022, the purpose was to connect youth in secondary school back to the land and create a safe, welcoming community for young women to explore agriculture.

By the time Ms Blake finished her own secondary schooling in Auckland, she was so sick of the city’s traffic that she decided to head to the University of Otago to study.

She had an interest in business and entrepreneurship from watching her own family’s operation — her father grows and exports onions — and she completed a commerce degree in marketing and accounting.

While there, she got involved in a FMCG futures programme and the insights she gained gave her first-hand knowledge of how disconnected people were to the food system.

Some young people had no idea what agriculture was, or they had a really confused perception of it, and she felt there was no clear career narrative for young people to enter the industry.

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Becoming sick in 2020, she realised that people could not be healthy while the planet was sick and she started volunteering with Generation Zero.

Driven by a desire to solve some complex challenges, she was a strong believer that people could heal and regenerate themselves and the planet through their food systems.

At Lincoln University, where she was completing her second masters degree — about sustainable land-use transformation — she joined Future Farmers New Zealand.

That organisation, which she co-chairs with Finn Ross, from Lake Hawea Station, was launched by the pair at the E Tipu IFAMA World Conference in Christchurch last week.

The sister programme was Girls Who Grow which Ms Blake co-founded with Catherine van der Meulen, whose background was far removed from the land. She grew up in Sydney, in the world of fast fashion, after her father founded youth fashion brand Supre.

Ms van der Meulen moved to the Awatere Valley in Marlborough in 2019 for a change of pace. Surrounded by generations of farming families, she started to learn more about life on the land.

She hosted an online gathering of 350 farmers and industry leaders, alongside Toitū Envirocare, and later engaged in conversations with entrepreneurial women and leaders throughout the country about what could be activated to engage more young women to be part of the solution to climate action.

She met Ms Blake and Girls who Grow was born. In-school pilot workshops were launched at Wakatipu High School, Dunstan High School and Mount Aspiring College earlier this year and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, Ms Blake said.

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About 98% of those attending said they wanted to know more and would consider a future in the industry. Among the participants was Harriet Sargood-Ross, a year 12 pupil at Mount Aspiring College.

Harriet (16), who lives on family-owned vineyard Rippon, was studying level two agriculture this year.

Harriet said the appeal of Girls Who Grow was the women in the group.

“Because I know a lot about how men do mainly labouring jobs but a lot of the staff at Rippon, strong women which which is amazing to look at. My two aunts and my mother and grandmother worked at Rippon and I would sometimes help pick grapes and do some pigeage [a wine-making technique] which is really fun”, she said.

So when she got an email about Girls Who Grow, it got her thinking that it might be something she should attend as she had always always loved things to do with nature and the outdoors.

Ms Blake said there was an understanding that not all youth wanted to get into agriculture so the purpose was also to improve ecological literacy and connect people back to food systems.

The second stage of the programme was an on-farm one-day experience for young women while the third stage was a three-day immersion experience.

Ms Blake said there was potential to scale up the programme and run it throughout New Zealand.

Long-term, it was hoped to set up some of the girls with mentors.

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  • June 25, 2023