Cohuna dairy farmer John Keely was always happy to help local farming and football organisations, but never really considered himself leadership material.

However, three years after being sponsored by the Gardiner Dairy Foundation to complete his Nuffield scholarship, the recently elected United Dairyfarmers of Victoria (UDV) vice-president says it has changed his life.

John had never applied for a job and the thought of signing up for a Nuffield Scholarship and then writing a report was almost enough to put him off.

Now he says he probably wouldn’t have taken on the UDV role without the confidence and contacts gained from the scholarship.

“I’d like to think it made me a better farmer who’s better able to contribute to the dairy industry,” he said.

“I learned to question things a bit more; get more information and make a balanced decision. That’s really helped my role on the UDV. When you go to the next level, it becomes more complex and challenging, but at the same time it’s really rewarding.”

John has no political aspirations and will confine his contribution to the dairy industry and football through the Central Rivers board, but he now feels better equipped for these roles.

John is a fifth-generation dairy farmer who joined the family farm at the end of 1982 during what was considered the worst drought in history, though it’s now way down the order.

Milking more than 300 mostly Holstein cows, John had earlier considered applying for a Nuffield Scholarship but needed a topic to research.

“A bit later I was sitting on a tractor pushing up manure and thought there must be a better way to utilise this; that’s how the topic evolved.”

John liked the idea of travel and research but admitted report writing wasn’t one of his strengths until he came up with an innovative solution – taping relevant details on a Go-Pro and having notes transcribed and shared with the dairy farming community.

“I thought it would be a challenge and if I didn’t go, I was never going to be happy with myself,” he said.

The scholarship took John to Europe and United States where he witnessed many innovative waste systems and learnt how strict regulation inspires innovation.

Ultimately, John stuck with his waste management system but has become more strategic in its application, resulting in significant on-farm improvements.

However, the benefits of the 2016 scholarship went much deeper.

“I’ve now got a good idea of what’s going on in different countries and a myriad of contacts all over the world. The information you pick up is invaluable and challenges your thinking and your planning, but it also gives you confidence to get out there and stand up in front of people.”

John doubts he would have taken on the UDV vice-presidency without the Nuffield experience.

“It was probably the fact that I went through the application process and then did the program that gave me the confidence,” he said.

“I came straight from school to the family farm so never had to apply for a job. Each step of going through this process meant I gained a better understanding of things.

“When you sit on the outside, it’s very easy to have a simplistic view of the world and it definitely helped my leadership skills.”

John has been in his new role since December but has been on the UDV policy council since 2009.

At 53, John was one of the older Nuffield Scholars but he says it’s suitable for anyone.

“There’s a broad cross section of ages and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone; it’s well worth it.”

For John, it came down to good timing. “It was perfect. I had the idea and my son Harrison had come home to work on the farm and my Dad was still there which allowed me to do 16 weeks of travel.”

Buoyed by his experiences, John plans to continue farming and stay involved with the UDV and Central Rivers board.

“I’ve got no political aspirations outside the UDV and I love the farm and have got no desire to do anything else,” he said.

The Gardiner Dairy Foundation is encouraging aspiring Victorian dairy leaders to apply for its Nuffield Scholarship with applications now open for the program’s 2020 intake.

The Gardiner Dairy Foundation backs programs like Nuffield to invest in people, science and technology to support a vibrant dairy industry.

Applications for the 2020 Nuffield Scholarships close on Friday, June 14. For more information, visit