This year’s Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust annual conference saw last year’s scholars showcase their findings at a packed event in Newcastle. Vickie Robinson and Ben Briggs report.
Having travelled the world in search of agricultural innovation and future thinking, last year’s Nuffield Scholars took to the stage at Gosforth Park Hotel, Newcastle, last week to report on what they had found.
With many of the scholars making real changes to their businesses or careers as a result of their scholarship, presentations were at the cutting edge of where agriculture was heading.
Farmers Guardian was official media partner to the event and here we showcase a selection of reports.
Access to a skilled workforce was one of the main challenges facing the UK broiler industry, according Patrick Hook, who studied challenges and opportunities within the sector.
There is already a skills shortage within the poultry industry and with sector growth continuing at a rate of 2-3 per cent, he said: “People will be the scarcest asset and investment in them is paramount to the success of the industry.”
He said there were very few successful schemes recruiting worldwide recruiting and retaining new entrants and suggested the UK poultry industry should collaborate with the wider agricultural industry to help find the people it needed.
Mr Hook said bird flu was the single biggest threat to poultry farmers today. He believed mechanisms should be built into the planning process to ensure new poultry sites were in areas of minimal risk and new entrants should be given guidance on biosecurity.
On the issue of the power of animal rights groups and their ability to cause wide-scale harm through ill-informed media campaigns, he said the industry should take steps to minimise risk by engaging more with campaigners, attempting to better understand what standards they required and finding farmers the industry could champion.
In addition, the industry should work much harder in general to educate the public about the good work it was doing. He cited the huge reduction in antibiotic use as one angle they should be promoting.
Mr Hook said Brexit offered a massive opportunity to communicate what made the sector great and that he believed it had a bright future.
The importance of messages given to the public was a central theme in two presentations about animal health.
Both Aled Rhys Davies and Dafydd Saunders-Jones, who respectively studied ‘alternatives to antibiotics in agriculture’ and ‘bovine TB eradication programmes in Europe’, said the farming industry must take control and, having done so, it must communicate clearly with the general public about the work being done.
Both also agreed action must centre around tools already available, not what might be developed.
Mr Davies said there was no alternative to antibiotics and if farming did not act to clearly demonstrate it was doing all it could to ensure their ‘prudent use’ in agriculture, it would get the blame for antimicrobial resistance in human health.
He said the industry was not doing enough and was almost telling ‘white lies’ in trying to reassure the public it was.
He believed the industry needed to do more to reduce stress in animal environments which led to weakened immunity and allowed infection to take hold.
When infection was present, farmers should take steps to identify whether it was viral or bacterial before administering the correct treatment in the proper way. He said not using antibiotics when there was a need was also misuse.
Mr Saunders-Jones said his Nuffield travels had shown him we had all the tools we needed to control TB, but what was required was financial and political stability, which may require policy to be more industry driven.
He also said it was important the public was given the clear message farmers wanted to eliminate TB, not to kill badgers.
The potential for inter-cropping and companion cropping in the UK is huge, according to Andy Howard.
He said the age of high input/high output agriculture was coming to an end and, although not a new concept (there was evidence of inter-cropping 5,000 years ago), he believed it offered major opportunities to reduce inputs, pests and disease.
During his Nuffield study, he saw inter-cropping delivering average increased outputs of 20-30 per cent and believed every farm in the UK could benefit from some kind of inter-cropping.
While he acknowledged there were hurdles to overcome, Mr Howard said the biggest barrier was ‘60 years of brainwashing that mono-cropping is the only way’. He said the industry needed to throw away this ideology.
Discussing challenges, he said it was a management and knowledge-intensive approach to farming, there was little on-farm research and no blueprint which would suit everyone.
“I discovered more ideas and inter-cropping options than I ever thought were possible. You would need to research and experiment to see what best suited your system,” he explained.
He added while technology was there to develop machinery for managing inter-cropping systems, as yet there was not enough appetite for mainstream machinery manufacturers to do it.
However, he said there was little farmers could not build themselves, given enough time in the workshop, and this was where he would be next focusing his efforts next.
Winner of the John Stewart Award for best presentation at the conference was Aled Jones.
Mr Jones, assistant chief executive of the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society, presented a Nuffield report entitled ‘agricultural societies and shows: where do we go from here?’.
His confident and engaging delivery led the judges – Nuffield board member Ian Tremain and Farmers Guardian editor Ben Briggs – to unanimously award him the prize.
Mr Jones argued that while agricultural shows had been established more than 200 years ago as places to showcase livestock genetics, their role in the modern world had shifted.
And with 59 per cent of visitors to the Royal Welsh Show not being from farming, he said shows had a huge role in promoting farming to the wider public.
He said: “Shows are PR agencies for farming, but it is reassuring livestock is a key reason people want to visit a show.”
Mr Jones believed show societies were vital in educating the wider public about the industry on a year-round basis and not just, in the Royal Welsh’s case, the four days of the show in July.
He pointed to the Royal Highland Educational Trust, which is part of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, and societies he had visited in America, as prime examples of great public engagement.
He said: “Shows are social occasions for the farming community as well as educational [for the public]. The [agricultural] society is more than just a show.”
Investing in staff training was a vital necessity for any farm business, Christopher Padfield argued.
He said farmers could often be heard saying training staff was a ‘waste of time’ or was not needed as farming ‘was just common sense’.
But he suggested the failure to train staff could have a huge impact on a farm business.
He said: “All the great businesses I met had vision and it is about having people in the business who know their role and want the business to succeed.”
His presentation, which was highly commended by judges, prompted laughter from the audience when he suggested ‘if you train staff they might leave, but if you do not train them they might stay’.
And Mr Padfield believed agriculture should be more ambitious in promoting itself as a professional option for new recruits, with a clear set of achievable career goals.
He said: “We need a professional career structure and continuous professional development in agriculture. The industry needs to present itself as a professional career option.”
He also said with machinery and technological advancement, staff needed to be kept up-to-date.
He said: “You can spend £100,000 on a tractor, but nothing on training the person driving it and they become just a seat attendant.”