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Source: University of Otago

It’s one of those splendid days that often coincides with end of year exams, when the rhododendrons are rowdy in display and the warmth of spring is omnipresent.
Claire Booker had just sat the final exam for her undergraduate degree and that afternoon she’d take SH1 north to her family’s farm in Kekerengu, north of Kaikoura, for the summer.
She is one of the first small cohort of students to complete the Agricultural Innovation programme that started in 2020 as a new major within the Bachelor of Applied Science degree.
Claire graduates with her degree this weekend, and says she feels incredibly proud and a huge sense of accomplishment for the work completed over the past three years.
“Being one of the first Agricultural Innovation graduates is really special, and I am excited to follow the course as it progresses into the future.”
Claire says it feels “pretty surreal” to be finished, but with her mind now on the future, she’s looking forward to starting on Silver Fern Farms’ graduate programme in January.
Her use of the word ‘surreal’ however, could equally apply to Claire’s university experience over the last three years, which has been anything but normal – she represents the generation of students whose study years have been shaped and rocked about by COVID-19.
“It all turned to chaos pretty quickly,” Claire says, recalling the first lockdown at the start of her studies, when she ended up staying at home on the farm for an extended period in the move to online learning and exams.
“Online learning was very different to what anyone had expected going into a university degree, but it became the new normal quickly.
“I think our generation has grown pretty resilient to change, and the new ways of learning. The new approaches and technologies that we’ve all gotten used to will hopefully be helpful moving into the working world.”

“Online learning was very different to what anyone had expected going into a university degree, but it became the new normal quickly.” – Claire Booker

This enforced time at home did come with a bonus for Claire, as she could help on the family farm during busy periods, as well as study and hold down a part-time job at a local café when the lockdown period ended.
Claire does consider a potential downside of this period was missing out a little on the social experience that university years are known for. However, she laughs when considering aloud that her “grades probably benefited from that.”
It was the small community of staff and students associated with the new Agricultural Innovation programme however, that Claire reflects made her university studies memorable.
“The lecturers adjusted quickly to online learning, and they were all incredibly responsive and accommodating.
“Because the programme is so broad, and includes lecturers from lots of backgrounds, online teaching also meant we could hear from lecturers around the country and even overseas.”
She cites an example of lecturer Tom Maxwell based in Denmark, who filmed a local farmer’s soil practices to share online.
“My degree and the different lecturers have definitely altered how I view soil and the agricultural system. There is so much going on under the surface that we don’t see, as well as different management practices happening that I haven’t seen from my own experience.”
Maybe it’s an upbringing of practical farm life that helps build resilience, but Claire didn’t let the challenges of the last three years hold her back from making the most of her time at Otago, which included joining the committee of the local Dunedin Young Farmers Club.
Professor of Agricultural Innovation Craig Bunt says classes explore how science and knowledge can better support agriculture.
“As I look around the classroom, I see the next generation of leaders who will take this into all sectors – on farms, in corporate offices, NGOs, and communities.”
“I’m really excited to follow the progress of Claire and her inspiring cohort as they now launch their careers in this industry that’s full of exciting possibilities and opportunities.”
With her mind now firmly focused on the future, Claire says she’s excited to be starting at Silver Fern Farms in January, where she’ll begin in sustainability and risk, and then move across other placements in the company over the next three years.
“People are so interested to hear about the Agricultural Innovation programme as it’s new and has a real point of difference compared to other agriculture courses available.
“I hope that in a few years I won’t have to keep explaining what the course is. I think it is going to keep growing and developing and become a course that everyone knows about.”- Kōrero by Guy Frederick (Sciences communications advisor)