There was not a Snapchat or a TikTok getting a look in at the Finley High School Ag Plot, in southern NSW, the day CARLY MARRIOTT dropped by.
Instead, the conversation was around sheep genetics, feeding rosters and cattle handling techniques.
The magicians behind this gobsmacking scene are Gary Webb and Robyn O’Leary, the agricultural educators who for 35 years have been the consistent driving force behind Finley High School’s success in agricultural studies and animal showing.
That success was etched into the history books recently, with the Finley High School show team scooping up Interbreed Champion Ram at the 2022 Melbourne Royal Show sheep competition.
The team also came home with Champion Carcase, Reserve Senior Champion Shorthorn Bull and Junior Intermediate Champion Handler ribbons.
But according to those at the helm, ribbons and industry prestige are not the main motivators behind this program — student wellbeing is.
Principal Jeff Ward, the son of a Blighty dairy farmer, has a soft spot for agriculture and is a big supporter of the learning that happens outside the classroom.
“Without Gary and Robyn, the Ag Plot would fall apart. Good schools evolve through committed teachers,” Jeff said, as students ranging from Year 7 to Year 12 began expertly moving cattle and sheep around the yards.
Of the 340 students who attend Finley High School, one third of them are undertaking some sort of agricultural study; whether that is Agriculture in Year 8 to Year 12, Primary Industries in Year 11 and 12, or Agri Foods.
The show team, involving 50 students, travels to the Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra shows and, unsurprisingly, there are strict criteria to join the team.
“We turn kids away if their behaviour needs to improve. You need to work hard to be accepted,” Robyn said.
Gordon Close, the Ag Plot assistant, is responsible for animal welfare across the nine-hectare block and takes great pride in seeing students thrive in a farm setting, regardless of whether they are from town or off farms.
“In my 15 years in the job I have seen huge improvement in a number of kids because of their involvement in ag,” Gordon said.
“They might have terrible trouble in class, but they are centred at the Ag Plot. The life skills they learn here builds confidence and self-worth.
“It’s more than feeding sheep — they learn teamwork, leadership and responsibility.”
Talking to the diverse mix of students gives you hope that the future for agriculture in the southern Riverina is bright.
The students handle a mixture of Poll Dorset (bred from the Frost family’s ‘Hillden’ stud) and French Composite cows as they discuss what they love about farming at school — Year 8 girls with a passion for showing sheep, Year 9 boys who are considering careers in agronomy and the daughters of farmers who are hell-bent on going to university to study agriculture then heading home to take over the farm.
Year 12 student Riley Kleinschmidt sees the foundational benefit of learning through agriculture.
“The use of technology in agriculture is a transferable skill you can take into any industry or occupation,” Riley said.
The students learn about electronic identification, artificial insemination, agronomic trials and veterinary sciences.
There is little wonder why staff agree there is a difference in the students that study ag compared to those who do not.
Gary said the local community played a pivotal role in the sustainability of the Ag Plot.
“I have never rung a farmer for a favour and had them say no to anything.”
Local farmers invite students to mark lambs, undertake farm case studies and often donate hay, shearing, livestock and expertise for the betterment of the Ag Plot.
The Finley High students are doing their fair share of heavy lifting when it comes to giving back to the community, too.
During the 2018-19 drought, the students were competing at the Melbourne Royal Show when they started an impromptu fundraiser to ‘save our cows’.
A gold coin donation to pat a calf earned them $3000. However, the real win was the students’ ability to explain the drought and water policy issues to the public.
The young water ambassadors spent the day educating crowds of people about the major impacts of water policy on their region and industry, bridging the urban-rural divide one show-goer at a time.