East Anglia: Cultivating the next generation of farmers

Easton and Otley College livestock students with 7-week-old lambs, and the Highland Cattle. From lef

Easton and Otley College livestock students with 7-week-old lambs, and the Highland Cattle. From left, Laura Claxton, 17; Ben Coe, 18; Dudley Bowes, 19; and Leah Catchpole, 17. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2013

A new breed of trained and motivated agricultural workers is urgently needed to meet future food production challenges. But how can the industry attract that next generation of farmers? Rural affairs correspondent CHRIS HILL reports.

Easton and Otley College livestock students round up some ewes and lambs. From left, Dudley Bowes,

Easton and Otley College livestock students round up some ewes and lambs. From left, Dudley Bowes, 19; Leah Catchpole, 17; Laura Claxton, 17; and Ben Coe, 18. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2013

Farming has evolved immeasurably over the last decades – and the pace of change is not likely to slow any time soon.

Easton and Otley College livestock students round up some ewes and lambs. From left, Dudley Bowes,

Easton and Otley College livestock students round up some ewes and lambs. From left, Dudley Bowes, 19; Leah Catchpole, 17; and Ben Coe, 18; and Laura Claxton, 17. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2013

The essential challenge of feeding a burgeoning population from finite land resources, while meeting stringent environmental demands, will require further innovations in technology, science and efficiency.

Easton and Otley College livestock student, Laura Claxton, 17, working with an 8-month-old calf. Pic

Easton and Otley College livestock student, Laura Claxton, 17, working with an 8-month-old calf. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2013

But more than anything else it will need a highly dedicated and educated work force.

And yet the industry is struggling to recruit the next generation of farm managers, researchers, technicians and engineers who must lead this new agricultural revolution.

East Anglia’s farming leaders and educators have called for a change in public perception to dispel any lingering stereotypes and attract talented youngsters into a industry which is increasingly driven by precision technologies and complex legislation.

They said employers needed to make pro-active efforts to inspire children to choose an educational path that will equip them to succeed in this modern food production system.

Most Read

School visits, open farm days, and country events are all being used to help sow the seed of the rewards of a life working the land.

But farmers and specialist training colleges are also trying to convince schools and careers advisers to actively promote agriculture as an attractive and rewarding job option.

Richard Hirst, the NFU’s county delegate for Norfolk, said the region’s food industry won’t survive by relying solely on the sons and daughters of traditional farming families.

“There is a massive challenge here, because the average age of the UK farming workforce is in the high 50s and we need to ensure we have got the right people coming through to replace them when they retire,” he said.

“For whatever reason, farming has not been seen to be a very good career, but actually there is a lifetime opportunity on farms. It is an industry that is highly technological and advanced, with increasing use of computers and satellite guidance, putting people in charge of bits of kit worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, planting and harvesting crops which could be worth millions.

“There is a need for managers and people to run businesses but there is also a need for highly-skilled technicians because the machines they are using are so hugely advanced.

“There is a massive need for research scientists to develop new crop varieties and engineers to service the machinery needed to harvest it. Years ago, anybody could mend a tractor but they are becoming so specialised now. There is a shortage right across the board.

“We have got to work harder to raise the profile of an industry which is seen to be badly paid with long hours. There are long hours, so we need to get the pay and conditions right first.”

Mr Hirst also chairs the management group behind the £1.4m EDGE apprenticeship scheme, an industry-led initiative launched last month to equip young people with the skills and training to pursue successful careers in agriculture.

The venture is a partnership between purchasing groups Anglia Farmers and AtlasFram in conjunction with Easton and Otley College, New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, and Suffolk and Norfolk County Councils.

Mr Hirst said: “We as an industry have to be very positive about the opportunities for young people and we have got to change the public perception of the industry as one where people don’t want to work.

“Their teachers might tell them to be doctors or lawyers, but not farmers. We have got to get to them at an early age to start them thinking about farming as a career. That is the first challenge, and things like the Spring Fling, Open Farm Sunday and school visits are helping.

“I think people are becoming more interested in where their food comes from and how it is produced – hopefully we can spark their interest from there.”

The training partner in the EDGE apprenticeships scheme is Easton and Otley College. The college trains diploma students in all aspects of livestock, crop and poultry production as well as soil science, business skills, animal health and environmental management.

Natasha Waller, curriculum manager for agriculture and countryside, said students leaving with agricultural qualifications were virtually guaranteed a job with employers desperate to fill qualified positions.

“Agricultural courses here have doubled in the last 10 years, and the vast majority go into employment after us,” she said.

“Large farming and horticultural employers are contacting us this term with potential job opportunities, but there are so many students already with jobs that we cannot fill these vacancies.

“Some companies come up looking for a degree student who left with a qualification in research or high-level agronomy – but students like that will already have found work. It is almost a guaranteed job if you get the qualifications, and you cannot say that in many industries.

“In the past, people were pushing agriculture for those who had maybe failed at school – but it is not like that now. They need to be able to solve problems and analyse data.

“There are a lot of options. It is not just about raising livestock or growing crops, it could be looking at marketing, sales, commodity trading, and agronomy is really popular at the moment. We are going out into schools and giving them an insight into the industry. We are also having to educate and reassure the parents as much as anything. They were brought up in a time when farming was not doing so well and it got a negative press. We need to convince them that now there are real employment opportunities in farming for their child.”

One employer who is keen to attract qualified workers and motivated apprentices is Andrew Francis, senior farms manager at the 22,500-acre Elveden Estate near Thetford. The estate’s farming operations employ 30 permanent staff, plus about 10 seasonal workers.

“If we were having these conversations three years ago I would say it was a real job to find people,” he said. “But with the downturn in the economy, suddenly agriculture has become a much more attractive option.

“The industry needs people with passion and desire to get stuck in and drive it forward. If it is seen as a bit of a fall-back and they are not really sure about it, then I guarantee that people who come in with that attitude will have left after a couple of months.”

Mr Francis said he joined the industry as a first-generation farmer, with no history of agriculture in his family.

He said: “Without wanting to put down the hard-core, multi-generation farmers – of which there are a great many good ones – any industry needs a fresh impetus to bring a different aspect and a different skill-set.

“If you started listing out the areas you need to know about to be a farmer... you need to be a soil physiologist, a plant nutritionist, a chemist, a mathematician, an engineer, you need an understanding of mechanisation, commerce, hydrology and water flows. By the time you have written it down you have got a very large list of areas which are key in all areas of education and I cannot think of too many industries which cut across all those areas. As an industry, we are not good at getting into schools proactively, targeting the youngsters and saying: ‘Look, it is hard, but if you put the graft in, you will get the rewards’.”

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter