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The Business of Farming round table discussion: Getting more people into agriculture

All roads will lead to Worcester on November 5 and 6 for the Business of Farming Conference and British Farming Awards.


The Business of Farming Conference and British Farming Awards

All roads will lead to Worcester on November 5 and 6 for the Business of Farming Conference and British Farming Awards. If you want to find out about starting or growing your business, this conference will cover it. More than 30 speakers will give you practical take-home tips, and in the evening, you will be part of the first British Farming Awards.

The panel

Rob Bebbington: Rob runs a contract farming business, Fieldfare Farmers, block cropping across 800 hectares (2,000 acres). After a Nuffield Farming Scholarship, he has taken on managing his parents’ fishing and leisure business at Dearnford Lake near Whitchurch in Shropshire, developing it into a venue with a café, events and other attractions.


Ed Dale: Ed, our debate host, along with his family are a successful and expanding Cheshire dairy farming business. They run six dairy units on a mainly grass-based system focused on tight block calving. Great staff are a vital part of this growing business, which employs 12-13 full-time staff and 15-20 part-time.


Steve McLean: Steve is head of agriculture and fisheries for Marks and Spencer, which has a new initiative aiming to get more people into agriculture. Steve has previously worked with sheep flocks and health schemes, auctioneers, and headed the Texel society before joining M&S.


Dave Kynaston: Dave is vice-principal of Reaseheath College, which has seen a huge upswing in the number of agriculture students over the last couple of years. His early career involved 10 different jobs in 10 years before joining Reaseheath as a lecturer 30 years ago.


Linda Grocott: Linda is director of Shropshire-based distribution company GroContinental. The family-run business has had to work hard to recruit and retain new staff for its growing business, which now employs more than 300 people and has 145,000 pallet spaces in its multi-temperature storage, working mainly with food businesses, particularly dairy.


Emma Penny: Emma, our debate chair, is from a farming background, and a former Young Farmer who has been editing Farmers Guardian for nearly five years. She has also worked for construction and road haulage magazines in the past before returning to agricultural journalism.


Chris Webb: Chris currently runs an internet company in West London employing 18 people. He founded it as a way of saving enough money to get into farming and works part-time on dairy units to gain experience. He has taken part in the Fresh Start Dairy Academy and is very keen to have his own dairy unit.


John Yeomans: a farmer from Mid-Wales, John was born and brought up in Birmingham, and initially had no interest in farming. However, he decided he wanted to be involved, attended Aberystwyth and then took over his family's farm where he and his wife Sarah now farm.


Sarah Yeomans: Sarah was studying librarianship in Aberystwyth when she met John, and is not from a farming background. She and John work on their 120ha (300-acre) beef and sheep farm, have three sons and Sarah also works for Wales’ Farming Connect initiative.


Agriculture faces many challenges, but the one which has perhaps the longest term effect is the ageing workforce. How can we recruit more people to fill the gaps as our food and farming industry grows and parts of the workforce start to retire?


Our round table discussion, hosted by Ed Dale and his family near Congleton in Cheshire, brought together a varied industry group to look at what needs to happen to recruit more people into agriculture, and some of the issues currently faced – as well as looking at what other industries do to recruit new entrants.


Are agriculture colleges really packed with new farming talent? Do people really know what is involved in agriculture? Where should we look to find new recruits? And what needs to happen next?


Finding more people

Finding more people

Steve McLean: “As a food business, we fundamentally believe the quality of our product is related to the quality of raw materials. We need a vibrant supply base, and if we look at our growth aspirations, we are worried about the future.


“We have set-up a new Farming for the Future initiative with our supply base, which goes from getting more people into the industry through student placements throughout our supply chain, to a new leadership training course with Cranfield University for our suppliers.”


Dave Kynaston: “We have seen 10 per cent year on year growth, but that has been created by the demise of ag colleges in surrounding counties, and we are also picking up students from as far afield as Scotland and Cornwall. In 1992, there were 45 agricultural colleges; now there are 15 and most have diversified into being land-based colleges. We now have 11 different departments, but it is a £27 million education and training business. We are seeing more students from non-farming backgrounds coming onto our courses and they are some of the best students.”

Agriculture's attitude

Chris Webb: “I have some non-farming friends who say ‘why are you doing that?’ – it is a fairly widespread view, and I think people either grow up with agriculture, or they don’t touch it, so it is not obvious where to start.


“There are a lot of business skills which are transferable, but the level of skill required is a lot more than I realised – it is a very skilled job. In some ways, there is a perception there are no people involved.”


Ed Dale: “I’m in a fortunate position in a farming family and have been given opportunity – I want to make the best of it. We try to push the people who come to work for us through increasing responsibility. They grow themselves and we grow too. We try hard to get good people and our goal is to help them be the best they can be. We’ve had some superstars who have stayed with us and others have gone.”


John Yeomans: “I was actively discouraged from going into farming when I went to New Zealand. They all warned me about the moaning. We need passionate people to talk about agriculture. It’s a shame if we are negative, as there are lots of really good things about it, but we are often stuck with people either seeing farmers as lowly or as driving Range Rovers, and there is no middle ground.”


Sarah Yeomans: “Our farm was the first one I had been on – I had no farming experience at all. I hope our sons will go and work elsewhere and if they do decide to come back to the farm, we would be very happy.”


Chris: “In the IT industry, 95 per cent of start-ups fail within the first six months. You look at that and wonder why people would want to get into it. Why is agriculture so different [and struggles to attract people when it provides solid careers]? Before I came into farming, I felt I needed to be of farming, but once I started, I realised people were incredibly welcoming.”


Where do new people come from?

Where do new people come from?

Ed: “I use all routes for advertising for new staff and I would give someone without a farming background a chance, but they would have to be the right person. I’m quite interested in Timpsons as a business as they recruit out of prisons and so on and train people right from scratch.”


Dave: “We need people with the right work ethic – used to hard work and long hours.”


Linda Grocott: “We have been contacted recently by Hire a Hero which is for people coming out of the forces, but it is generally for more senior roles.”


Dave: “The Fresh Start initiative has been good at getting new people in. Now, we are trying to broker a new product called Young Hands. Products from people coming into agriculture could be labelled and have a guaranteed market, on the basis of quality, so consumers would know they are supporting something from an initiative helping people into agriculture.”

How other industries work

The road transport industry used to have a levy-funded training board which helped ensure regular training in the industry, said Linda.


This is once again being considered as recruitment challenges increase.


Linda: “We have a warehouse to wheels initiative, which targets school leavers. As they cannot drive until 21, the business has a five-year career programme which trains them up through the business. We also work hard to be the employer of choice in the local area.


“We have a real problem from an ageing workforce point of view – there is a big gap. In the last 10 years, food and agriculture seems to have fallen off the radar – people have gone into IT, services and media studies. We need to look at our own business and the variety of careers we can offer. I don’t think people understand [what is on offer].”


Emma Penny: “Construction is another sector which has, in the past, struggled to attract new entrants. The construction industry funds Construction Skills, which raises £137m a year for training and apprenticeships via a levy. Of that, £91m goes towards training grants – 48 per cent to new entrants, the remainder to current industry staff. New talent is attracted via Facebook campaigns, websites, ‘Open Doors’ careers events which open sites to schools, parents and the local community.”


Rob Bebbington: “I am chairman of my local NFU and we do pay the NFU to promote British agriculture – it’s brilliant at defending us, but it does not promote us. Jimmy’s Farm is in every home, and Adam’s Farm on Countryfile is the way we will inspire people. There should be a mechanism via NFU or AHDB to help promote agriculture to get more people into it.”


Selling agriculture

With key initiatives such as FACE spending time educating children about farming, there is more of a sense schools are an important place to help spread the message about agriculture. However, this may become a more difficult option, warned Dave.


Dave: “Schools are becoming crammed with people wanting to educate pupils about their industries. But once more schools move out with local authority control, they will be much less willing to engage with this – they will have targets to meet and a business to run. They will have their own agenda and no social conscience.


“We run a career development day every year for careers teachers – they usually change every year and so they often haven’t got the passion to find out different industries and use what drops on a plate.”


Ed: “One of the key things with agriculture is it takes 10 years to become good at farming. If you work in McDonald’s in one week, you’ll have seen five cycles of the business, but in agriculture, you’ll have one cycle in a year. It is not a quick fix and it is always challenging.”


Dave: “We have got to do social media. Now, 75 per cent of our applications are online. The younger generation have total acceptance about operating a keyboard – they don’t talk to people. If people in agriculture blogged about their jobs, I guarantee you would have people wanting to do your job. Who else knows about your job and what you do? And if they don’t know, how can they know it is a career? There is a massive opportunity with social media and it costs nothing.”


Steve: “Joe Public often just hears about the negative stuff – the weather and farmers struggling financially. But there are good opportunities for the right set of skills and determination and we need to talk about that to attract more people. Often, the weight of noise is greater about the negatives than the positives.”

Focus on specific careers

Dave: “We need a focussed effort. People don’t talk about the motor vehicle industry, they talk about being in manufacturing, or in sales.


We need to be able to give people focus to think about a career and progression – it needs to be broad enough to be interesting, but also allow a level of understanding and the whole industry needs to come together to get that focus.”


Chris: “I agree. If I described farming to people, the appeal wouldn’t be instantly obvious. Written down as a description, it doesn’t sound appealing, but when you do it, it is great. It is a skilled job and very rewarding – we need to get the message out that it is worth good people doing.”


Steve: “I agree with Dave about focus – we need to focus and we have a duty to portray the good bits of the industry. I hadn’t thought about a blog, but it is a good idea.


Dave: “The dairy technician course, which runs at Reaseheath and was put together by Dairy Crest in response to a shortage of skilled staff, is a big success story. New entrants are offered a training course and career progression, and it is now inundated with applicants.”


What needs to change

  • Everyone in agriculture needs to get better at talking about what they do and the great opportunities the industry offers if it is to attract more people
  • People outside agriculture often dismiss it as something which requires low skill levels. Being more open about the skills required could help address that perception
  • The broad range and high level of skills required to have a successful career are not often recognised or talked about, but offer a much more fulfilling career than many people realise
  • In many cases, agriculture would be better to focus on the skills and career path offered by some specific roles; often the range is just too wide and so too daunting for new entrants
  • The move to free schools and away from local authority control is a threat as they may be less willing to have guest speakers. Career teachers can change each year, making regular updates essential
  • Getting the message across that agriculture is a job worth good people doing is essential, as the appeal is not obvious when it is usually described to people
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