Farming Opinion: Finding our future farmers by Easton and Otley College principal David Lawrence

DAVID LAWRENCE OBE, the principal of the newly-merged Easton and Otley College, discusses the challenges the agricultural industry faces in finding its future workforce

In the current economic climate of rising unemployment it seems strange to talk of a crisis in finding the future workforce for the agricultural industry but that is the current challenge.

Much of the current agricultural workforce is aged over 50 and the rate of retirement is a major challenge. Another key issue the industry faces is the pace of technological change, where the industry used to rely heavily on craft skills it is now a very high tech industry with individuals using very expensive technological equipment and often operating on their own making very substantial decisions.

To feed an expanding world population, we need to at least double food production by 2050, this creates a very exciting future in an industry with good levels of security, varied and responsible work and good salary levels.

So why are we not recruiting well to the industry? The main reasons I feel are to do with negative perceptions about low wage, low skill work. These are difficult perceptions to overcome, particularly in today’s world where few individuals have a direct connection with the farming industry compared to say 50 years ago.

We have been working with a variety of farming bodies and local agricultural charities, the Felix Thornley Agricultural Trust, Chadacre Agricultural Trust and the Suffolk Agricultural Association to try and address the understanding of our industry. Events such as the annual School Farm Fair, Food and Farming Student Day and College Open Days all help but these are not enough on its own.

As a college we have been delivering vocational work with schools for a long time, usually involving a day a week of industry skill related vocational courses where the school student comes to the college and this does make a difference - but from a schools perspective this actually has to be fitted into a packed curriculum, it has to contribute to league table achievement and has to be funded - recent changes to the rules on league tables have made this very much harder.

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One of the key drivers for the merger of Easton and Otley Colleges was to work more effectively across Suffolk and Norfolk on this issue and we and our many partners are very committed to further developing our schools related activity. We are already committed to providing additional agricultural resources at Otley so we are able to host a much wider range of farm visits but it goes far wider than this. A key focus of our attention will be how we can use our industry as case studies or as a theme within other mainstream curriculum subjects.

The key aim, however, remains the same, to increase individual understanding of the agricultural industry so they can make more informed decisions about what they eat, what is a fair price and hopefully consider our positive and dynamic industry as a career choice.

We have to get this right – if we don’t then we will all go hungry!

David Lawrence OBE