Masters student Jemma McDougall believes she hit the jackpot when Nick Sher came into her life to offer guidance

The 35 years that have passed since his university days have been good to Nick Sher (BAgrSc 1982). He bought a farm and established a paddock-to-plate Wagyu beef company that has become a national and international success story.

University of Melbourne alumnus Nick Sher (BAgrSc 1982)

Yet the 55-year-old still remembers how daunting it felt at the beginning when he traded the life of a student for that of a working man. It was the reason behind his decision to act as a mentor to a student under a pilot program launched last year by the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences in partnership with the Gardiner Dairy Foundation.

“I think it’s important to help people take the next step,” he explains. “It’s not always easy moving from university to the workforce.”

Unlike Nick, Jemma McDougall (BA 2014, GCertAgSci 2015, MAgrSc 2016) was born on a farm – on a property of more than 1,200 hectares called Wylandra, a 20-minute drive from Ararat. From the age of 11 she was running her own mob of sheep, so few were surprised later when she was dux in agriculture in her VCE year.

Yet most surprisingly, she decided to pursue an Arts degree at the University of Melbourne before rediscovering her passion for agriculture. She was completing her Masters in Agricultural Sciences when she decided to participate in the Faculty’s pilot mentoring program. She believes she hit the jackpot when Nick became her mentor.

“He has been absolutely fantastic,” she says. “I met with him coming into the last semester of my Masters and at a time when I felt very uncertain about getting a job.

“He was such a voice of reason. He just said, ‘let’s approach this logically and think about what it is you want to do’. Somehow he took the fear and anxiety out of the job- seeking process.”

What they shared was an interest in agribusiness. Nick had spent 10 years working in the field, including stints at the Rural Finance Commission and Pivot. But his heart was always set on developing his own cattle business.

With no farm and little money behind them, he and his wife, Vicki, established Beefcorp Australia, a vertically integrated company that embraces everything from seed stock to processing. The couple now live and work on a 280-hectare property at Ballan and also operate a 940-hectare property in the Tallangatta Valley. 

They were responsible for calving the first pure-bred Wagyu cattle in the country in 1992, and they pioneered the breeding of Wagyu x Holstein cattle in Australia in the mid-’90s. Their beef is now exported to 14 countries.

Nick believes the mentoring program is much more than a one-way street, and that the mentor can also gain from the experience. “I think it’s always good to be talking to bright young people and to hear about their ideas as well. It can give you a few more ideas for your own business. Sometimes your thinking can be narrowed by your years of experience.

Jemma McDougall with her mentor Nick Sher

“Mentoring is not that time consuming and it’s always a good idea to give something back.”

Jemma says she has always been interested in the niche, gourmet side of agriculture, which is why the fit with Beefcorp was so good.

When she was nervous before a recent interview with NAB Agribusiness, Nick was able to calm her. She has just secured her first job with the bank working as an Agribusiness Analyst in Shepparton.

“I cannot praise Nick enough. He is such a go-getter and his business is so successful and I found that so inspiring. It helped me to find the courage to step confidently into the working world.”

The mentoring initiative was developed in response to a recommendation from the Victorian Minister for Agriculture to combat an ageing farming workforce. Tim Roache (BAgr(Hons) 2004, BCom 2004), Business Manager of the Gardiner Dairy Foundation, says the program enables Masters students to further develop their knowledge, network and skills in agriculture.

“Programs like this will hopefully lead to more talent and more young professionals coming into the agricultural workforce,” he explains. “In the past there has been some difficulty in attracting and retaining young people in our sector, but there are plenty of fantastic career opportunities in agriculture.”

Associate Professor Ruth Nettle from the Faculty was the driving force behind the program.

“The Faculty was seeking additional ways to further prepare our graduates for the workforce,” she says. “We are grateful for the support of the Gardiner Dairy Foundation, as this enabled us to establish the program and improve our student’s engagement with the agriculture industry.”

She says the program has created wider benefits by “actively connecting our mentors, who are leaders in agriculture, with the Faculty’s current activities in education and research”.

Nick Sher insists that these are the very best of days to be in agriculture. “When I graduated from university in 1982, Australia was in the grip of a drought. It was a really difficult time. But that has changed now and there is a very strong vibe around agriculture. It’s a great time for graduates.”