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Coming Home: Reflecting on a Semester Abroad in New Zealand

Guest Article: Mark Sullivan, ACES Study Abroad in New Zealand Spring 2013

As I am finishing up my semester abroad in New Zealand, I have recently spent some time, mostly while procrastinating from studying, to look back at the experiences I have had here. Every time I look back I remember another adventure, or another person I have met along the way and the memories I have with them. One thing that almost all of these adventures and memories have in common is agriculture. I have travelled between farms, studied at university, and of course been on a couple road trips to see the sights of this beautiful country. In that time I have met numerous people who share the same love of agriculture as I do, and even a few who might love it a little more.

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When I first found out I was going to be able to come to New Zealand my first thought was “where is it?” For those of you that don’t know it is approximately 8,000 miles from Rushville IL, and right off the coast of Australia. Although I didn’t know where it was when I started this adventure I can tell you now that I will never forget it. What made my study abroad special wasn’t just my time at school, but also the experience I gained before I started school. I had the opportunity to come here with a group of 17 students and our advisor to study horticultural exports from New Zealand. We spent 2 weeks sleeping in hostels, riding busses, planes, and ferries, all while getting to know each other and this country, sometimes better than we wanted to. In that time we visited agricultural operations that covered everything including cherries, grapes, peaches, pears, apples, onions, potatoes, kiwis, and many more. In addition to the actual operations we were able to visit with government officials in the nation’s capital and discuss issues that they face in agriculture. What I was consistently amazed at was that every place we visited, every person we talked to shared a similar love for agriculture.

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After the first two weeks I said goodbye to my 17 new friends and moved onto my next adventure. I flew to Christchurch and met up with my new “family” for the next month. I was set to spend the next month living on a family dairy operation. After my first few days of getting adjusted and meeting my new family, I started to spend some time doing odd jobs around the farm, some tractor work, helping move the cows, getting to know the irrigations systems, and before I knew it I felt like I was home. Of course it helped that I got to come home to some pretty amazing home cooked meals every night, but the farm was where I truly felt at home, even though I was 8,000 miles from my real home. In the next couple of weeks my new parents made some calls and lined up opportunities for me to work with a variety of other farmers. I spent a few days helping with a wheat harvest on a hill country farm surrounded by sheep, cattle, and deer, then moved to a cropping farm where I ran a catch cart for rye grass harvest. I even spent 3 days with a farmer that also owns/operates the only precision agriculture business in New Zealand where I got to see much of the same technology I enjoy working with back home, used in ways I had never imagined. Among all of the farms I visited I experienced dairying, cleaning bins, cropping over 8 different crops, riding in combines, and my favourite, driving tractors. But among all of these experiences the most important thing I gained, was the opportunity to sit down with other families to dinner every night. The stories and cultural experience I gained from that was greater than I could have ever gained in a classroom. I must say this was my favourite chapter, but I wasn’t done yet.

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For my final chapter I moved into a hall (dorm room) at Lincoln University near Christchurch NZ. Upon my arrival I knew nobody, the only connection I had was a student I had met at one of the farms, and a few other University of Illinois students whom I had never met other than Facebook. After the first 2 weeks I had met more friends than I could keep track of. Other Americans, Norwegians, English, Kiwis (New Zealanders) and others. I partnered with a few of my new friends and bought a car (beautiful Subaru station wagon) and have spent the last 4 months studying a little, going to a few classes, and traveling too much. During our adventures we saw location shoots from Narnia, Lord of the Rings, and a few others. We travelled some of the windiest, scariest, coolest roads I’ve ever been on, and saw many of the most beautiful sites I could’ve ever imagined.  On top of our independent travels we were kept busy some of the time with class field trips. Two of the classes I was in had organized, hands on experience field trips throughout the semester. We travelled to see dairy, sheep, beef, forestry, vineyards, orchards, wineries, etc., etc. Again, agriculture gave me a connection to home.

During all of my time here the one thing that stands out the most to me is the love of the land that you see on every operation you visit. Now, coming from a farm, and having a mother that has an obsession with native plants, and forestry, I was raised with what I consider an “above average” love of the land. But what I have experienced here is essentially a whole new level. I have consistently seen a desire among farmers to keep their farm not only productive and profitable, but also sustainable, clean, and beneficial to the country around it. Farmers giving up pasture and water access to livestock so they can put grass strips along rivers and creek beds to keep the water cleaner. Operations using crop rotations that take 10-12 years with 8 different crops to keep the soil healthy and productive. Although New Zealand may have a thing or two to learn from us about internet access and cell phone coverage, I think we have just as much to learn from them. These six months have given me the opportunity to sit back and take an outside view of what is possible in farming. Not just new technology and bigger equipment, but using old ideas combined with the new to maximize what we have at our disposal. This is an experience I could never have learned in a classroom, and especially not without taking the leap to travel to another country and immerse myself in another way of life.

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